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'THE ART OF FICTION' – HENRY JAMES'S CONTRIBUTION TO THE THEORY OF THE MODERNIST NOVEL

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The paper will try to demonstrate the extent to which Henry James' theory of the novel played a considerable part in the definition of the new novelistic conventions of the modernist novel. I shall start from a close analysis of James's essay
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  ‘THE ART OF FICTION’ – HENRY JAMES’S CONTRIBUTION TO THE THEORY OF THE MODERNIST NOVEL Lector dr. Anca Mihaela Dobrinescu, Universitatea Petrol-Gaze din Ploie ş ti The paper will try to demonstrate the extent to which Henry James’ theory of the novel played a considerable part in the definition of the new novelistic conventions of the modernist novel. I shall  start from a close analysis of James’s essay ‘The Art of Fiction’ and focus on the contribution of the novelist and the critic James to the practice of modernism in the field of novel writing. The analysis has been prompted by my conviction that it is impossible to understand the modernist technical innovation in absence of an analysis of James’s work, especially the critical one, as a forerunner of the modernist one. Henry James’s theory of the novel, and especially that of the point of view, played a considerable part in the definition of the new conventions of the modernist novel. I shall base my demonstration on a close reading of the essay ‘The Art of Fiction’ and focus on the contribution of Henry James - novelist and critic - to the practice of modernism in the field of novel writing. The analysis has been prompted by the conviction that a proper understanding of the modernist technical innovation is undoubtedly facilitated by an analysis of James’s work, especially the critical one, as an acknowledged predecessor of modernist literature. At the end of the nineteenth century, the novelists developed a sense of self-awareness, considering it their task to depart from the tradition of the novel as an overflow of story-telling gift, on the part of the writer, or as entertainment, on the part of the reader. Novelists like Henry James considered it necessary to approach fiction as art, by casting a glance at “the mystery of story-telling” (4, 5). He pleaded in favour of fiction being autonomous, thus entitled to exist in its own rights and by its own rules, and not as an offspring of reality, whose complexity was far greater than whatever a work of fiction could presumptuously assume it possible to express. James initiated a tradition of novel writing that presupposed, first and foremost, a sense of self-awareness underlain  by the writer’s express will to assume the responsibility of seeing the novel both as practice and as theory. Only a short time ago it might have been supposed that the English novel was not what the French call discutable . It had no air of having a theory, a conviction, a consciousness of itself behind it – of being the expression of an artistic faith, the result of choice and comparison. (4, 5) James tried to contradict the view that “the novel is a novel, as a pudding is a pudding” (4, 5), adopting the position of the creator with complete knowledge, and thus in perfect control of his art. This is the main heritage that he bestowed upon his fellow modernist writers. The distinctiveness of modernist fiction has, more often than not, been accounted for in terms of a severe break with and rejection of the eighteenth or nineteenth-century novel. Yet, on a closer reading of modernism, one could discover in surprise that the modernist novelists were more Revenire Cuprins   204 deferential to realism, and to the readers of realism in particular, than it may superficially show. The distinctiveness of modernism, in line with the tradition set up by Henry James, resides in the novelist’s determination to approach fiction as art less than in his/ her stubborn intention to depart from the literary conventions of the preceding centuries. Under the pressure exercised by a changing reality, or ‘life’ in James’s terms, that they wished to express, the modernists consciously investigated the inherited forms, trying to adapt them to the new meaning requirements. Half a century later, Woolf expressed ideas similar to James’s in an essay also entitled ‘The Art of Fiction’. The modernist Woolf considered theory and theorising upon the novel to be essential to the creative activity. For possibly, if fiction is, as we suggest, in difficulties, it may be because nobody grasps her firmly and defines her severely. She has had no rules drawn up for her, very little thinking done on her behalf. And though rules may be wrong and must be broken, they have this advantage – they confer dignity and order upon their subject; they admit her to a place in a civilised society; they prove that she is worthy of consideration. (6, 90) In a manner, implicitly or explicitly adopted by all the twentieth-century modernists, James does not discard the Victorian novel as artistically inferior to the modern one. He also refrains from qualifying it as inappropriately equipped to express the depth and complexity of life. The epithets James selects to point to the difference between Victorian and modern literature are the French naïf   vs. discutable.  These epithets suggest in no way James’s looking down upon the artistic achievements of writers such as Dickens or Thackeray. They are part of the contained critical vocabulary of a person whose obvious intention of challenging the inherited novelistic forms does not necessarily imply their rejection from a position of superiority. What James tried to hint at was that the changes in sensibility at the turn of the century required new forms of expression, but, even more poignantly, a new attitude of writers to the institution of literature. [I]t would take much more courage than I possess to intimate that the form of the novel, as Dickens and Thackeray (for instance) saw it had any taint of incompleteness. It was, however, naïf   (if I may help myself out with another French word) and, evidently, if it is destined to suffer in any way for having lost its naïveté it has now an idea of making sure of the corresponding advantages. (4, 5) The definition of modern art, from James’s point of view, is underlain by the idea that any form of novelty is perceived as such only against the background of the existing forms. Novelty is not to be judged in absolute terms. Moreover, newness, and this is the point that James, so much accused of ignoring his audience, seems to make, is dependent on the reader’s perception, as much as it is on the writer’s innovation. Awareness should lie central to any artistic enterprise, as the essential ingredient of a process of development. The modern mind is characterised by inquisitiveness and it is the power to question and challenge that makes all the difference between the literature of the turn of the century and the Victorian one. Art lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints, and there is a  presumption that those times when no one has anything particular to say about it, and has no reason to give for practice or preference, though they may be times of genius, are not times of development, are times possibly even, a little, of dullness. The successful application of any art is a delightful spectacle, but the theory, too, is interesting; and though there is a great deal of the latter in the former, I suspect there has never been a   205 genuine success that has not had a latent core of conviction. Discussion, suggestion, formulation, these things are fertilising when they are frank and sincere. (4, 5) Adopting the standpoint of the theorist of literature, James considers the nature of literature, restoring it to a dignified status among other cultural manifestations. Reference is made, it is true that just in passing, to the old dispute between Plato and Aristotle regarding the ‘wicked’ nature of fiction. The old superstition about fiction being ‘wicked’ has doubtless died out in England, but the spirit of it lingers in a certain oblique regard directed towards any story which does not more or less admit that it only a joke. […] It is still expected, though perhaps people are ashamed to say it, that a production which is after all only a ‘make believe’ (for what else is a ‘story’?) shall be in some degree apologetic – shall renounce the  pretension of attempting really to compete with life. (4, 5-6) In Plato’s opinion, art was a harmful and imperfect form of knowledge, inferior to the  phenomenal reality and the Idea. Art was equated to lie, to the untruth as compared to the truth of the knowledge acquired through the dialectical science. Aristotle answered Plato’s accusations, reinstating art, and especially the art of the word, in its cognitive rights. He insisted on art as a form of knowledge superior to history, basing his assertions on the opposition between true and possible. Poetry, literature in an extended acceptation, can have access to the universal, which history, as a neutral rendering of events as they occurred, cannot. The relationship between art and reality exists under the sign of the possible, and art is not to be interpreted as a non-truth. Consequently, literature is neither true nor false, but it can become true and take part in the process of knowledge since it functions according to the laws of the verisimilar (conformity to the real) or according to the laws of the necessary (conformity to the logic). Literature, poetry in Aristotle’s terms, is and is not reality at the same time. (see 2) The fundamental condition of existence of literature resides in the opposition between fiction and reality. Relying on the Aristotelian concept of mimesis understood as representation, it may be argued that fiction is, paradoxically, different from reality while simultaneously using reality as its material. What distinguishes fiction from reality is the former functioning as a sub-assembly of the linguistic system. The autonomous status of literature can be defined only starting from the centrality of language to the literary system. (see 3) Without being particularly specific about the centrality of language to the literary system, James pleaded in favour of the autonomy of fiction as art, by focusing on the similarities between the art of fiction and the art of painting. If the status of painting as art has never been contested, as it benefits from a medium of expression which is only its own, the fact that fiction represents reality by sharing the medium with ordinary communication has very often contributed to it being relegated to a position of subordination, of subservience to reality. The essence of the lesson James tries to teach to his fellow novelists is to be found in the concept of form, i.e. literary language. Only by admitting the centrality of language to the creative process can one help fiction out of the impasse of being “treated as a parasite which draws sustenance from life and must in gratitude resemble life or perish.” (6, 93) The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does  compete with life. When it ceases to compete as the canvas of the painter competes, it will have arrived at a very strange pass. It is not expected of the picture that it will make itself humble in order to  be forgiven; and the analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete. Their inspiration is the same, their process (allowing for the different quality of the vehicle) is the same, their success is the same. […] Their cause is the same, and the honour of one is the honour of another.   206 Peculiarities of manner, of execution, that correspond on either side, exist in each of them and contribute to their development. (4, 6) James draws attention to the fictional character of fiction. The art of fiction exists only to the extent to which it can properly create the illusion of reality. The only problem that the writer must face is that the concept of reality, or better said one’s view of reality, finds itself in a constant  process of redefinition. The formal renewal proposed by the modernist novelists is not the result of an intention to break with the conventions of the nineteenth century. The innovation in form rather springs from a conscious understanding of the fact that reality has changed, and so it requires new moulds in which to be cast. The novelist who aims at producing an art object must, according to James, have the sense of reality. He/she is expected to invent forms and methods able to contain the meaning of reality. Form becomes thus an investigation instrument with the modern writer. Literature no longer shows submissive and apologetic reverence for reality, it starts existing in its own right as a superior form of knowledge. Humanity is immense and reality has a myriad forms. […] Experience is never limited and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air- borne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative much more when it happens to be that of a man of genius – it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations. (4, 9) In the quotation above James essentially refers to the quality of experience and emphasises the indispensability of the novelist’s contribution to the investigation of life’s complexity. In a less explicit manner, he also states that the inner reality is far more complex than the outer one. He thus opens the way to a new type of literature centred on consciousness with all the modifications of form required by the necessity of rendering the mind transparent and foregrounding consciousness. He goes even further in praising the art of fiction when he intimates that fiction is capable of (re)  producing reality. The fragmentary quality of experience is formally paralleled by the emergence of a multitude of subjective, though not reliable, points of view. According to James, the exquisiteness of the creation is dependent on the quality of the impressions. What gives the extent of a writer’s value is his power of seeing. The novelist is a keen observer endowed with imagination. Yet to reach the status of the artist, the novelist should be in perfect control of his medium, of language and form. Prominence is given to the subject as the only able to reconstruct the object of perception. The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it – this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. (4, 9) James insists on the fictional nature of fiction and he considers that the task of the novelist is to find the way of access to the essence of life. Literary form is the instrument the writer needs to make his way towards the substance of reality, beyond appearance. Fiction, from James’s point of view, is not supposed to offer only the likeness of life, it should be life. […] I may therefore venture to say that the air of reality […] seems to me to be the supreme virtue of a novel – the merit on which all its other merits […] helplessly and submissively depend. If it be not there, they are all as nothing, and if these be there, they   207 owe their effect to the success with which the author has produced the illusion of life. The cultivation of this success, the study of this exquisite process, form, to my taste, the  beginning and the end of the art of the novelist. (4, 9-10) Just as in the case of the twentieth-century modernist literature, whose tradition James initiated, veiled but compulsory reference is made to the reader, on whose presence and contribution the meaning of the literary work depends. The effect that James mentions absolves him from the guilt of having ignored his audience, intending his art, in the best of situations, for a reading elite. The existence of an effect implies the necessary and active presence of the one on whom this effect can be traceable. Although the novel is probably the most Protean of all literary forms, being at the same time doomed to remember that reading can be performed only from left to right and from beginning to end, and that it always takes longer to read a novel than to contemplate a painting, what Henry James theoretically expresses and practically proves by his novels is that the novel represents a structure and, in consequence, it can be properly approached only in its integrity. Character, incident, narrator, point of view, plot are relevant only to the extent to which they contribute to the interpretation of the novel as a whole. The integrity of the novel, as the expression of the writer’s intention, is to be found in the interaction of these categories. I cannot imagine composition existing in a series of blocks, nor conceive, in any novel worth discussing at all, of a passage of description that is not in its intention narrative, a  passage of dialogue that is not in its intention descriptive, a touch of truth of any sort that does not partake of the nature of incident, and an incident that derives its interest from any other source than the general and only source of the success of a work of art - that of being illustrative. A novel is a living thing, all one and continuous, like every other organism, and in proportion as it lives will it be found, I think, that in each of the  parts there is something of each of the other parts. (4, 10) Although as a creating artist he developed an acute interest in form, the intricacy of his style sometimes tending to blur the content of his novels, as a critic James was determined to see fiction as art only in the unity of form and content. The story and the novel, the idea and the form, are the needle and thread, and I never heard of a guild of tailors who recommended the use of the thread without the needle or the needle without the thread. (4, 13) The artist is allowed complete freedom in the choice of subject and method. He assumes thus the whole responsibility of making them fuse and turn them into the vehicle of expression of his intention. The inseparability of form and content prevents the reader from judging the work of art by any other standards than the artistic ones. The rest of values (ideological, ethical, political or economic) potentially present in the work, likely to produce various attitudes on the part of the reader, of acceptance or rejection, should be subordinated to the artistic value. Moreover, critical evaluation should start from criteria that are certainly not definable in terms of likes and dislikes. Evaluation, which generally offers verdicts as to the artistic achievement, should logically be based, in James’s opinion, on the artist’s standards and not on the critic’s. James seems to anticipate the modernist theories according to which there are not subjects more poetic than others, therefore more appropriate for poetic treatment. Poeticity resides exclusively in the treatment of subject. James excludes thus the idea that there are taboo subjects, that had been carefully avoided by the Victorian novelists, and paves the way for the modernist
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