- France, French, and the French
"What's he need a tablecloth for?" he asked. "Why worry about a tablecloth if you ain't even got walls or a roof?"
"He's French, sir," Captain King said. "They order things differently in France."—Larry McMurtry, Comanche Moon
In the world of Henry James, the surest sign of an expatriate's sophistication is the tendency—at once emphatic and off-hand—to sprinkle the conversational mix with French words and phrases. Has Madame de Vionnet led a "beautiful life?" "Allez donc voir!" (AB 144) is Chad's airy advice to Strether, who, charmed by the wonderful taste of notre jeune homme, charts his ambassadorial course between two chiming French verbs: the immediate pleasures of "voir" and the shifting complexities of "savoir." If the former is a matter of the boiseries in the petit salon of Madame de Vionnet, conducted in the midst of old accumulations and the clatter of sabots from the courtyard and sustained by the occasional omelette aux tomates on intensely white table linen, its relation to the latter is, as we might say in a more recent French, pure différance.
There's a plain difference—to use the old-fashioned English word—between the Paris of The American and that of The Ambassadors. Christopher Newman appears in the Louvre, possessing a single French word—"combien?"—and remains unsophisticated, an outsider, unversed in the veille sagesse upon which French "arrangements" [End Page 196] are founded. In the stark and reductive clarity of early James, this simplicity redounds entirely to Newman's credit: the melodrama of his entanglement with the Bellegarde family consolidates the stiff moral categories with which he began. There is plenty of deception, but the fundamental transparency between language and knowledge undergoes no seismic shift. Twenty-five years later, however, "Paris" becomes a playhouse of the signifier in which everything requires the endless supplement of translation. Here, on the cusp of the modern, American words lose their traditional moorings, and heavily freighted adjectives collapse into each other. In speculating about the "possible particular effect on [Chad] of his milieu," Maria Gostrey opines that one of "two distinct things" may have happened: "he may have got brutalised," or "he may have got refined. . . ." Such "things" turn out not to be "distinct" at all, for "refinements" are an unreliable index: "as one of the signs . . . they constitute perhaps the worst" (AB 53). Thoroughly deconstructionist avant la lettre, James's English, rich in American idiom, spirals giddily ever-further from referential solidity. If this proto-modernist Paris "in which parts were not to be discriminated nor differences comfortably marked" (64) engages paradoxically both Strether's zeal and his detachment, the very idea of the French Babylon sends the ladies of Woollett to bed. However, as Jim Pocock drolly suggests, "it's when they're prostrate that they most sit up." And this nonsensical sense is received by Strether precisely as "the real word from Woollett" (AB 219). All of "this," I suggest, is what happens to American English when it comes into contact with the otherness of France, French, and the French. Reduced to its essence, Strether's ambassadorial challenge in Paris is to negotiate a relation between different languages and languages within languages: to parse, for example, Little Bilham's description of a "virtuous attachment" (what is "virtue"? what is "attachment"?) in the specific cultural context of "la femme du monde."
Peter Brooks aptly describes the narrative project of late James as "radical perspectivism" (2), but he insists that we not exaggerate the proto-modernism of technique at the expense of James's enduring conception of the novel. Although James had long distanced himself from the formulaic coherences of English Realism, Brooks argues that he remained committed to a certain representation of the real. No term is more vexed in the history of literary criticism, and James's relation to it is particularly complicated. James's negotiation with the question of the real was conducted primarily in his lifelong critical engagement with the nineteenth-century French novel, and there is a curious...