The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own. -- Adam Gopnik



July 10, 2011

Paris in July: The American





On a brilliant day in May, in the year 1868, a gentleman was reclining at his ease on the great circular divan which at that period occupied the centre of the Salon Carre,  in the Museum of the Louvre. This commodious ottoman has since been removed, to the extreme regret of all weak-kneed lovers of the fine arts; but the gentleman in question had taken possession of its softest spot, and, with his head thrown back and his legs outstretched, was staring at Murillo's beautiful moon-borne Madonna in profound enjoyment of his posture. He had removed his hat, and flung down beside him a little red guide-book and an opera-glass. ...
I decided to read The American, by Henry James, for Paris in July because David McCullough mentioned Henry settled and happy in Paris, writing this early novel.  When I saw the setting of this first paragraph, I more or less decided that it was fate

The gentleman is Christopher Newman, an American millionaire who has made (and lost) fortunes in soap, wash-tubs, copper and railroads, and has traveled to Europe in search of something different.

'You're easily pleased.  But you can do as you choose -- a man in your shoes. You have made a pile of money, eh?'
'I have made enough.'
'Happy the man who can say that! Enough for what?'
'Enough to rest awhile, to forget the confounded thing, to look about me,  to see the world, to have a good time, to improve my mind, and if the fancy takes me, to marry a wife.' ...
In the Louvre, he meets Noemie, a pretty young art student, and her failed father, M. Nioche; he also runs into Tom Tristram, an old friend  from the U.S. Tom's wife, Lizzie, engineers an introduction to the beautiful, mysterious, and inaccessible Claire de Cintre, the widowed daughter of the aristocratic Bellegarde family.  The plot becomes more dramatic when Newman decides to marry Claire. To Madame de Cintre's mother and older brother, Newman is 'The American,' unmannered, commercial, unacceptable.

Henry is one of the authors that I seem to read about, more than read, and after spending joyful hours with this book over this past week, I'm sure that that's going to change. I know that most of you are probably thinking 'Oh, that's great! Better you than me,' and before I started reading I was feeling a little virtuous about choosing this book. 

There are a few descriptions of Paris, especially of interiors ...

Valentin de Bellegarde lived in the basement of an old house in the Rue d'Anjou St. Honore, and his small apartments lay between the court of the house and an old garden which spread itself behind it -- one of those large, sunless, humid gardens into which you look unexpectingly in Paris from back windows, wondering how among the grudging habitations they find their space. When Newman returned Bellegarde's visit, he hinted that his lodging was at least as much a laughing matter as his own. But its oddities were of a different cast than those of our hero's gilded saloons on the Boulevard Haussman; the place was low, dusky, contracted, and crowded with curious bric-a-brac. Bellegarde, penniless patrician as he was, was an insatiable collector, and his walls were covered with rusty arms and ancient panels and platters, his doorways draped in faded tapestries, his floors muffled in the skins of beasts.  Here and there was one of those uncomfortable tributes to elegance in which the upholsterers art, in France, was so prolific; a curtained recess with a sheet of looking-glass in which, among the shadows, you could see nothing; a divan on which, for its festoons and furbelows, you could not sit; a fire-place draped, flounced, and frilled to the complete exclusion of fire.
and some funny bits, and some suspense, and a lot of wonderful dialogue, but what I enjoyed most was the language. When you're 20 or 30 pages into a novel, and you've written down 20 or 30 quotations that you want to share, that's telling you something. It's also telling you that you should put down your pan and put away your reading notebook, and just read.

That's what surprised me, since it's been so long since I've read him -- how readable he is. That's not to say that once in a while, you won't have to stop to translate Henry into English....

Newman had never reflected upon philological processes. His chief impression with regard to ascertaining those mysterious correlatives of his familiar English vocables which were current in this extraordinary city of Paris was, that it was simply a matter of a good deal of unwonted and rather ridiculous muscular effort on his own part.
{Go ahead, please take your time. I'll wait.} But after those first pages all I wanted to do, and all I did, was simply sink into this book and fall for it, and again (as you might have noticed) for Henry.




{John White Alexander, Repose (1895), found here}


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5 comments:

Bellezza said...

Ooooh! First, and not necessarily to the point, I'm captured by the painting of the Repose. Wow, I love it...what a header that would make.

Anyway, I just bought The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris which seems like the book of the summer whether one has joined Paris in July II or not. I'm so looking forward to reading of those famous people, and above and beyond the writers and artists which is what Hemingway dwelt with in A Moveable Feast (as you know).

I have not read Henry James, although we named our dog Henry, and my dear friend calls him Henry James. I have Wings of The Dove so I should probably start with that.

Finally, I love those kind of books where you have several quotations written down to share with others. Wonderful!

Her Royal Orangeness said...

I have never read Henry James, but you have certainly made me want to. And I love the paintings you have included in your posts!

Joan Hunter Dunn said...

Oh to be a 'weak knee-ed lover of the arts' What a great line I shall think of it whenever I need a little rest in an art gallery.

JoAnn said...

I do love Henry James, and Washington Square is near the top of my tbr pile. You make me want to push it aside and find a copy of The American instead. Love the painting, too!

bookmarksandteacups said...

I have a copy of The American that has languished on my shelves for many years. I have started to read it at least twice but never made it past a few pages. Your post makes me want to pick up and try again!