Saturday, August 29, 2020

Henry James on Sir Walter Scott

[Copied from Walter Scott: The Critical Heritage edited by John O. Hayden. Reproduced for educational purposes only]

[Unsigned review of Nassau Senior’s Essays on Fiction by Henry James, North American Review (October 1864), xcix, 580–7.

For Senior’s criticism of Scott, see No. 29. James’s opening section, which attacks Senior as a ‘Half-critic’, has been omitted.]

He begins with Sir Walter Scott. The articles of which the paper on Scott is composed were written while the Waverley Novels were in their first editions. In our opinion this fact is their chief recommendation. It is interesting to learn the original effect of these remarkable books. It is pleasant to see their classical and time-honoured figures dealt with as the latest sensations of the year. In the year 1821, the authorship of the novels was still unavowed. But we may gather from several of Mr. Senior’s remarks the general tendency of the public faith. The reviewer has several sly hits at the author of Marmion. He points out a dozen coincidences in the talent and treatment of the poet and the romancer. And he leaves the intelligent reader to draw his own conclusions. After a short preface he proceeds to the dismemberment of each of the novels, from Rob Roy downward. In retracing one by one these long-forgotten plots and counterplots, we yield once more to something of the great master’s charm. We are inclined to believe that this charm is proof against time. The popularity which Mr. Senior celebrated forty years ago has in no measure subsided.

The only perceptible change in Sir Walter’s reputation is indeed the inevitable lot of great writers. He has submitted to the somewhat attenuating ordeal of classification; he has become a standard author. He has been provided with a seat in our literature; and if his visible stature has been by just so much curtailed, we must remember that it is only the passing guests who remain standing. Mr. Senior is a great admirer of Sir Walter, as may be gathered from the fact that he devotes two hundred pages to him. And yet he has a keen eye for his defects; and these he correctly holds to be very numerous. Yet he still loves him in spite of his defects; which we think will be the permanent attitude of posterity.

Thirty years have elapsed since the publication of the last of the Waverley series. During thirty years it has been exposed to the public view. And meanwhile an immense deal has been accomplished in the department of fiction. A vast army has sprung up, both of producers and consumers. To the latter class a novel is no longer the imposing phenomenon it was in Sir Walter’s time. It implies no very great talent; ingenuity is held to be the chief requisite for success. And indeed to write a readable novel is actually a task of so little apparent difficulty, that with many popular writers the matter is a constant trial of speed with the reading public. This was very much the case with Sir Walter. His facility in composition was almost as great as that of Mrs. Henry Wood, of modern repute. But it was the fashion among his critics to attribute this remarkable fact rather to his transcendent strength than to the vulgarity of his task. This was a wise conviction. Mrs. Wood writes three volumes in three months, to last three months. Sir Walter performed the same feat, and here, after the lapse of forty years, we still linger over those hasty pages. And we do it in the full cognizance of faults which even Mrs. Wood has avoided, of foibles for which she would blush. The public taste has been educated to a spirit of the finest discernment, the sternest exaction. No publisher would venture to offer Ivanhoe in the year 1864 as a novelty. The secrets of the novelist’s craft have been laid bare; new contrivances have been invented; and as fast as the old machinery wears out, it is repaired by the clever artisans of the day. Our modern ingenuity works prodigies of which the great Wizard never dreamed. And besides ingenuity we have had plenty of genius. We have had Dickens and Thackeray. Twenty other famous writers are working in the midst of us. The authors of Amyas Leigh, of The Cloister and the Hearth, ofRomola, have all overtaken the author of Waverley in his own walk. Sir Edward Bulwer has produced several historical tales, which, to use an expressive vulgarism, have ‘gone down’ very extensively. And yet old-fashioned, ponderous Sir Walter holds his own. 

He was the inventor of a new style. We all know the immense advantage a craftsman derives from this fact. He was the first to sport a fashion which was eventually taken up. For many years he enjoyed the good fortune of a patentee. It is difficult for the present generation to appreciate the blessings of this fashion. But when we review the modes prevailing for twenty years before, we see almost as great a difference as a sudden transition from the Spenserian ruff to the Byronic collar. We may best express Scott’s character by saying that, with one or two exceptions, he was the first English prose story-teller. He was the first fictitious writer who addressed the public from its own level, without any preoccupation of place. Richardson is classified simply by the matter of length. He is neither a romancer nor a story-teller: he is simply Richardson. The works of Fielding and Smollett are less monumental, yet we cannot help feeling that they too are writing for an age in which a single novel is meant to go a great way. And then these three writers are emphatically preachers and moralists. In the heart of their productions lurks a didactic raison d’être. Even Smollett—who at first sight appears to recount his heroes’ adventures very much as Leporello in the opera rehearses the exploits of Don Juan—aims to instruct and to edify. To posterity one of the chief attractions of Tom Jones is the fact that its author was one of the masses, that he wrote from the midst of the working, suffering mortal throng. But we feel guilty in reading the book in any such disposition of mind. We feel guilty, indeed, in admitting the question of art or science into our considerations. The story is like a vast episode in a sermon preached by a grandly humorous divine; and however we may be entertained by the way, we must not forget that our ultimate duty is to be instructed. With the minister’s week-day life we have no concern: for the present he is awful, impersonal Morality; and we shall incur his severest displeasure if we view him as Henry Fielding, Esq., as a rakish man of letters, or even as a figure in English literature. Waverley was the first novel which was self-forgetful. It proposed simply to amuse the reader, as an old English ballad amused him. It undertook to prove nothing but facts. It was the novel irresponsible. 

We do not mean to say that Scott’s great success was owing solely to this, the freshness of his method. This was, indeed, of great account, but it was as nothing compared with his own intellectual wealth. Before him no prose-writer had exhibited so vast and rich an imagination: it had not, indeed, been supposed that in prose the imaginative faculty was capable of such extended use. Since Shakespeare, no writer had created so immense a gallery of portraits, nor, on the whole, had any portraits been so lifelike. Men and women, for almost the first time out of poetry, were presented in their habits as they lived. The Waverley characters were all instinct with something of the poetic fire. To our present taste many of them may seem little better than lay-figures. But there are many kinds of lay-figures. A person who goes from the workshop of a carver of figure-heads for ships to an exhibition of wax-work, will find in the latter the very reflection of nature. And even when occasionally the waxen visages are somewhat inexpressive, he can console himself with the sight of unmistakable velvet and brocade and tartan. Scott went to his prose task with essentially the same spirit which he had brought to the composition of his poems. Between these two departments of his work the difference is very small. Portions of Marmion are very good prose; portions of Old Mortality are tolerable poetry. Scott was never a very deep, intense, poetic poet: his verse alone was unflagging. So when he attacked his prose characters with his habitual poetic inspiration, the harmony of style was hardly violated. It is a great peculiarity, and perhaps it is one of the charms of his historical tales, that history is dealt with in all poetic reverence. He is tender of the past: he knows that she is frail. He certainly knows it. Sir Walter could not have read so widely or so curiously as he did, without discovering a vast deal that was gross and ignoble in bygone times. But he excludes these elements as if he feared they would clash with his numbers. He has the same indifference to historic truth as an epic poet, without, in the novels, having the same excuse. We write historical tales differently now. We acknowledge the beauty and propriety of a certain poetic reticence. But we confine it to poetry. The task of the historical story-teller is, not to invest, but to divest the past. Tennyson’s Idyls of the King are far more one-sided, if we may so express it, than anything of Scott’s. But imagine what disclosures we should have if Mr. Charles Reade were to take it into his head to write a novel about King Arthur and his times. 

Having come thus far, we are arrested by the sudden conviction that it is useless to dogmatize upon Scott; that it is almost ungrateful to criticize him. He, least of all, would have invited or sanctioned any curious investigation of his works. They were written without pretence: all that has been claimed for them has been claimed by others than their author. They are emphatically works of entertainment. As such let us cherish and preserve them. Say what we will, we should be very sorry to lose, and equally sorry to mend them. There are few of us but can become sentimental over the uncounted hours they have cost us. There are moments of high-strung sympathy with the spirit which is abroad when we might find them rather dull—in parts; but they are capital books to have read. Who would forego the companionship of all those shadowy figures which stand side by side in their morocco niches in yonder mahogany cathedral? What youth would willingly close his eyes upon that dazzling array of female forms,—so serried that he can hardly see where to choose,—Rebecca of York, Edith Plantagenet, Mary of Scotland, sweet Lucy Ashton? What maiden would consent to drop the dear acquaintance of Halbert Glendinning, of Wilfred of Ivanhoe, of Roland Græme and Henry Morton? Scott was a born story-teller: we can give him no higher praise. Surveying his works, his character, his method, as a whole, we can liken him to nothing better than to a strong and kindly elder brother, who gathers his juvenile public about him at eventide, and pours out a stream of wondrous improvisation. Who cannot remember an experience like this? On no occasion are the delights of fiction so intense. Fiction? These are the triumphs of fact. In the richness of his invention and memory, in the infinitude of his knowledge, in his improvidence for the future, in the skill with which he answers, or rather parries, sudden questions, in his low-voiced pathos and his resounding merriment, he is identical with the ideal fireside chronicler. And thoroughly to enjoy him, we must again become as credulous as children at twilight.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Hippolyte Taine on Sir Walter Scott

[Copied from Walter Scott: The Critical Heritage edited by John O. Hayden. Reproduced for educational purposes only]

[An extract from the third volume of Taine’s Histoire de la littérature anglaise (1863–4). The translator is H.Van Laun.]

The Lady of the Lake, Marmion, The Lord of the Isles, The Fair Maid of Perth, Old Mortality, Ivanhoe, Quentin Durward, who does not know these names by heart? From Walter Scott we learned history. And yet is this history? All these pictures of a distant age are false. Costumes, scenery, externals alone are exact; actions, speech, sentiments, all the rest is civilized, embellished, arranged in modern guise. We might suspect it when looking at the character and life of the author; for what does he desire, and what do the guests, eager to hear him, demand? Is he a lover of truth as it is, foul and fierce; an inquisitive explorer, indifferent to contemporary applause, bent alone on defining the transformations of living nature? By no means. He is in history, as he is at Abbotsford, bent on arranging points of view and Gothic halls. The moon will come in well there between the towers; here is a nicely placed breastplate, the ray of light which it throws back is pleasant to see on these old hangings; suppose we took out the feudal garments from the wardrobe and invited the guests to a masquerade? The entertainment would be a fine one, in accordance with their reminiscences and their aristocratic principles. English lords, fresh from a bitter war against French democracy, ought to enter zealously into this commemoration of their ancestors. Moreover, there are ladies and young girls, and we must arrange the show, so as not to shock their severe morality and their delicate feelings, make them weep becomingly; not put on the stage overstrong passions, which they would not understand; on the contrary, select heroines to resemble them, always touching, but above all correct; young gentlemen, Evandale, Morton, Ivanhoe, irreproachably brought up, tender and grave, even slightly melancholic (it is the latest fashion), and worthy to lead them to the altar. Is there a man more suited than the author to compose such a spectacle? He is a good Protestant, a good husband, a good father, very moral, so decided a Tory that he carries off as a relic a glass from which the king has just drunk. In addition, he has neither talent nor leisure to reach the depths of his characters. He devotes himself to the exterior; he sees and describes forms and externals much more at length than inward feelings. Again, he treats his mind like a coal-mine,  serviceable for quick working, and for the greatest possible gain: a volume in a month, sometimes in a fortnight even, and this volume is worth one thousand pounds. How should he discover, or how dare exhibit, the structure of barbarous souls? This structure is too difficult to discover, and too little pleasing to show. Every two centuries, amongst men, the proportion of images and ideas, the mainspring of passions, the degree of reflection, the species of inclinations, change. Who, without a long preliminary training, now understands and relishes Dante, Rabelais, and Rubens? And how, for instance, could these great Catholic and mystical dreams, these vast temerities, or these impurities of carnal art, find entrance into the head of this gentlemanly citizen? Walter Scott pauses on the threshold of the soul, and in the vestibule of history, selects in the Renaissance and the Middle Ages only the fit and agreeable, blots out plain spoken words, licentious sensuality, bestial ferocity. After all, his characters, to whatever age he transports them, are his neighbours, ‘cannie’ farmers, vain lairds, gloved gentlemen, young marriageable ladies, all more or less commonplace, that is, steady; by their education and character at a great distance from the voluptuous fools of the Restoration, or the heroic brutes and fierce beasts of the Middle Ages. As he has the greatest supply of rich costumes, and the most inexhaustible talent for scenic effect, he makes all his people get on very pleasantly, and composes tales which, in truth, have only the merit of fashion, though that fashion may last a hundred years yet. 

That which he himself acted lasted for a shorter time. To sustain his princely hospitality and his feudal magnificence, he went into partnership with his printers; lord of the manor in public and merchant in private, he gave them his signature, without keeping a check over the use they made of it. Bankruptcy followed; at the age of fifty-five he was ruined, and one hundred and seventeen thousand pounds in debt. With admirable courage and uprightness he refused all favour, accepting nothing but time, set to work on the very day, wrote untiringly, in four years paid seventy thousand pounds, exhausted his brain so as to become paralytic, and to perish in the attempt. Neither in his conduct nor his literature did his feudal tastes succeed, and his manorial splendour was as fragile as his Gothic imaginations. He had relied on imitation, and we live by truth only; his glory is to be found elsewhere; there was something solid in his mind as well as in his writings. Beneath the lover of the Middle Ages we find, first the ‘pawky’ Scotchman, an attentive observer, whose sharpness became more intense by his familiarity with law; a good-natured man, easy and cheerful, as beseems the national character, so different from the English. One of his walking companions (Shortreed) said: ‘Eh me, sic an endless fund o’ humour and drollery as he had wi’ him! Never ten yards but we were either laughing or roaring and singing. Wherever we stopped, how brawlie he suited himsel’ to everybody! He aye did as the lave did; never made himsel’ the great man, or took ony airs in the company.’ Grown older and graver, he was none the less amiable, the most agreeable of hosts, so that one of his guests, a farmer, I think, said to his wife, when home, after having been at Abbotsford, ‘Ailie, my woman, I’m ready for my bed…I wish I could sleep for a towmont, for there’s only ae thing in this warld worth living for, and that’s the Abbotsford hunt!’ 

In addition to a mind of this kind, he had all-discerning eyes, an all retentive memory, a ceaseless studiousness which comprehended the whole of Scotland, and all classes of people; and we see his true talent arise, so agreeable, so abundant and so easy, made up of minute observation and gentle raillery, recalling at once Teniers and Addison. Doubtless he wrote badly, at times in the worst possible manner*: it is clear that he dictated, hardly re-read his writing, and readily fell into a pasty and emphatic style,—a style very common in the present times, and which we read day after day in prospectuses and newspapers. What is worse, he is terribly long and diffuse; his conversations and descriptions are interminable; he is determined, at all events, to fill three volumes. But he has given to Scotland a citizenship of literature—I mean to the whole of Scotland: scenery, monuments, houses, cottages, characters of every age and condition, from the baron to the fisherman, from the advocate to the beggar, from the lady to the fishwife. When we mention merely his name they crowd forward; who does not see them coming from every niche of memory? The Baron of Bradwardine, Dominie Sampson, Meg Merrilies, the antiquary, Edie Ochiltree, Jeanie Deans and her father,—innkeepers, shopkeepers, old wives, an entire people. What Scotch features are absent? Saving, patient, ‘cannie’, and of course ‘pawky’; the poverty of the soil and the difficulty of existence has compelled them to be so: this is the specialty of the race. The same tenacity which they introduced into everyday affairs they have introduced into mental concerns,—studious readers and perusers of antiquities and controversies, poets also; legends spring up readily in a romantic land, amidst time-honoured wars and brigandism. In a land thus prepared, and in this gloomy clime, Presbyterianism sunk its sharp roots. Such was the real and modern world, lit up by the farsetting sun of chivalry, as Sir Walter Scott found it; like a painter who, passing from great show-pictures, finds interest and beauty in the ordinary houses of a paltry provincial town, or in a farm surrounded by beds of beetroots and turnips. A continuous archness throws its smile over these interior and genre pictures, so local and minute, and which, like the Flemish, indicate the rise of well-to-do citizens. Most of these good folk are comic. Our author makes fun of them, brings out their little deceits, parsimony, fooleries, vulgarity, and the hundred thousand ridiculous habits people always contract in a narrow sphere of life. A barber, in The Antiquary, moves heaven and earth about his wigs; if the French Revolution takes root everywhere, it was because the magistrates gave up this ornament. He cries out in a lamentable voice: ‘Haud a care, haud a care, Monkbarns! God’s sake, haud a care!—Sir Arthur’s drowned already, and an ye fa’ over the cleugh too, there will be but ae wig left in the parish, and that’s the minister’s.’ Mark how the author smiles, and without malice: the barber’s candid selfishness is the effect of the man’s calling, and does not repel us. Walter Scott is never bitter; he loves men from the bottom of his heart, excuses or tolerates them; does not chastise vices, but unmasks them, and that not rudely. His greatest pleasure is to pursue at length, not indeed a vice, but a hobby; the mania for odds and ends in an antiquary, the archaeological vanity of the Baron of Bradwardine, the aristocratic drivel of the Dowager Lady Bellenden,—that is, the amusing exaggeration of an allowable taste; and this without anger, because, on the whole, these ridiculous people are estimable, and even generous. Even in rogues like Dirk Hatteraick, in cutthroats like Bothwell, he allows some goodness. In no one, not even in Major Dalgetty, a professional murderer, a result of the thirty years’ war, is the odious unveiled by the ridiculous. In this critical refinement and this benevolent philosophy, he resembles Addison. 

He resembles him again by the purity and endurance of his moral principles. His amanuensis, Mr. Laidlaw, told him that he was doing great good by his attractive and noble tales, and that young people would no longer wish to look in the literary rubbish of the circulating libraries. When Walter Scott heard this, his eyes filled with tears: ‘On his deathbed he said to his son-in-law: “Lockhart, I may have but a minute to speak to you. My dear, be a good man—be virtuous, be religious—be a good man. Nothing else will give you any comfort when you come to lie here.”’ This was almost his last word. By this fundamental honesty and this broad humanity, he was the Homer of modern citizen life. Around and after him, the novel of manners, separated from the historical romance, has produced a whole literature, and preserved the character which he stamped upon it. Miss Austen, Miss Bronté, Mrs. Gaskell, George Eliot, Bulwer, Thackeray, Dickens, and many others, paint, especially or entirely in his style, contemporary life, as it is, unembellished, in all ranks, often amongst the people, more frequently still amongst the middle class. And the causes which made the historical novel come to naught, in Scott and others, made the novel of manners, by the same authors, succeed. These men were too minute copyists and too decided moralists, incapable of the great divinations and the wide sympathies which unlock the door of history; their imagination was too literal, and their judgment too unwavering. It is precisely by these faculties that they created a new species of novel, which multiplies to this day in thousands of offshoots, with such abundance, that men of talent in this branch of literature may be counted by hundreds, and that we can only compare them, for their original and national spirit, to the great age of Dutch painting. Realistic and moral, these are their two features. They are far removed from the great imagination which creates and transforms, as it appeared in the Renaissance or in the seventeenth century, in the heroic or noble ages. They renounce free invention; they narrow themselves to scrupulous exactness; they paint with infinite detail costumes and places, changing nothing; they mark little shades of language; they are not disgusted by vulgarities or platitudes. Their information is authentic and precise. In short, they write like citizens for fellow-citizens, that is, for well-ordered people, members of a profession, whose imagination does not soar high, and sees things through a magnifying glass, unable to relish anything in the way of a picture except interiors and make-believes. Ask a cook which picture she prefers in the Museum, and she will point to a kitchen, in which the stewpans are so well painted that a man is tempted to put soup and bread in them. Yet beyond this inclination, which is now European, Englishmen have a special craving, which with them is national and dates from the preceding century; they desire that the novel, like all other things, should contribute to their great work,—the amelioration of man and society. They ask from it the glorification of virtue, and the chastisement of vice. They send it into all the corners of civil  society, and all the events of private history, in search of examples and expedients, to learn thence the means of remedying abuses, succouring miseries, avoiding temptations. They make of it an instrument of inquiry, education, and morality. A singular work, which has not its equal in all history, because in all history there has been no society like it, and which—of moderate attraction for lovers of the beautiful, admirable to lovers of the useful—offers, in the countless variety of its painting, and the invariable stability of its spirit, the picture of the only democracy which knows how to restrain, govern, and reform itself.

*See the opening of Ivanhoe: ‘Such being our chief scene, the date of our story refers to a period towards the end of the reign of Richard I, when his return from his long captivity had become an event rather wished than hoped for by his despairing subjects, who were in the meantime subjected to every species of subordinate oppression.’ It is impossible to write in a heavier style [Taine].

Belinsky on Historical Novel and Sir Walter Scott (Originally Published in 1844)

Among the men who have contributed most to the cultivation of a true view on history an honourable place belongs to the man who has written one very bad history and a multitude of excellent novels: we have in mind Walter Scott. The ignorant have proclaimed his novels to be the illegitimate product of the liaison of history with fiction. Evidently, the idea of history and fiction did not dovetail in their narrow conception. Thus, there are people who cannot for the life of them see any sense in opera as a production of art because the actors do not speak, but sing, and that does not happen in real life. Thus, there are people who consider verse as nonsense, rightly claiming that no one speaks in verse. There are different kinds of people and different kinds of narrowmindedness! The people who are seduced by the blending of history with romance regard history as a military and diplomatic chronicle, from which point of view they are, of course, right. They do not understand that the history of customs and morals, which change with every new generation, is more interesting than the history of wars and treaties, and that the renovation of morals through the renovation of generations is one of the principal means by which Providence leads mankind to perfection. They do not understand that the historic and private lives of people are mingled together and fused like holidays with workdays. Walter Scott, as a man of genius, fathomed this with his instinct. Being familiar with the chronicles, he was able not only to read their lines, but between the lines. His novels are filled with a moving crowd, are alive with passions and seething interests great and small, base and lofty, and everywhere we feel the pathos of the epoch which the author has grasped with amazing skill. To read his novel is like living the age he describes, becoming for a moment a contemporary of the characters he portrays, thinking for a moment their thoughts and feeling their emotions. He was able, as a man of genius, to throw a retrospective glance at the sanguinary intestine disturbances of ancient England and turbulences of the new England which assumed the form of conservatism and opposition, and disclosed their meaning in history, and he himself explained the origin of the French revolution to be a result of thirteen centuries of strife between the Frank and Gallic elements. 

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Erich Auerbach on the Realism of Zola's Germinal

This is an excerpt from Chapter 19 of Erich Auerbach's Mimesis: Representation of Reality in Western Literature, where he discusses the development of Realism in the context of Germinal, probably the most famous and highly regarded of all of Zola's novels. (Auerbach quotes the original text in French as well, I have omitted it here)


Emile Zola is twenty years younger than the generation of Flaubert and the Goncourts. There are connections between him and them; he is influenced by them; he stands on their shoulders; he has a great deal in common with them. He too would seem not to have been free from neurasthenia, but through his family background he is poorer in money, tradition, fastidiousness of sentiment. He stands out boldly from among the group of the aesthetic realists. We will again cite a text, to bring out this point as clearly as possible. We have chosen a passage from Germinal (1888), the novel which describes life in a coal-mining region of Northern France. It is the end of the second chapter of part 3. It is kermess time, a Sunday night in July. The workmen of the place have spent the afternoon going from one bar to another, drinking, bowling, looking at all sorts of shows. The day ends climactically with a ball, the bal du Bon-Joyeux, at the estaminet of the fat, fiftyish, but still lusty widow Désir. The ball has been going on for several hours; even the older women are coming to it now, bringing their small children.

(It was ten o’clock before anyone left. Women kept arriving, to find and take away their men; bands of children followed at their heels; and the mothers no longer troubled about appearances, took out long blond breasts like bags of oats, smeared their fat-cheeked babies with milk; while the children who could already walk, gorged with beer and on all fours under the tables, relieved themselves without shame. It was a rising sea of beer, Widow Désir’s casks broached, beer swelling out bellies, flowing from all sides, from noses, from eyes, and from elsewhere. People swelled up so, in the press, that everyone had a shoulder or a knee digging into his neighbor, all were made cheerful, at ease, by feeling one another’s elbows in this way. A continuous laugh kept mouths open, gaping to the ears. It was as hot as an oven, everyone was roasting, all made themselves comfortable, their flesh exposed, gilded in the thick smoke of the pipes; and the only difficulty was to move, a girl got up from time to time, went to the back, near the pump, tucked up her skirts, then returned. Under the garlands of colored paper the dancers no longer saw each other, they were sweating so—which encouraged the pit-boys to knock over the haulage-girls by promiscuous thrusts of their haunches. But when a strapping girl fell with a man on top of her, the cornet covered their fall with its furious sounds, the swing of feet rolled them, as if the dance had collapsed on them.
Someone passing by told Pierron that his daughter Lydie was sleeping at the door, across the sidewalk. She had swallowed her share of the stolen bottle, she was drunk, and he had to carry her in his arms, while Jeanlin and Bébert, more resistant, followed him at a distance, finding it very funny. This was the signal for departure, the families left the Bon-Joyeux, the Maheus and the Levaques decided to return to the mining village. At that moment, Père Bonnemort and old Mouque also left Montsou, both with the same sleep-walking gait, stubbornly maintaining the silence of their memories. And they all went home together, for the last time they passed through the carnival, the solidifying pans of fried stuff, the bars from which the last mugs were pouring in streams, even to the middle of the road. There was still a storm threatening, laughter rose as soon as they had left the lighted houses to lose themselves in the dark countryside. A hot breath poured from the ripe wheat, many children must have been conceived that night. When they reached the village, they felt let down. Neither the Levaques nor the Maheus supped with appetite, and the latter fell asleep finishing their morning boiled beef.
Etienne had taken Chaval to drink some more at Rasseneur’s.
“I’m on!” said Chaval, when his comrade had explained the matter of the reserve fund to him. “Shake! You’re all right!”
A touch of drunkenness made Etienne’s eyes flame. He cried, “Yes, let’s be together… As for me, I tell you, for justice I would give everything, drink and women. There’s only one thing that warms my heart, it’s the idea that we are going to get rid of the bosses.”)

The passage is one of those which, when Zola’s work first appeared during the last thirty years of the past century, aroused disgust and horror, but also, on the part of a not inconsiderable minority, great admiration. Many of his novels attained high sales figures immediately upon publication, and a strong movement set in for and against the justification of this kind of art. A reader who, knowing nothing of all this, should read nothing of Zola’s except the first paragraph of the passage cited above, could believe for a moment that he had before him a literary form of the coarse realism which is so well known from the Flemish and especially the Dutch painting of the seventeenth century. He might take it as nothing but a lower-class orgy of dancing and drinking, of the kind to be found or imagined in Rubens or Jordaens, in Brouwer or Ostade. To be sure, these are not peasants drinking and dancing but factory workers; and there is also a difference in the effect produced, in that the especially brutal details impress us, for the length of time it takes to utter them or read them, as more disagreeable and painful than they would as elements in a painting. But these are not basic differences. We might add that Zola apparently attributed great importance to the purely sensory aspects of his “literary portrait” of a mob orgy, that in this paragraph his genius reveals a decidedly pictorial vein, for example in his details of flesh painting (… les mères … sortaient des mamelles longues et blondes comme des sacs d’avoine …; and later… la chair dehors, dorée dans l’épaisse fumée des pipes). The flowing beer, the haze of sweat, the grinning and wide-open mouths likewise become visual impressions; acoustic and other sensory effects are also produced. In short, for a moment we might be tempted to think that what is set before us is nothing but an unusually robust action on the lowest level of style, sheer rowdyism. Especially the last part of the paragraph, the furious blowing of cornets and the ferocious dancing which muffles and swallows up the fall of one couple, supplies the orgiastic note which such farcical creations require.

But all that alone would not have caused so much excitement among Zola’s contemporaries. Among his enemies, who worked themselves into a fury over what they called the repulsiveness, the filth, and the obscenity of his art, there were doubtless many who accepted the grotesque or comic realism of earlier epochs, even in its crudest or most indecent representations, with equanimity and even with delight. What excited them so was rather the fact that Zola by no means put forth his art as “of the low style,” still less as comic. Almost every line he wrote showed that all this was meant in the highest degree seriously and morally; that the sum total of it was not a pastime or an artistic parlor game but the true portrait of contemporary society as he—Zola—saw it and as the public was being urged in his works to see it too.

This could hardly be surmised from the first paragraph of our text taken by itself. The one aspect of it which could give us pause is the matter-of-factness of the presentation. It is almost like a procès-verbal; despite the sensory immediacy it achieves, there is a certain dryness, excessive clarity, almost inhumanity in it. This is not the style of a writer who aims at nothing but comic or grotesque effects. The first sentence—Jusqu’à dix heures, on resta—would be inconceivable in a grotesque mob orgy. Why are we told of the end of the orgy at the start? For a purely amusing or grotesque purpose, that would be much too sobering. And why such an early hour? What sort of an orgy is it which reaches its end so early? The coal-miners have to be out of bed early on Monday morning, some of them at four o’clock. … And once we have paused, there are many other things that strike us. An orgy, even among the lowest classes, calls for plenty. And plenty there is, but it is poor and frugal—nothing but beer. The whole thing shows how desolate and miserable the joys of these people are.

The real purport of the passage grows clearer in the second paragraph, which describes the various participants’ departure and home-going. The daughter of the miner Pierron, Lydie, is found in the street outside the estaminet, asleep and very drunk. Lydie is a girl of twelve who has spent the evening running around with two neighborhood boys of the same age, Jeanlin and Bébert. The three of them already work as haulers in the mine. They are prematurely depraved children, especially the wily and vicious Jeanlin. This time he has talked the other two into stealing a bottle of gin from one of the kermess stalls. They have emptied it together, but the girl’s share proved too much for her. Now she is being carried home by her father. The two boys follow at a distance, trouvant cela très farce. … Meanwhile the Maheu and Levaque families, who are neighbors, are getting ready to leave. They are joined by two old, worn-out pitmen, Bonnemort and Mouque, who have spent the day together as they usually do. They are hardly sixty years old but they are already the last of their generation—used up and apathetic and no longer employable in the mine except with the horses. During their free hours they stay together constantly, almost without talking. Now once again they drag themselves through the ebbing bustle of the kermess in the direction of the village where they all live. As soon as they get beyond the rows of lighted houses to where the open countryside begins, laughter rises, a hot vapor flows from the darkness of the ripe fields: many children are being begotten that night. Finally they arrive at their hut where, already half asleep, they eat the left-overs of their noonday meal.

Meanwhile two younger men have gone to another tavern. In general they are not on very good terms, because of a girl; but today they have something important to discuss. Etienne wants to win over Chaval for his plan of a workmen’s fund, so that their crew will not be without means when a strike is called. Chaval goes in on it. Warmed by their revolutionary hopes and some liquor, they forget their enmity (not for long, to be sure) and unite in their common hatred of the bourgeois.
Crude and miserable pleasures; early depravity and rapid wearing out of human material; a dissolute sex life, and a birth-rate too high for such living conditions, since intercourse is the only amusement that costs nothing; behind all this, at least among the most energetic and intelligent, revolutionary hatred on the verge of breaking out—these are the motifs of our text. They are unreservedly translated into sensory terms, with no hesitation before the most unambiguous words and the ugliest scenes. The art of style has wholly renounced producing pleasing effects in the conventional sense of the term. Instead it serves unpleasant, depressing, desolate truth. But this truth is at the same time a summons to action in terms of a social reform. It is no longer, as it still was with the Goncourts, a matter of the sensory fascination of ugliness; what we have here is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the core of the social problem of the age, the struggle between industrial capital and labor. The principle of l’art pour l’art has outlived its usefulness. It may be pointed out that Zola too felt and exploited the sensory power of suggestion of the ugly and the repulsive; it may even be held against him that his somewhat coarse-grained and powerful imagination led him to exaggerations, violent simplifications, and a far too materialistic psychology. But all that is not of decisive significance. Zola took the mixing of styles really seriously; he pushed on beyond the purely aesthetic realism of the preceding generation; he is one of the very few authors of the century who created their work out of the great problems of the age. In this respect only Balzac can be compared with him; but Balzac wrote at a time when much of what Zola saw had not yet developed or was not yet discernible. If Zola exaggerated, he did so in the direction which mattered; and if he had a predilection for the ugly, he used it most fruitfully. Even today, after half a century the last decades of which have brought us experiences such as Zola never dreamed of, Germinal is still a terrifying book. And even today it has lost none of its significance and indeed none of its timeliness. There are passages in it which deserve to become classic, which ought to be in anthologies, because they depict, with exemplary clarity and simplicity, the situation and the awakening of the fourth estate in an earlier phase of the same era of change in which we now find ourselves. I am thinking for example of the evening conversation at the miner Maheu’s, in the third chapter of part 3. The theme is first the crowded living conditions in the small houses of the village, their deleterious effects upon health and morals; and then the passage continues as follows:

(“Sure!” Maheu would answer, “if we had more money, we’d have things easier … Just the same, it’s perfectly true that living on top of each other is no good for anybody. That always ends with the men drunk and the girls knocked up.”
And the family would start from there, each saying his word, while the kerosene of the lamp fouled the air, already reeking with fried onion. No, indeed, life was not amusing. You toiled like beasts at work which was the punishment of criminals in earlier days, you lost your hide at it more often than your turn came, and all that and not even have meat on your table at night. Of course you had your rations after all, but so little, just enough to keep you suffering without dying, crushed under debts, persecuted as if you stole your bread. When Sunday came you slept from exhaustion. The only pleasures were to get drunk or make your wife a child; and even at that, beer gave you too big a belly, and the child, later on, said to hell with you. No, no, there was nothing amusing about it.
Then his wife would put in her word.
“The bad thing, I say, is when you tell yourself that it can’t change… When you’re young, you imagine that happiness will come, you hope for things; and then, it’s always trouble beginning over again, you get caught in it… As for me, I don’t wish anyone any harm, but there are times when this injustice sickens me.”
There would be a silence, all would breathe heavily for a moment, in the vague uneasiness of that closed horizon. Only old Bonnemort, if he were present, would open surprised eyes, for in his day people didn’t get into a fuss like this: you were born in coal, you hammered away at the vein, without asking for anything more; whereas today, there was a wind blowing which made coal-miners ambitious.
“Never belittle anything,” he would murmur. “A good mug is a good mug… The bosses are often lice; but there’ll always be bosses, won’t there? No use breaking your brains thinking about it.”
At once Etienne would become animated. What! the workman forbidden to think! Why, it was just because the workman was thinking these days, that things would soon change …)

This is not meant to be a specific conversation, but only an example, one of the many conversations which arise night after night at the Maheu’s under the influence of their tenant Etienne Lantier. Hence too the imperfect tense. The slow transition from torpid resignation to conscious awareness of one’s own situation, the budding of hopes and plans, the various attitudes of different generations; then too the somber poverty and the reeking atmosphere of the room, the densely packed bodies, the simple appositeness of the speeches: all this together gives a typical picture of labor during the early socialist epoch, and surely no one today will seriously attempt to deny that the subject has world-historical importance. What level of style should be ascribed to such a text? There is here, beyond all doubt, great historical tragedy, a mixture of humile and sublime in which, because of the content, the latter prevails. Statements like Maheu’s (si l’on avait plus d’argent on aurait plus d’aise—or, Ça finit toujours par des hommes soûls et par des filles pleines), not to mention his wife’s, have come to be part of the great style. A far cry from Boileau, who could imagine the people only as grimacing grotesquely in the lowest farce. Zola knows how these people thought and talked. He also knows every detail of the technical side of mining; he knows the psychology of the various classes of workers and of the administration, the functioning of the central management, the competition between the capitalist groups, the cooperation of the interests of capital with the government, the army. But he did not confine himself to writing novels about industrial workers. His purpose was to comprise—as Balzac had done, but much more methodically and painstakingly—the whole life of the period (the Second Empire): the people of Paris, the rural population, the theater, the department stores, the stock exchange, and very much more besides. He made himself an expert in all fields; everywhere he penetrated into social structure and technology. An unimaginable amount of intelligence and labor went into the Rougon-Macquart. Today we are surfeited with such impressions; Zola has had many successors, and scenes similar to that at Maheu’s could be found in any piece of modern reporting. But Zola was the first, and his work is full of pictures of a similar kind and a similar value. Did anyone before him see a tenement house as he did in the second chapter of l’Assommoir? Hardly! And the picture he gives of it is not even seen from his point of view; it is the impression received by a young washerwomen who has recently come to Paris to live and who is waiting at the entrance. These pages too I should call classic. The errors in Zola’s anthropological conception and the limits of his genius are patent; but they do not impair his artistic, ethical, and especially his historical importance, and I am inclined to think that his stature will increase as we attain distance from his age and its problems—the more so because he was the last of the great French realists. Even during the last decade of his life the “anti-naturalist” reaction was becoming very strong; and besides, there was no one left to vie with him in working capacity, in mastery of the life of the time, in determination and courage.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Some comments on Zola's Pessimism after reading The Masterpiece

Here is an excerpt from Zola's The Masterpiece. This is from the very last pages of the novel and it in a way serves as a conclusive summary of the problems and overall worldview evoked in the novel. These lines are spoken by Sandoz, Zola's alter-ego in the novel. (Sandoz gets all the best lines in the novel though Claude is the main hero and we get to know his thoughts only through a mode of free indirect discourse.)

It was inevitable. All our activity, our boastfulness about our knowledge was bound to lead us back again to doubt. The present century has cast so much light on so many things, but it was bound to end under the threat of another wave of darkness. … And that is the root of our troubles. We have been promised too much and led to expect too much, including the conquest and the explanation of everything; and now we’ve grown impatient. We’re surprised things don’t move more quickly. We’re resentful because, in a matter of a hundred years, science hasn’t given us absolute certitude and perfect happiness. Why then continue, we ask, since we shall never know everything and our bread will always be bitter? The century has been a failure. Hearts are tortured with pessimism and brains clouded with mysticism for, try as we may to put imagination to flight with the cold light of science, we have the supernatural once more in arms against us and the whole world of legend in revolt, bent on enslaving us again in our moment of fatigue and uncertainty. … I’m no more sure of things than anyone else; my mind, too, is divided. But I do think that this last shattering upheaval of our old religious fears was only to be expected. We are not an end; we are a transition, the beginning only of something new. … And it’s that sets my mind at rest, and somehow encourages me: to know we are moving towards rationality and the firm foundations that only science can give.
Zola is often criticized for being a pessimist, not an ordinary pessimist but a more dogmatic and recalcitrant pessimist, even going so far as to deliberately structure his novels in order to prove this pessimistic thesis, the idea that men are not some "metaphysical marionettes" gifted with a divine or mystical free will but "physiological men" who are subject to laws of nature (pre-eminently, heredity) and the vicissitudes of their environment. (This is also something that Marxist critics like Georg Lukacs dislike in Zola, because it questions the innate humanism of Marxist philosophy)

Just to give a perspective to this debate about pessimism, here is an excerpt from an essay by Henry James, where he advises young novelists to avoid the dogma of either pessimism or optimism and instead be true to Life (available here, emphasis mine)
This freedom is a splendid privilege, and the first lesson of the young novelist is to learn to be worthy of it. “Enjoy it as it deserves,” I should say to him; “take possession of it, explore it to its utmost extent, publish it, rejoice in it. All life belongs to you, and do not listen either to those who would shut you up into corners of it and tell you that it is only here and there that art inhabits, or to those who would persuade you that this heavenly messenger wings her way outside of life altogether, breathing a superfine air, and turning away her head from the truth of things. There is no impression of life, no manner of seeing it and feeling it, to which the plan of the novelist may not offer a place; you have only to remember that talents so dissimilar as those of Alexandre Dumas and Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert have worked in this field with equal glory. Do not think too much about optimism and pessimism; try and catch the colour of life itself. In France to-day we see a prodigious effort (that of Emile Zola, to whose solid and serious work no explorer of the capacity of the novel can allude without respect), we see an extraordinary effort vitiated by a spirit of pessimism on a narrow basis. M. Zola is magnificent, but he strikes an English reader as ignorant; he has an air of working in the dark; if he had as much light as energy, his results would be of the highest value. As for the aberrations of a shallow optimism, the ground (of English fiction especially) is strewn with their brittle particles as with broken glass. If you must indulge in conclusions, let them have the taste of a wide knowledge. Remember that your first duty is to be as complete as possible—to make as perfect a work. Be generous and delicate and pursue the prize. 
But like in the excerpt from The Masterpiece posted above, Zola's pessimism is not as simple and straightforward as it seems. Zola is relentless in his focus on decadence and degeneration but his intellect rebels against it. Zola's was a case of pessimism of the will and the optimism of the intellect. Zola was writing his Rougon-Macquant novels when these theories were in the air in France, so to speak. For example, see Max Nordau's Degeneration, published contemporaneously with Zola's novels, a book which had a dark afterlife in the Nazi Germany where degenerate art took on a different meaning. (Ironically, Nordau, a Jewish physician himself, thought of growing anti-semitism itself as a mark of decadence and degeneracy, for example in the context of Wagner).

Many of Zola's own disciples, most famously Maupassant and Huysmans, and later other leading lights of the literary decadent movement in France, not as well-known outside France, abandoned Zola's "optimism of the intelllect" and gave in whole-heartedly to the pessimism of the will and even eventually to nihilism. Schopenhauer was one of the leading intellectual figures for these writers, and his theories became very popular, specially as the general cultural mood in France soured after the catastrophic defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. The debacle seemed to prove to these writers that French race was indeed weak and degenerate, and deserved the punishment it got in the war. Zola tackles these themes in the context of the war in his novel La Débâcle, where one of his heroes Maurice is said to have learned these pessimistic theories in the intellectual circles of Paris, and is seen to be obsessed with the idea of Life itself as a form of War (in the Darwinian sense), a war in which weak and degenerate are routed and which then paves way for a much healthier society and race. This view also had dark aftereffects later in the context of first world war, where many French intellectuals (even including giants like Bergson) turned warmongers and justified war in these pseudo-mystical terms based on the philosophy of vitalism. I had touched upon some of these themes in my earlier blog on La Débâcle.

In The Masterpiece, Zola tackles the problem of artistic decadence head-on. Like in the excerpt quoted at the top, Zola seems to suggest that the upsurge of decadence was itself a form of reaction, a reaction of romanticism and mysticism against the onward march of science, reason and progress. This romanticism not only affect one's view of world but the very idea of an artist. This reaction and in turn Claude, the artist figure, is a transitional figure, an inherited weak character, whose tragic spiritual weakness, leads him to succumb to this reaction and eventually leads to his tragic downfall.

Ironically, Zola himself is often grouped together with the decadent writers or at least is accused of paving the way for literary decadence (often by Marxist critics like Lukacs). A careful reading of The Masterpiece will serve to dispel these criticisms as it shows Zola was more interested in portrayal of decadence instead of its justification, a form of cultural "diagnosis" so to say. Like all great artists he gives all different sides of the "debate" an equal say in the novel, sometimes like Milton with Satan and Dostoevsky with Ivan Karamazov, he may even paint the other side in stronger terms so that the eventual "message" or the conclusion of work can get skewed against what he originally intended. So in The Masterpiece Claude ultimately turns out to be a tragic-heroic character, a sort of last gasp of the romantic ideal of art and artist.

I feel The Masterpiece is a very important work in Zola's oeuvre, even though in purely stylistic terms it is nowhere near his masterpieces like L'Assmmoir or Germinal, because it serves as self-reflexive statement of purpose or intent on behalf of Zola and it shows that his artistry was much more complex than what many of his own manifestos and pamphlets about "naturalism" or "experimental novel" seem to suggest. I have seen many readers are put off by some of the comments in those pamphlets which often reek of most basic and even a vulgar form of scientism, materialism and determinism, and they never to actually read his works and even when they do, they do it with that bias already gleaned from reading those manifestos. One should instead read this novel to get a good hold of Zola's artistic ambition and what he thought of the place of art in society and what its relationship with life and the real world was, and how that relationship was changing with the advent of science.

P.S. Zola's most sustained engagement with Schopenhauerian ideas and its critique is in his novel La Joie de Vivre (a recent English translation is titled The Bright Side of Life). It is not very well known and doesn't seem to be very widely read in English but it is one of my personal favourites of his novels. It is one of the most powerful evocations of the struggle between the two forces of optimism and pessimism about the nature of life that takes place in one's soul that I have ever read.

वेब परिणाम

all the dreadful, appalling morass of trifles that mires our lives

A short excerpt from Gogol's Dead Souls, to celebrate his birthday today. In the second paragraph one also gets a sense of the true nature of his literary project (This is from the beginning of the chapter 7 of the novel, translated by Robert Maguire)

Happy the wayfarer who, after a long and tedious journey, with its cold spells, slush, mud, groggy stationmasters, clanging bells, repairs, wrangles, coachmen, blacksmiths and scoundrels of every stripe encountered along the road, spies at length the familiar roof and the lights as they rush to meet him, and before him will appear the familiar rooms, the joyous cries of the servants as they run forth to greet him, the noise and scamper of the children and the soft, soothing talk broken by ardent kisses that have the power to blot from memory all that is sad. Happy the family man who has such a nook, but woe to the bachelor! 
Happy the writer who, after ignoring characters that are boring, repulsive, astounding in their sad actuality, gravitates towards characters that manifest the high dignity of man, who, out of the great maelstrom of images that whirl about him daily, has chosen only the few exceptions, who not once has altered the elevated pitch of his lyre, has not descended from his height to the level of his poor, insignificant brethren, and, without touching the earth, has given himself, all of him, over to his own images, which are exalted and removed far from it. Twice enviable is his splendid lot: he stands among them as if in his own family, and meanwhile, his fame spreads wide and clamorous. He has beclouded people’s eyes with intoxicating incense, he has flattered them wondrously, concealing what is sad in life, showing them man in all his splendour. All clap their hands and hasten after him, and rush to follow his triumphal chariot. A great universal poet they dub him, one who soars high above all the other geniuses of the world as an eagle soars above other high-flying birds. At the mere mention of his name, ardent young hearts are seized with trembling, responsive tears glisten in every eye. For strength he has no equal – he is a god! But such is not the lot, and different is the fate of the writer who has made bold to summon forth everything that at every moment lies before the eyes and is not perceived by indifferent eyes, all the dreadful, appalling morass of trifles that mires our lives, all that lies deep inside the cold, fragmented, quotidian characters with which our earthly, at times bitter and tedious, path swarms, and who with the robust strength of an implacable chisel has made bold to set them forth in full and bright relief for all the people to see! It is not for him to reap the plaudits of all the people, not for him to behold the grateful tears and unanimous enthusiasm of the souls that have been stirred by him; it is not to him that a sixteen-year-old girl will fly, head awhirl and hero-worshipful; not for him to lose himself in the sweet enchantment of sounds plucked forth by him alone; not, in fine, for him to escape the judgement of the time, the false, unfeeling judgement of the time, which will brand as worthless and base the creations cherished by him, will assign him an ignoble corner in the ranks of those writers who offend humanity, will attach to him the qualities of the heroes depicted by none but himself, will take from him his heart and soul and the divine flame of talent. For the judgement of the time does not acknowledge that equally wondrous are the lenses that survey suns and those that convey the movements of imperceptible insects; for the judgement of the time does not acknowledge that much spiritual depth is needed to illumine a picture drawn from ignoble life and elevate it into a pearl of creation; for the judgement of the time does not acknowledge that lofty enraptured laughter is worthy of taking its place beside the lofty lyrical impulse and that a whole abyss lies between it and the posturings of a clown in a fair-booth! This the judgement of the time does not acknowledge, and will turn it all to the reproach and ridicule of the unacknowledged writer; without due portion, without response, without sympathy, like a homeless wayfarer, he will remain alone in mid-road. Harsh is his chosen course, and bitterly will he feel his solitude.
And for a long time yet to come I am destined by a wondrous power to walk hand in hand with my strange heroes, to survey the whole of life in all the vastness of its onward rush, to survey it through laughter visible to the world and tears invisible and unknown to it! And distant as yet is that time when through a different font the awesome blizzard of inspiration will gush from a head invested in sacred horror and effulgence, and people will harken, in confused trepidation, to the majestic thunder of other speeches… 

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

"look of being committed to nothing in particular" - a facial description from Henry James's The American

A description of a face from The American by Henry James.

This is from the revised New York Edition published in 1908
His complexion was brown and the arch of his nose bold and well-marked. His eye was of a clear, cold grey, and save for the abundant droop of his moustache he spoke, as to cheek and chin, of the joy of the matutinal steel. He had the flat jaw and the firm, dry neck which are frequent in the American type; but the betrayal of native conditions is a matter of expression even more than of feature, and it was in this respect that our traveller's countenance was supremely eloquent. The observer we have been supposing might, however, perfectly have measured its expressiveness and yet have been at a loss for names and terms to fit it. It had that paucity of detail which is yet not emptiness, that blankness which is not simplicity, that look of being committed to nothing in particular, of standing in a posture of general hospitality to the chances of life, of being very much at one's own disposal, characteristic of American faces of the clear strain. It was the eye, in this case, that chiefly told the story; an eye in which the unacquainted and the expert were singularly blended. It was full of contradictory suggestions; and though it was by no means the glowing orb of a hero of romance you could find in it almost anything you looked for. Frigid and yet friendly, frank yet cautious, shrewd yet credulous, positive yet sceptical, confident yet shy, extremely intelligent and extremely good-humoured, there was something vaguely defiant in its concessions and something profoundly reassuring in its reserve. The wide yet partly folded wings of this gentleman's moustache, with the two premature wrinkles in the cheek above it, and the fashion of his garments, in which an exposed shirt-front and a blue satin necktie of too light a shade played perhaps an obtrusive part, completed the elements of his identity. 

Same passage from the original version published in 1877
His complexion was brown, and his nose had a bold well-marked arch. His eye was of a clear, cold gray, and save for a rather abundant moustache he was clean-shaved. He had the flat jaw and sinewy neck which are frequent in the American type; but the traces of national origin are a matter of expression even more than of feature, and it was in this respect that our friend’s countenance was supremely eloquent. The discriminating observer we have been supposing might, however, perfectly have measured its expressiveness, and yet have been at a loss to describe it. It had that typical vagueness which is not vacuity, that blankness which is not simplicity, that look of being committed to nothing in particular, of standing in an attitude of general hospitality to the chances of life, of being very much at one’s own disposal so characteristic of many American faces. It was our friend’s eye that chiefly told his story; an eye in which innocence and experience were singularly blended. It was full of contradictory suggestions, and though it was by no means the glowing orb of a hero of romance, you could find in it almost anything you looked for. Frigid and yet friendly, frank yet cautious, shrewd yet credulous, positive yet sceptical, confident yet shy, extremely intelligent and extremely good-humored, there was something vaguely defiant in its concessions, and something profoundly reassuring in its reserve. The cut of this gentleman’s moustache, with the two premature wrinkles in the cheek above it, and the fashion of his garments, in which an exposed shirt-front and a cerulean cravat played perhaps an obtrusive part, completed the conditions of his identity.