Friday, November 06, 2009

"Avoid naming it straight," or, Reading Henry James

A recent post by OGIC at About Last Night having convinced me that I'd been away from Henry James too long, I'm currently hip-deep in The Ambassadors (1905), which, knowing my tastes, was where OGIC suggested I dive in--right into the heart of baroque, roundabout late period James. And she was right: I find myself deeply admiring James's odd combination of tenacity and circumspection, his constant circling about an idea or emotion not so much out of delicacy as out of a desire not to miss a single nuance.

Yet at the same time I find that reading James is a lot like watching a performance of Shakespeare: it takes me a few minutes, every time I open the book, to settle into the rhythms of the prose, and, almost as if I'm translating from a foreign language, I can feel my brain engaging some higher, rarely tested gears. A passage like this one, perfectly grammatical though its sentences may be, requires an attention to its elusive thread of thought that's hard to maintain in the quiet bustle of the L or the bus:
The fact was that his perception of the young man's identity--so absolutely checked for a minute--had been quite one of the sensations that count in life; he certainly had never known one that had acted, as he might have said, with more of a crowded rush. And the rush, though both vague and multitudinous, had lasted a long time, protected, as it were, yet at the same time aggravated, by the circumstance of its coinciding with a stretch of decorous silence. They couldn't talk without disturbing the spectators in the part of the balcony just below them; and it, for that matter, came to Strether--being a thing of the sort that did come to him--that these were the accidents of a high civilization; the imposed tribute to propriety, the frequent exposure to conditions, usually brilliant, in which relief has to await its time. Relief was never quite near at hand for kings, queens, comedians and other such people, and though you might be yourself not exactly one of those, you could yet, in leading the life of high pressure, guess a little how they sometimes felt.
Though the reward is palpable--that memorable insight about delayed relief--there is nonetheless an inescapable air of obsession to the slightly overcooked precision of that account; you can feel the hand of revision, of what Alice Munro in an interview called James's habit of rewriting "simple, understandable stuff so it was obscure and difficult."*

And, much as I'm enjoying The Ambassadors, it's hard not to sympathize with the frustration of Henry's brother William--whose whole philosophical project was to render the unknown in plain language--when confronted with such fussy concatenations of prose. In his biography of William James, Robert D. Richardson draws from a letter William sent Henry in 1907:
"You know how opposed your whole 'third manner' of execution is to the literary ideals which animate my crude and Orson-like breast," William rumbled, "mine being to say a thing in one sentence as straight and explicit as it can be made, and then to drop it forever; yours being to avoid naming it straight, but by dint of breathing and sighing all round and round it, to arouse in the reader who may have had a similar perception already (Heaven help him if he hasn't!) the illusion of a solid object, made (like the 'ghost' at the Polytechnic) wholly out of impalpable materials, air, and the prismatic interferences of light, ingeniously focused by mirrors upon empty space."
Many's the day I understand William's position (and oh, how much more might I do so were Henry my brother!), but for today I'll gladly plow ahead in Henry's mode, which I'm currently thinking of in terms he employs to describe one of the female characters in The Ambassadors, who is "a slow contemporaneous fact who had been distinctly slow to establish herself." Indeed.


  1. One must overcome one's natural urge to put a line through "quite," "certainly, "as he might have said," "as it were," "the circumstance of," "for that matter," "being a thing of the sort that did come to him," etc. But eventually one acclimatizes...

  2. so far, portrait of a lady is as far as I could go in james' baroque style. What mazie knew was barely potable. i'll be interested to see if your patience with his style pays off...

  3. I find my patience with Henry pays off to varying degrees depending on the book. I'm a bigger fan of the clearer (and funnier) William, though, who was an absolutely brilliant writer in his own right.