Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Diving into Henry James

Over at his blog, Wuthering Expectations, Amateur Reader has announced that he is embarking on a Henry James bender--diving into the sixteen (16!) volumes of James's writing published by the Library of America with the intention of reading all the major works and a bit more. He writes,
How does the neurotic reader deal with this vast mass of stuff, much of it likely mediocre? By overcoming his neurosis, I hope, by not reading all five books of the short fiction, by not reading Watch and Ward or Confidence or the five volumes of Leon Edel’s biography of James, but instead restricting myself to the one-volume abridgement, and to only the best dozen or so of his novels, and only the most famous thousand or two pages of the tales. A good plan until the twelfth-best novel turns out to be interesting enough to make me curious about the thirteenth.
The threat in the final line, of the trail tripping ever onward, is echoed by an amusing realization that's emerged in the comments: even those (and I would count myself in that number) who think of ourselves as not having read that much James have actually read a lot of James. My tally? The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, What Maisie Knew, Washington Square, The Aspern Papers, The Turn of the Screw and another 500 pages of his ghost stories, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and most of the NYRB Classics collection of his New York stories. That's a lot of James--but set against the monumental whole of his work, it seems but a speck.

Amateur Reader has taken on this sort of task before (his slog through 2,800 pages of Poe being the extreme example), and it's always been well worth following. I have too much of the magpie in me to be able to dedicate myself to one author so wholly, so I won't actually join him, but I do suspect he'll at least inspire me to dive into a couple of new James novels before he's done. Tonight, he's caused me to dip once more into Simon Nowell Smith's The Legend of the Master (1948), a volume from a genre that I find I enjoy more and more each year, collections of anecdotes and memories of a great writer.

The first piece I alighted on tonight is a memorable description from Edith Wharton of what it was like to hear and see James recite poetry:
James's reading was a thing apart, an emanation of his inmost self, unaffected by fashion or elocutionary artifice. He read from his soul, and no one who never heard him read poetry knows what that soul was.
Wharton goes on to reveal something that surprises me, though perhaps I should have known it: James thought Whitman "the greatest of American poets." It's hard to reconcile Whitman's galloping verve and James's tightly buttoned prose, though a moment's thought allows you to start seeing similarities in perspective, the shared sense that the interior life is at least as complicated and fascinating as--and in some crucial way constitutes--the world around us. Wharton goes on to offer a memorable description of James reading "Out of the Cradle,"
or rather crooning it in a mood of subdued ecstasy till the fivefold invocation to Death tolled out like the knocks in the opening bars of the Fifth Symphony.
Though Nowell Smith draws on many dozens of sources, Wharton is unquestionably the star of this collection, sharing the choicest anecdotes in the best prose. Her account of James's response, when asked by a friend why he'd "dealt so summarily" with D. H. Lawrence in his Notes on Novelists is so well told that it's hard not to feel that you're actually seeing the scene in question:
James's reply was evasive and unsatisfactory, and at last his interlocutor exclaimed: "Come, now! Have you ever read any of Lawrence's novels--really read them?" James's most mischievous smile crept down from his eyes to his lips. "I--I have trifled with the exordia."
Which leads me to this question: Am I right in thinking that James probably heard that phrase--"Come now!"--as often as anyone who has ever been born? At least it's a tad more polite than "Get to the point, man!"

Then there's this story, told by Stephen Spender, that feels like James simultaneously is almost openly playing the part of "Henry James" and actually revealing his discomfort with marriage:
Sometimes, in a friendly spirit, people would bait him. Once someone, to do so, asked him what must have been the feelings of Mr. Cross, the husband of George Eliot, on hearing that his wife had died. James considered it intensely, and answered slowly: "Agony . . . Dismay . . . Amazement . . . Fear . . ." Then suddenly his face lighted. He threw up his hands and almost shouted: "Relief!"
Given Spender's own complicated sexuality, that story might be filed under "You get the story you're looking for," which would also apply to this one from E. F. Benson, who was known for, among other writings, his ghost stories:
He described a call he paid at dusk on some neighbours at Rye, how he rang the bell and nothing happened, how he rang again and again waited, how at the end there came steps in the passage and the door was slowly opened, and there appeared in advance on the threshold, "something black, something canine."
I'll close with a passage from another book I happened to pluck from the shelves tonight, one that couldn't be more different but which, on being opened nearly at random, brought James immediately to mind, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Read this passage on "Shameful Things" and think of James's attempts to apprehend and describe consciousness:
A thief has crept into a house and is now hiding in some well-chosen nook where he can secretly observe what is going on. Someone else comes into the dark room and, taking an object that lies there, slips it into his sleeve. It must be amusing for the thief to see a person who shares his own nature.
Now read this passage from "Men Really Have Strange Emotions":
Men really have strange emotions and behave in the most bizarre ways. Sometimes a man will leave a very pretty woman to marry an ugly one. Surely a gentleman who frequents the Palace should choose as his love the prettiest girl of good family he can find. Though she may be of such high standing that he cannot hope to make her his wife, he should, if he is really impressed by the girl, languish for her unto death.

Sometimes, too, a man will become so fascinated by a girl of whom he has heard favourable reports that he will do everything in his power to marry her even though they have never even met.

I do not understand how a man can possibly love a girl whom other people, even those of her own sex, find ugly.
With James on the brain, I find I can't help but read that as anything but a list of possible or actual James plots. Though let's be clear; Sei Shonagon would surely have found James finicky beyond all bearing. Good god, they would not have gotten along.


  1. There's actually only fifteen volumes so far in the Library of America Henry James -- don't ask me how I know this -- and the horrifying thing is how much has been left out: none of the memoirs, nor the plays, the drama criticism, the endless letters, the enormous (and fascinating) notebooks... and also there's the problem that several of the novels exist in original and drastically revised versions (LoA publishes the originals, which I'm not sure is really the right choice)... No matter how much you read, there's still way more you haven't.

    Oh, and while you may be right about Sei Shonagon not liking James, I think Murasaki would have gotten along with him just fine.

  2. I read the post about Amateur Reader's Poe project, and the approach strikes me as entirely wrongheaded. The point of immersing yourself in an author's work is not to keep a scorecard. The point is living inside that writer's sensibility for an extended period of time. I have read almost all of Poe myself, and his corpus of writing has a deep and fascinating internal consistency - like Balzac's or Faulkner's, if less obviously so. Every piece, even the tiniest, illuminates every other piece. I have no interest in a random reader's ratings of each Poe text considered discretely, which I do not find in the least helpful. But I am very interested in reports from inside the sensibility, that reveal connections that no one has noticed before. I will not be following Amateur Reader's James project, since the language used to describe it - "best dozen...novels," "much of it likely mediocre" - make it clear that it will follow a path I find unproductive. Our cultural moment is desperately over-assessive; I wish the pendulum would swing away from that.

  3. A slow dive; an attenuated bender that extends over many years.

    The book of James anecdotes - I should revisit your post tomorrow - is part of why I have a sense of knowing about James far beyond my experience with his books. James stories, James quips, James examples - other writers use them so often that James is a familiar figure.

  4. Did I miscount the James? Conceivable!

    Yes, Patrick, that was "the point" of reading Poe, to keep a scorecard. Exactly.

    To other readers who happen by - if you visit my site and click on the Poe links, you may be disappointed to find that there is no scorecard, although I did make a graph that I find amusing.

    I just read Poe. I read one piece and thought "Hmmm" and then read another. Eventually I'd read 'em all, all that were in those two LoA books.

  5. "While reading the short fiction of Poe's exact contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, I discovered again and again that the most famous stories were not necessarily the ones I thought best. There were a lot of surprises. This was much less true with Poe, barely true at all. My favorites are the same as everyone else's:

    "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "A Decent into the Maelström," "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Gold-Bug," "The Black Cat," "The Purloined Letter," "The Cask of Amontillado," "Hop-Frog."

    Same with the poems: "The Raven," "Dream-Land," "The City in the Sea," "Annabel Lee." No surprises here."

    Hmm, that sure looks like a scorecard to me. And it certainly makes it sound as if a goal of the exercise was to identify the "best" of Poe and spare people reading the less-than-best - that is stated elsewhere quite explicitly. I am not saying that assessment is not part of the enterprise of reading a writer, but the way Amateur Reader expresses himself here makes it seem as the end-result of the process of reading so many pages of the same author is just a bunch of opinions. So many critics these days, amateur and professional, treat their opinions and ratings and Top Ten Lists as the most important output of their engagement with art, and I would most definitely like to call foul on that. It has gotten way out of hand. A few sentences into Amateur Reader's post, he has already lost me as a reader and I'm clicking out of his blog, because there is nothing fresh anymore in this business of opinionating.

  6. Patrick,
    I certainly understand your overall point, but I think you're possibly misreading Amateur Reader's approach to these works: keep in mind that the link I gave is dropping you into the midst of what, as with any book blog, is an ongoing conversation about books--in that post, Amateur Reader does note his favorites among Poe, but elsewhere he tackles the bizarre scientific/philosophical investigation Eureka, looks at Poe's hard-hitting reviewing, discusses Poe's comic writing, and more. His approach certainly may not be to your taste--as you note, part of the problem of simple ranking and rating is that tastes differ--but he does show much more interest in the work overall than would be the case if he really were just interested in scoring, ranking, or sorting wheat from chaff.

    Lee, you're so right about Lady Murasaki. I imagine she would understand exactly what James was up to!

  7. Fair enough! But the tenor of the post of Amateur Reader's that you quoted from and linked to did make me crabby, perhaps because - of course! - I can fall into this assessing tendency myself (as Hermann Hesse so famously said, what isn't part of ourselves doesn't disturb us).

    Assessment and rating have practically swallowed up the landscape of cultural commentary; the listicle ("Ten Best Science Fiction Heroines Ever!") is one of the banes of the age. Susan Sontag wrote that in place of (I would rather say "in addition to") a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art; now we've largely got neither, just the opinionating I complain of.

    All that aside, I really like your blog, which hits a perfectly blended tone of description, erudition, and appreciation.