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Novels were never the same after Henry James

10 October 2017

From The Irish Times:

Although I often feel that I have been reading him since I was in the cradle, the somewhat embarrassing fact is that I came late to Henry James. It was in the mid-1970s that I first read The Portrait of a Lady, the great achievement of his middle years, if not the greatest of all his novels, as many readers consider it to be. I fell at once under the spell of the Master, and have knelt at his knee ever since.

That first encounter with The Portrait took place in Florence, where I was staying with my wife and son, in an eccentric little hotel run by two cadaverous but kindly and almost identical brothers, in the Via della Scala.

It seemed to me a nice coincidence that so much of the action in the book I was reading takes place in Florence. However, there was a greater coincidence that I was unaware of at the time.

The hotel we were in stood only a few streets away from where, a hundred years previously, James had begun the composition of the novel, in a room overlooking the Arno, a river that is less river than slow-moving mudslide, thick as it is with alluvial marl the colour, and probably also the texture, of Colman’s Mustard.

. . . .

Anyone who has read, or has attempted to read, late James will know that sense of being at once dazzled and dazed by the prose style he evolved in the first decades of the 20th century, a style designed to catch, with immense, with fiendish, subtlety, and in sentences of labyrinthine intricacy, the very texture of conscious life.

James Joyce was always ready to acknowledge that human beings do not really think in the form of stream of consciousness – a concept formulated by Henry’s brother William James, a philosopher and psychologist – that he employed to great and innovative effect in Ulysses.

Henry James’s modernist technique was very different to Joyce’s, but was, I believe, just as radical, in its way.

It would be foolish to claim that any person has ever gone through a single waking hour recording his or her thoughts and impressions in the kind of prose James employs in those tremendous and sometimes wearyingly opaque late novels.

All the same, the dauntless reader immersed in, say, The Golden Bowl, will be aware, at however obscure a level, of being caught up in an experience very like the experience of consciousness itself.

There will be the same sense of groping vagueness, of distracted wonderings, of guesses entertained and abandoned and then entertained again, the same suspicion of knowing something without knowing it, along with, now and then, sudden clearances, sudden dispersals of the fog, sudden steppings into the light of revelation and blissful certainty.

Link to the rest at The Irish Times

PG wonders if any undergraduates still read Henry James.

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7 Comments to “Novels were never the same after Henry James”

  1. Am I the only one who finds Henry James dull and boring?

    He seems to be the darling of English majors. Myself? I have never finished even one of his works. Each time, when I put down James I never picked him up again. Why? Because I was bored.

    But the English majors praise him with concocted sentences that seek to mimic James; like this egregiously pretentious claptrap:

    Anyone who has read, or has attempted to read, late James will know that sense of being at once dazzled and dazed by the prose style he evolved in the first decades of the 20th century, a style designed to catch, with immense, with fiendish, subtlety, and in sentences of labyrinthine intricacy, the very texture of conscious life.

    (Side note: WTF is ‘fiendish subtlety’? WTBF is ‘immense subtlety’? I have attempted to read James. I was not dazzled. I was not dazed. I was bored.)

    Why the hell would anyone want to write ‘in sentences of labyrinthine intricacy’? (Faulkner did that, and he is damned near impenetrable.) Christ and Buddha, Bruce Sterling conjured whole paragraphs of labyrinthine intricacy in Holy Fire, and I hated that pointless waste of paper and ink. ‘Pat, I’d like to buy a plot.’

    For the love of all that is holy, tell me your damn story and get out of my face. Be Twain, not James.

    • Just to emphasize the point: Twain, too, could write ‘sentences of labyrinthine intricacy’. He did so for one purpose only – to get a laugh. Like f’rinstance:

      It was pretty ornery preaching – all about brotherly love, and suchlike tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good sermon, and they all talked over it going home, and had such a powerful lot to say about faith, and good works, and free grace, and preforeordestination, and I don’t know what all, that it did seem to me to be one of the roughest Sundays I had run across yet.

      When not burlesquing bad speakers and bad writers, he had the sense to keep his sentences straightforward and to the point.

      • Tom, Sorry to disagree with about the quoted sentence from Twain. Is it intricate? Yes. Is it labyrinthine? No. It puts one foot in front of the other and marches straight to its humorous point.

    • Yeah, as far as the Jameses are concerned, I’ve always preferred Harry to Henry. 🙂

    • Haha, Twain. I feel like Twain needed to find a plot a lot of times, too. A whole scene about two kids poking a beetle in class? WTF?

      Don’t think I’ve ever read Henry James (English major though I was), but it doesn’t sound like I’d like him.

      • Shawna Canon, Twain morphed from storyteller to novelist early in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The first five chapters are independent stories. Only after those does Twain write the rest of the book as a novel.

        IMO The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is far superior to Tom Sawyer.

  2. I read a couple books by James as an undergraduate. Interesting from a literary history point of view but can’t say much of an influence on anyone anymore unless you’re a 19th Century English professor.

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