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.