Posts Tagged ‘Henry James’

Booknotes in early May

May 8, 2014 @ 4:16 pm | Filed under: ,


You know how you have that friend you used to talk to on the phone all the time, every day practically, so that even though you lived hundreds of miles apart, you were totally up on all the daily details of each other’s lives? And then along comes a busy week, maybe two, and you play a few rounds of phone tag, and suddenly there’s SO MUCH to catch up on that you know you’re going to need an hour, probably more, who are we kidding, and so you’re both waiting for a nice long chunk of time and meanwhile more life is happening and you’re never ever going to be able to catch each other up on all of it? Yeah, that’s how I’m feeling about my book log today. 🙂

For a few weeks there I was trotting along at such a nice clip, recording everything—not only books finished, which I’ve been faithfully logging since 2008, but fragments and sections of books, history and science chapters read to the kids, picture books, substantive internet articles, even individual poems. I’ve never kept track of my reading to such a granular degree before, and I was really enjoying it—both as a chronicle of the many branchings of my interests, and as a somewhat, for me, revelatory indication of the sheer amount of reading, challenging and otherwise, that I was doing all along but somehow not “counting.” Sigh, I only read two books this month, I might think, looking a year from now at my GoodReads tally for April 2014, forgetting the quantities of poetry I devoured that month (just no complete books of poetry, so they don’t qualify for a GR entry), the hundred-odd pages of mid-19th century American history and 17th-century science my girls and I tackled together, the Scientific American articles, the half a novel that didn’t hold me, the five or six opening chapters I sampled on Kindle, the dozens of picture books enjoyed with my younger three, the lecture transcripts, the Damn Interesting articles, the AV Club reviews. Of course it all counts. It all goes to the shaping of me, the stretching of me. My old book log, the finished-books-only kind, presents a comically, unrecognizably skewed picture. Presents this skewed picture to me, I mean—I’m not supposing that anyone else is troubling themselves about it 😉 —but future me will be much hazier about what riches were crammed in between those gaps in the record, the blank spaces between The Tuesday Club Murders and The Wheel on the School.

I’ll want, you know, to remember how that April (this April) was the month of Donne and Herbert, and of The Secret Garden, and of The Little Fur Family and The Americans (the TV show, not the James novel) and Beginning Theory—how way led to way, and reading up on Donne turned into teaching a poetry class, and how things we were reading in The Story of Science kept cropping up on the new Cosmos the very next night, and vice versa.

Until I began the granular logging in March (was it March?), I hadn’t realized how much reading was happening in the margins. Then I missed a day, and the next day there was more to catch up on, and so on and so on, and there went April. All this to say I’m going to start over (again) and see how long I can keep it up this time—and if I miss a day, I’ll let it go, like a balloon floating away into the sky, and not lose hold of the next day’s balloon in an attempt to retrieve the first.

(But if I remember what color the lost balloons were, I can say so. I remember some of yesterday’s balloons.)

Yesterday I happened upon a long piece called “Selling Henry James,” a Northwestern University professor’s account (in 1990) of his experience teaching a James seminar to undergraduates one quarter. Very enjoyable read. I got there via a Jamesian rabbit trail, which branched off a Virginia Woolf rabbit trail, which started actually last fall (and now I can’t remember why; didn’t log it!) and was rediscovered—oh, gosh, I’m losing track of the meanderings. I’ve been watching these Milton lectures at Open Yale, and I think it may have been something the professor said in one of those that made me jump back to Woolf, and then to Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic, which I’ve never read til now—it took me most of last week to get through the two introductions and the first chapter, but I don’t mean “get through” in a negative sense, it was fiercely interesting reading, and amusing in that I realized, a little way in, that this is the text which most deeply informed the women’s lit class I took in college, though Madwoman itself was never assigned. That was the fall of 1988, fourteen years after Madwoman was published, and our professor was in her first year of teaching. I’ve had fun fitting these pieces of the puzzle together.

Earlier this week, still on the Woolf trail, simultaneous with Madwoman, I landed on this site and read the “Women’s Images in Literature” lectures in their entirety. Mostly for review, but like everyone I have gaps. Came away with yet more books to cram into the impossible queue.

The picture book Huck keeps asking for this week, and which I don’t mind reading over and over—the art is so lush, the colors (deep blue and gold) unusual, and the story sweet—is The Bear’s Song, which I was so glad to see make it to our list of finalists in last year’s CYBILs contest.

Rilla and I are nearly finished with The Secret Garden. Mrs. Sowerby had to conspire to send the children more food today, they’re starving all the time. I don’t want it to end.

The girls and I are on to Robert Burns now, today was “To a Mouse.” I always do “To a Mouse.”

We’ve returned to our French songs—we forgot about them for a while—”Promenons Nous Dans le Bois” and “Les Éléphants” from the on the French for Kids: Cha Cha Cha CD, mostly. And a lot of Robert Burns songs on YouTube, and (for no particular reason) this rendition of Waltzing Matilda.

The Henry James article left me in a James mood (no, I suppose the mood was already creeping over me and that’s why I googled it?) so last night at bedtime I barraged my Kindle with his books, and this morning I fell into The Turn of the Screw, which I’ve never read (I’ve only read Portrait of a Lady, Daisy Miller, and Washington Square) and can’t wait for bedtime tonight so I can (try to) return to it. The parentheses are because I’m still not managing nighttime reading, only crossword puzzles. Two nights ago I tried to read in bed. I remember nothing, but next morning when I opened the Kindle app on my phone, there was the E.M. Forster Collection open to his short story, “The Celestial Omnibus,” which I’d never read before. I fall asleep, and my finger hits the touchscreen, and the next day I find surprises, like this one. Forster was near the top of the library screen because of my binge in March. I read the Omnibus story and the next one, the one about the beech wood, “The Other Kingdom,” I think it’s called?, and then I had to go back and reread the last chapter of Howards End. (A part of me is always rereading the last chapter of Howards End.)

Before I end (with no conclusion), a James note and a James quote. The note is that, settling into (or being inexorably pulled into, I had no choice) Turn of the Screw and working, as one must, to keep up with the twistings of the sentences, I had this sudden rush of comfort—I don’t know how else to put it—of relief, really, in the realization that a thing about Henry James is that you can trust him to get you there in the end. To the end of the sentence, I mean. It’s going to have forty parts but in the end they will all hold together. I didn’t comprehend that the first time I read him, in my twenties. It’s like knowing a piece of music is going to resolve at the end of the phrase. The final chord will bring you back to the ground. Perhaps I’m a more patient reader now (now that I’m resigned to not getting through ALL THE BOOKS), or perhaps I’ve learned enough about craft over the years to know when a writer deserves my confidence. And I mean this observation only about syntax, about style—I don’t expect James to hand me the plot resolution I crave, he made that very clear at the start of our relationship (oh Isabel!)—but I find there’s an unlooked-for joy in trusting him on style.

And the quote: “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.”

In Which I Am Probably Seriously Maligning Henry James

May 16, 2010 @ 8:04 pm | Filed under:

I’m realizing I view Henry James with a degree of suspicion: I have a nagging sense that he looks down on all his characters, despises them a little. He seems to work so hard to make them nuanced and complex and human, but always there’s this faint whiff of condescension—as if, once he’s made them brought them to life, he finds them somewhat repulsive because of the very flaws he has worked so hard to convey.

I don’t know, maybe I’m misreading him. This is all coming out of nowhere, really. Last night I picked up Portrait of a Lady because I thought I was in the mood for some James. The mood had passed by this morning, but last night it was compelling. I started (re)reading Portrait sometime last year; before that I hadn’t read it since college. Last year I got as far as Madame Merle’s entrance and then I thought, ugh, depressing, I don’t want to relive the rest of this. The book made its way back to the shelf.

Last night I tried to find where I’d left off, but the book opened to Chapter 12, when Lord Warburton proposes to Isabel. Reading that scene cold, without the buildup of the previous 90 pages, I was blown away by the—well, by the nuance and complexity and raw human-ness of these characters. James is so patient; if he were a painter he’d be a pointillist, dot dot dot with the brush. Except he wouldn’t be a painter at all: too imprecise: he’d be a sculptor, a Pygmalion chipping out a living, breathing person tap by tap by tap. Only—instead of falling in love with his creation, I think James is a little repulsed by her sweat and spittle.

But that sense of his repulsion comes later, after I put the book down, never while I’m reading. Which makes me wonder if I’m completely making it up. I’ve read next to no lit-crit on James; I have no idea whether this is something the scholars all take as a given, or a brand of foolishness they’d laugh down. I just know he makes me uneasy; somehow I don’t trust him.

But gracious, he can go deep into the mind of a character. This passage is breathtaking:

Isabel herself was upset, but she had not been affected as she would have imagined. What she felt was not a great responsibility, a great difficulty of choice; it appeared to her there had been no choice in the question. She couldn’t marry Lord Warburton; the idea failed to support any enlightened prejudice in favour of the free exploration of life that she had hitherto entertained or was now capable of entertaining. She must write this to him, she must convince him, and that duty was comparatively simple. But what disturbed her, in the sense that it struck her with wonderment, was this very fact that it cost her so little to refuse a magnificent “chance.” With whatever qualifications one would, Lord Warburton had offered her a great opportunity; the situation might have discomforts, might contain oppressive, might contain narrowing elements, might prove really but a stupefying anodyne; but she did her sex no injustice in believing that nineteen women out of twenty would have accommodated themselves to it without a pang. Why then upon her also should it not irresistibly impose itself? Who was she, what was she, that she should hold herself superior? What view of life, what design upon fate, what conception of happiness, had she that pretended to be larger than these large, these fabulous occasions? If she wouldn’t do such a thing as that then she must do great things, she must do something greater. Poor Isabel found ground to remind herself from time to time that she must not be too proud, and nothing could be more sincere than her prayer to be delivered from such a danger: the isolation and loneliness of pride had for her mind the horror of a desert place. If it had been pride that interfered with her accepting Lord Warburton such a betise was singularly misplaced; and she was so conscious of liking him that she ventured to assure herself it was the very softness, and the fine intelligence, of sympathy. She liked him too much to marry him, that was the truth; something assured her there was a fallacy somewhere in the glowing logic of the proposition—as he saw it—even though she mightn’t put her very finest finger-point on it; and to inflict upon a man who offered so much a wife with a tendency to criticise would be a peculiarly discreditable act.

How perfectly he nails Isabel’s discomfort with her own undeniable sense that she is somehow special, meant for extraordinary things. And how viciously honest she is with herself—which makes it all the more painful, later, to see her ignore that earnest inner voice, stubbornly making tragic choices. At least, that’s how I remember it, but it’s been almost twenty years since I read the tragic parts. Oh, Isabel.

It wasn’t until today, when I went to copy out the passage, that I was able to put my finger on the uneasiness I felt as I read this chapter last night—my distrust of James. I am probably being terribly unfair to him. And yet…”she did her sex no injustice in believing that nineteen women out of twenty would have accommodated themselves to it without a pang.” Yow.  That’s a nasty little jab, there, Mr. James. When Austen does that sort of thing, you sense her vast affection for humanity—I’m thinking of Anne’s line in Persuasion: “All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it)….” There’s wryness there, but no disdain. Austen is deeply fond of her characters, and, one senses, the real people who inspire them. James seems quietly scornful of the whole lot of them. It’s like he’s an Iron Chef creating culinary masterpieces with a main ingredient he finds distasteful.