Without further reading, a comprehensive view of James cannot be gained from 6 of his short novels. He is one of those authors: namely, no matter how many of his books you power through, there is always an infinite amount of reading left to do, like Trollope and Dickens. Your shelves will collapse if you try to collect it all.
I took this compendium to be a good place to start, though I battled my way through Watch and Ward years ago, only to discover that James swore on a stack of bibles he never wrote it in later life. What you get here are: Daisy Miller, The Aspern Papers, Beast in the Jungle, Turn of the Screw, The Pupil, and Washington Square. I don’t care if James called these nouvelles, Washington Square is a full-length novel. The others are still long. He was incapable of writing short short stories, it seems.
Tempting as it is to call James old fashioned with his two first names and tireless scribbling, I will do my best to outline the pluses and minuses of embarking on the endless journey of reading him.
Starting with the minuses:
His literary texture is too stiff.
Too many adverbs, subordinate clauses, way too much use of passive voice, weak verbs, unspecific words like “thing” cropping up with high frequency, too loquacious. He describes around subjects, instead of nailing them to the page with any sort of precision. Use of filler words, like I tend, sometimes, I think, perhaps, to do, occasionally, one might say, in some of my typical, so-called, reviews. Reading him can be like drinking diluted tea, if you get out of bed in the morning craving the rare lightning strikes of mot juste. The dialogue is grossly inefficient, and he can take things a little slow, plodding around the fancy garden of his subject matter, never calling a spade a spade. Too many similes, repetition, and so forth. His choice of subject is rather safe, rather too polite, as if he were writing with his pinkie extended. He is careful only to insinuate, instead of telling it to you straight, and why would he risk doing anything wild, like that foolhardy bloke D. H. Lawrence? Finally, the dialogue for different characters contain the same diction – they all sound like H. James.
There are pluses, in case you were wondering. In fact, there are many reasons to read James.
His style creates cumulative force and inescapable tension. He is not limited to one style. The stories do not read the same. They build into their own consistency, constructing a world out of ornate language. Washington Square, for instance, is a powerful romance, a heartfelt character study, and much more. The narration can be forceful, and he achieves massive character depths with ample, weighty, dense cumulonimbi of descriptive paragraphs, looming over the atmospheric setting. This descriptive power is masterful, immersive and accounts for much of the nuance and sophistication of the tales.
The dialogue might take a little getting used to for modern readers. It seems to rely on revealing meaning gradually through the stressed elocutions of distressed minds, of suggestive minds. He explores the vulnerability of innocence, the stubbornness of old people, the toll of experience, is concerned chiefly with the privileged classes and enchanted by Europe’s locales: London, Paris, Italy, etc., probably since he spent most of his life abroad.
Let’s not beat around the bush any longer. Henry James was a towering genius. So what if he liked to dress up his stories with eccentric, absurd levels of detail? Maybe he is long-winded, but he had things to say – not all at once, mind you – but plenty of grand statements in the offing. Both a pioneer and an old school automaton, James will challenge and enlighten you.
Washington Square and Daisy Miller were my favorites from this collection. Essentially explications of the relationships between men and women, the courting period of life, and extending these verbal jousting matches into maturity, and spinsterhood. There is some groveling, and a character even raises his voice once or twice. These two stories were brilliant for many reasons, and did not rely on plot to carry them to moving conclusions.
The remainder of the stories require much unpacking. They were dense, vaguely unpleasant, ripe with the same tension I felt while reading “Heart of Darkness” but not nearly as interesting to me. Perhaps I’ll reread them after a few thousand pages of James have passed before my jaded eyes.