Review of Complete Stories 1884–1891 by Henry James

This is 1 out of 5 volumes of James’ complete stories. He wrote 112 tales, and most of them are novella length. There are 17 in this volume. As always, the Library of America editions are well-made, readable, and collectible. 

I reiterate the complaint that their formatting and binding allows each to contain up to 1600 pages, yet the 5 volumes of James’ stories contain around 900 a piece. Obviously, they could have condensed it down to 3 volumes. But why should they when no one calls them out on it?

Henry James in my mind, is the polar opposite of Elmore Leonard. Leonard set out a rule stating you must never use any dialogue tags except “said”- James uses a variety of them, and garnishes them with rampant flourishes. James is not concerned with how much bookshelf space he occupies. He has an expansive, breathy, literary, meandering style, describing circles around his subject, zeroing in after pages of suggestion and scrutiny. He is fond of certain subjects and rarely deviates from them: The warring sexes, battling spouses, and American versus English life. A prime example is “The Modern Warning.”

The depiction of his setting is often immaculate but not the chief concern. The plot may hinge on the micro-betrayals of a cutting word. A ceaseless flow of internal monologues occupy most of the literary real estate. Immense quantities of descriptive prose contend with droll conversational jousting for the reader’s presumed limitless attention span. The stories can be summed up by asking the questions: Whom should they marry? How should they arrange the marriage? When should they marry? And very occasionally, WHAT should they marry?

This conclusion is disconcerting to me, having read 1500 pages of James so far. It constitutes a psychological obsession with marriage perhaps, with enough window dressing to pass for high-class social commentary.

Other commonalities would be: The acquisition of a fortune. (Not what to do with it.) The complete absence of children from the affairs of cultured life. (Brief episodes once every 1000 pages are the exception.) In a previous review I called James ‘an acquired taste,’ but he is more of an acquired madness.

He can be charming when he wants to be. The only problem is he very often does not want to be. See the beginning of “The Solution.” Notice how the humor drops off midway through, and the haze of bleary commentary interferes like the reader’s psychopomp, bloating the atmospheric story into a thin retread of tired themes encased in a blimp-like, unmemorable whole.

Did James really hold the view that an inescapable preoccupation with marriage and its attendant responsibilities constituted the determining factors of the worth and estimation of a life? Why did he write so many uneventful pages, if not?

You are supposed to perceive the subtle shifts in character, the subtext under every line of dialogue. It is impossible for me not to come to dismal, though thought-provoking conclusions while reading James. My mind wanders at times, but if it stayed riveted to the page, I am not so sure that the indistinct shapes thereon would be of more value than my own unmoored ramblings. I don’t need happy endings, but how much more interesting would these tales be with a stabbing or a strangling sprinkled in? How about a rabid dog? A runaway carriage with an infant inside. Battered brains on the cobblestones. A burning building and a half-clad adolescent woman dangling from a smoldering window. A skeleton in a closet. A crucified werewolf in the attic. Satanic aliens with a propensity for making bone broth from human corpses. Instead, someone upset a tea tray in one of the stories and my heart went wild. I was sweating bullets.

He can come up with startlingly beautiful observations on the human condition. In some cases he displays a lack of religiosity and thankfully refrains from didactic tone. James may be the most sophisticated romance writer of all time. His romances are not physical, they are psychological, and they deal very much with love. With great powers of elocution, he delivers well-rounded representations of conceit, vanity, pride, jealousy, envy, greed, desire, fascination, idolatry, passivity, boldness, impertinence, perplexing meanness, irreverence, and reverence. He provides life lessons from a grand old man suffering from, as he described it, portentous corpulence. A bit of this condition maligns his stories, but they endure through sheer gravity, gustatory bravado, with baritone Baroque cadence, grandiosity, and purposeful elegance.

What goes unsaid is often as crucial as the stated. Among other things, they are: A look into the lives of intellectuals, personal passions, arduous examinations of the psychological convolutions involved with betrothal extrapolated at obscene length, the concerns predicated upon the central ceremony of fussy ladies’ lives when much of the time their youth and therefore their worth, is spent.

In the end, these stories lack variety, imagination, concision, and interest as far as I am concerned. Why not read Kipling, Dickens, Lawrence, Woolf, and Twain. The correct answer is you must read them all. Oddly, I get some of the Jamesian vibe when I read Thomas Wolfe. Both of them said screw you to active verbs and cherish their adjectives like their virginity. I appreciate many aspects of James’ craft but too many of his characters come off as the same or very similar to one another. The behavioral outliers are interesting. There are many strong examples of dialogue and description interspersed in the vast seas of psychological interplay, which infringed on my patience. Upper class young people, their foolish transgressions, faux pas, the consequences of disobedience of tradition. Waiting for life’s problems to resolve. The souring of relationships. Big deal.

When I got to “The Liar,” I was amazed. It was an exception to the marriage theme. I recommend this story for that reason.; “Georgina’s Reasons” was compelling, and I had some fun with “The Aspern Papers.” The others felt like slow radiation burn.

This volume is an expansive survey of the various entrapments offered by privileged, white, landed life. Pleasures and ennui, aesthetic pursuits, beauty of the soul, even if the soul of wit is lost. A rather dry and closed-minded view of successful engagements. James is too constrained by his method at times. His prose stylings read like paint by numbers – about 2/3 of the time. Circuitous, hydra-headed sentences lack relevance, yet sustain breathless momentum, accumulating tension like fog trapped in glass. He is excavating the ore of human emotion with pebble-pinching tweezers.

The trouble courtship entails, the subtleties of human interrelations, the daunting prospect of spending one’s life with another. Most of the fun comes from the vivid descriptions and basking in the endless sprawl of slowly unveiled ambience. Earning love, attaining social status, the impediment and propulsion of finance, dense descriptions of mansions and the way people dress, crippling propriety, how to live well by society’s standards, the hidden motives underlying attraction and association, conniving relatives, living your own life, mastering your fate, the pleasure of defiance, the many differences between men and women – at least in terms of behavior in this time period. The gloomy prospect of future downturns, the inevitability of tragedy. He is capable of compressed storytelling, but he chooses the scenic route more often. His characters have a habit of dying of brain fever with alarming frequency. The corrupting influence of money works its way in like an earwig, the psychological strain of enduring the association of other people is most unsavory. Slaves of circumstances, aren’t we all?

The subtle art of making love in the 19th century sense of the term. The drama of class expectations, endless analysis of social mores. You can be an old maid at 29. Peoples’ preoccupation with the accomplishments of their rivals. How love can turn to abhorrence. Perceptions color our emotions. Seeking legitimacy, validation, and a sense of community in what are considered worthy pursuits, security, passion, discontent, faith in oneself.

The florid contexts, calculated gestures of spite and petty malice, the fruitful verbosity, rickety moral palaces, problem-ridden households, stiff, creaking, detached, impressionistic, waxen mannikins in wall-papered sitting rooms, rather than human beings. Why does James take such a clinical, ascetic, hands-off approach to narration? Epic landscape renderings, in majestic prose, makes for some lucid evocations of time and setting.

Social intimacy, delicacy, and refinement, cultivating a milieu, solicitousness.
A major problem: The dearth of metaphor, figurative language, and simile. A general absence of exaggeration and sarcasm. I had to search 108 pages to find a single example:

“I should as soon think of fanning myself with the fire-shovel.”

Dialogue sometimes breathes life into a mummified chapter, so brittle and uninteresting for its hermetic barrenness of event, plot, or action, mere summaries entombed by geometrically sound sentences. Aphorisms abound, with a dictionary-like authority. Immense literalness. A master of circumlocution, interior expression, his many shuddering stoppages and lurching starts,

Daubing impressions, this evasive meandering, should we sit around complaining about obtaining approval from our betters like these many examples, in their stately boudoirs? – It is almost a crime for a young woman to be ugly. See “The Path of Duty.” A woman’s duty is to marry, but more importantly, to marry well. The selfish exercise of marriage. One “takes” a husband or a wife. But the worst crime someone can commit is being poor. Such sickeningly old-fashioned frameworks for overused tales. Such high-maintenance characters, people arranging their lifestyles around an impending inheritance, the development of character within fine ladies and conniving men as a result of the grease of money injected into the system.

“The Lesson of the Master” contains some of his best soliloquys. Pondering the nature of the muse, the duty of the writer, the scope of craft, perfection, seeking intellectual cultivation, the translation of those efforts into communicable products. The elusive sense of accomplishment at the arrival at the ideal. How to exist in such a tumultuous collective of inscrutable souls putting forth effort to make something of one’s meager span of years, sacrifice, devotion, imperfection as death, the artist’s dream, his modus operandi, passing on a legacy, life, family, obligations, all interfere with perfection and its pursuit. What constitutes divine art, women as idols, muses, altars, comfort, advantage, the standards of men, the practice of living, the relations between rivals, genius and happiness, limitations and torment, assurance and improvement.

Contempt for the unmarried, and the lower classes pervades everything he wrote, as does money worship, contempt for willful women, foreigners, for the ordinary and unremarkable. Worst weakness of all though: the unconscionable number of gesticulations between speech bubbles. A microscopic play-by-play of twitching mustaches and flickering eyes, hands fluttering, twisting and wafting, lips trembling, eyes glistening, mouths ejaculating. And what is the reward for sitting through his twenty-hour documentary of silly conversations about bored almost-married rich bastards?

For some inexplicable reason, reading James seems to rewire the brain, allowing for a recharged creative, mechanical unfurling of prose in the mind’s inner awareness of language.

I would like to end by pointing out that he is fond of the words ‘interlocutress’ and ‘tergiversation.’

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