Review of Great Short Works Of Henry James by Henry James

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.

Review of The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

It is very unlikely that anyone would be able to articulate as well as Henry James himself did his intentions and method of writing The Portrait of a Lady in his New York Edition Preface, which was included in my Penguin edition. For this reason I recommend the edition over the Library of America version, or any other which lacks the Preface. 

He describes the building of his novel-cathedral as an effort of placing brick upon brick. Truly, each brick is well-moulded, carven with impressions of great interest to the reader of 19th-Century fiction. Henry James is very much of that particular century a paramour, if not the Demi-god, who employed all known instruments of the human intellect to construct a virtual portrait of several character archetypes in prose which seems in itself alive, even as it confounds with its arabesques, its circumlocutions, and its encumbrances. That there is any question whether it is relevant or readable is a testament to the author’s inscrutable style – an acquired taste if there ever was one. Insinuating that he utilized a large number of superfluous words is unnecessary. One acquainted with James should know that words were more of a malleable clay, the mere molecules of the organisms he crafted.

The Portrait of a Lady is as overwrought and sumptuous as anything else he wrote – a judgement based solely on the 1500 pages from his oeuvre I’ve thus far read. It is simple of plot and complex of texture. It is a potent and aromatic tincture. Only a refined connoisseur might pick out all its manifold emanations and insinuations. ****Trigger Warning **** There is quite a lot of gratuitous syntax in this book – but mentioning this again is extraneous. Furthermore, he is fond of the emdash. —As am I. I might also warn the reader that the level of obsession with the institution of marriage goes beyond unhealthy into the territory of the uncanny, even – dare-I-say – into the obscene. It was a common practice around this time for pudgy, well-leisured, stocky, balding, over-educated men to write of nothing else. James was perhaps leader and prime advocate for this cause. In fact the subtleties of his fictional universe might all trace their gravitational attraction to this central source. Put simply, this is a book about marriage. Women, according to the characters in this novel, had a duty to marry, and above all, to marry well. She, as a species, was capable of little else, one might gather from James’s theories. Isabel, our central character, throws a wrench into this mechanistic worldview – at least for a good half of the novel. She remains a captivating character nonetheless, as do even the least woke of James’s brainchildren.

Of course, the characters have no day jobs to trouble them. Not a single one of them has worked a day in his or her life. Their time is amply consumed sniveling and braying, offering a grotesque variety of overarching societal observations. The commentary is in large part as spinsterish as was James. The discussions are speculations and measurements upon the manifestations of propriety, also stipulating upon the various measures of men and women within the household – which in itself is a vehicle of procreation – and yet this facet of human existence, i.e. sex, was apparently a vast, unknowable mystery to our poor author. All of this immanent melodrama is inflicted unfairly upon the unsuspecting natives of the trendy European locales frequented by our players. They cannot spend their money fast enough. It flows like manna. Nor can they hope to inherit enough for their needs. James is so phobic of bachelorhood, so consumed with the importance of marriage, one wonders if he was at all a fisherman of eligible women, if he was not the most eligible of them all.

Furthermore, the story is not of much concern here, but the people are. James is capable of tenderness, as well as a lot of snideness. His powers of dialogue are only equalled by his extraordinary description. This novel offers ample prestidigitation in that regard. You will not tire of viewing the landscape he has painted, if you can stand the people in the foreground. Above all, this is a masterpiece of elocution, enlarging upon the above-mentioned questions and tensions, arising from quite natural human associations. The verisimilitude is a superstructure upon the underlying themes. The flabby sentences take on weight as they accumulate, barreling forward in that Jamesian snowball, until they finally hit home, touching upon the elusive natures of our fellow sufferers, gracing that beautiful pinnacle of textual refinement, sought after by such purveyors of the experimental mode as David Foster Wallace. No one else approaches James in my opinion when it comes to thick and rich adornment. The superhuman powers of articulation were possibly James’s forte, if not his charm.

Look for the clear signs of faith in the study of physiognomy. Bask in the splendor of the author’s rhetorical aplomb as his inexhaustible sea of atmospheric minutiae congregates into a finely stippled rendering of moral ambiguities. Relish the witty banter, envy the swaggering Lord Warburton as he fulfills what you suspect will be a major role in the heroine’s life. This is an idyllic document of great power, if one can weather the grueling mental maneuvers required to keep pace. At bottom, it asks whether marriage is a prison or the relief from a meaningless existence. It would be a pity if James never defined the answer in his own case.