The concerns I expressed yesterday about reading Henry James neurotically were the direct result of reading James neurotically. By discussing my neurosis, I hope to expel it, as with a Freudian talking cure.
My neurotic action was to read the first four stories James published, one from 1864, one from 1865, and two from 1866. Simultaneously he began his career as a book reviewer for magazines. At least I was not neurotic enough to read the book reviews. I went to the library and looked them up in the two Library of America volumes of James’s criticism, but I did not actually read them. So there is that.
I should read good James first, surely? And there was no reason to think that these early works were particularly good. They are not, but I was curious. The problem builds, though, if I next read his fifth story, and then the sixth, and so on, ignoring Washington Square and “The Pupil” because of a meaningless chronology fetish.*
“A Tragedy of Error,” 1864, 25 pages in the old Complete Tales of Henry James Volume 1: 1864-1868, edited by Leon Edel, that is the first Henry James story. James was 21 or 22 when it was published.
We are in “a French seaport town.” A pretty woman receives a letter and faints. The point of view hovers over the woman and a man who is clearly her lover, and in a clever touch shifts, when they return home, not to either of them but to one of the servants:
The cook looked up from her potato-peeling with a significant wink.
“What can it be,” said she, “but that monsieur returns?”
Part II, another shift, to the docks and to a sinister boatman. He steals milk from a little boy! His own nephew. What a bad man. The story spends the next fifteen pages in a conversation between the woman and the boatman as they negotiate the terms of a contract to kill her husband. Then a twist! The end.
To be clear: 60% of the first Henry James story is about an adulterous woman hiring a contract killer to knock off her hapless husband. His first story is a noir, except without all of the shadow imagery. I described the story to ma femme – “It’s Thérèse Raquin,” she exclaimed, and it is, except Zola’s novel was published three years later. Were boat-related murders a common subject in French magazine fiction at the time? Or American? I say French because the story is clearly a French imitation, with Balzac and Mérimée the strongest flavors.
I do not want to claim too strongly that “A Tragedy of Error” is worth reading. I am sure happy to know about it.
Here we have, thanks to Cornell University, the entire issue of Continental Monthly in which it appeared. Let me know if you find anything good.
* Emma of Book Around the Corner, pitying me, has kindly suggested we read Washington Square together, which we will do. Writing may commence in four or five weeks. If anyone else wanted to read along, we have no legal means to stop them. Washington Square is a short one. Thanks, Emma!