Thursday, March 8, 2012

It was as if for his sake he could consent even to be bored. - some of those early Henry James stories

The other early Henry James stories I read recently (#s 2, 3, 4, and 7) are all, unlike the semi-noir of his first published story, more like what I thought early Henry James would look like.  “A Day of Days” (1866), for example, is about a couple who meet by chance for a single afternoon.  They are attracted to each other, they imagine the possibility of a life together, and even daringly broach the subject, but sensibly agree to pass.  The man is leaving, the very next day, for a long stay in Europe, an artificial source of tension.  So the story is really about the little shifts in conversation and thought that lead the characters to a surprising intimacy.

A problem I have run into before:  when I read the short fiction of a writer, particularly the less famous stuff, am I learning anything in particular about the writer himself, or am I learning about typical magazine fiction of the time?  In my ignorance, I attribute everything at all interesting to James.  Perhaps stories on this theme were common.  I have no idea.  It is a safe but irritating assumption that great writers are less original than I think them.  You likely have them placed better; I am not saying anything about you.

“The Story of a Year” (1865), James’s second story, follows a love affair between young Lizzie and a Union officer.  During his absence, Lizzie’s attention and affections wander, so when he is mortally wounded she is understandably guilty.  The officer dies and Lizzie renounces the handsome and charming Mr. Bruce, who had made her an offer of marriage, forever:

She went to him, took his listless hand, without looking into his wild, smitten face, shook it passionately, and then, wrenching her own from his grasp, opened the gate and let it swing behind her.

“No! no! no!” she almost shrieked, turning about in the path.  “I forbid you to follow me!”

But for all that, he went in.

And that is how the story ends, on that abrupt and ambiguous note.  Not all that ambiguous, I guess, but not entirely sandpapered, either.  The way the story ends on its highest pitch is the most interesting thing in it.  But for all I know most of the stories published in the Atlantic Monthly had similar endings.   Maybe that was the hot thing.

Should I blame James or the typical magazine writing of his time for his dull dialogue scenes?  Arch, mannered, but mostly dull.  Early James is least interesting when he shows, but comes to life when he tells.  The sparkling (and poor) Marian has become engaged to the rich stick in the mud Mr Lennox, early in “The Story of a Masterpiece” (1867):

[S]he was frequently reminded by acquaintances of a moralizing turn that she has reason to be very thankful for Mr Lennox’s choice.  To these assurances Marian listened with a look of patient humility, which was extremely becoming.  It was as if for his sake she could consent even to be bored.

I can imagine James introducing the moralizing acquaintance as a character and working up their dialogue, and am glad he did not.  The becoming look, the “as if” and “even” – this is the James to come, is it not?

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