Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A poorish story in three numbers - looking over Washington Square

Back thisaway, while I was idly speculating that I might someday read a word or two more of the writing of Henry James, Emma of Book Around the Corner suggested that I read Washington Square (1880).  Son article fait ici.

Her suggestion was a kind one.  First, Washington Square turns out to lightly borrow some of its plot and structural features from the greatest Balzac novel, Eugénie Grandet (1833), which was a treat.  Second, the novel is so easy to read.  Where are the heavy, twisty, foggy James sentences of legend?  In other books, I know – heavy James is a strange beast, but a real one.  Washington Square is friendly by design:  only four major characters, paired off in every variation, plus a witty narrator with a light touch; chapters just a few pages long, 35 of them in a 196 page book; huge quantities of springy dialogue; almost no descriptive passages.

A reader over-familiar with Wuthering Expectations might wonder if the last two items on that list are included in an entirely friendly spirit.  They do make the book a breeze to read.

Dr. Sloper, quick and clever, perhaps poisoned by his ironic view of the world; his adult daughter Catherine, plain and dull; her suitor Morris, who is interested in Catherine’s money, yes, but how interested, or exactly why, there is a mystery for a novelist to explore; a pushy aunt who lives vicariously through her niece.  Every pair of characters is interesting – the open enmity between the protective doctor and the sly suitor, for example, or the aunt’s open pursuit of Morris in the name of her niece.

Catherine is the center, though, Catherine struggling with everyone else.  The true characters of the doctor and Morris and Aunt Lavinia are revealed to the reader when they knock up against each other, even as they conceal themselves from each other.  Catherine’s character is revealed and changes.  One of the changes is that, like the reader, she learns to read the other characters correctly.  Catherine turns out to be more complex than she first seemed; everyone else turns out to be as narrow, or narrower.

The “pure essence of great literature,” Emma calls the novel.  I believe this is what she means – correct me, please!  A few characters and a minimal plot are all that a perceptive writer needs to make original and exciting discoveries.

One strong dissenter from Emma’s judgment was Henry James.  He is writing to William Dean Howells:

What is your Cornhill novel about?  I am to precede it with a poorish story in three numbers – a tale purely American, the writing of which made me feel acutely the want of the “paraphernalia.”

From Letters: Vol. II 1875-1883 (1975), ed. Leon Edel, Jan. 31, 1880, p. 268.  I want to return to the “paraphernalia” later.  It was clear, poking around in the letters, that James had quickly moved on, in his imagination, to his next book, The Portrait of a Lady, a big and ambitious book, a reputation-maker.  Still, “poorish” is pretty funny.  Emma is a lot closer to the truth than James.

Emma – anyone, I guess – what else should I write about?  The money, definitely.  There is something funny going on with the money.  I want to revisit James’s detail work.  And that leaves an open day.  Should I Queer the novel?  Does anyone still talk about that?  This book turns out to be an easy one.  Suggestions welcome, although I promise nothing.  great choice, Emma!


  1. It was a pleasure to read this novel along with you. It's nice to discuss a book with someone who has it fresh in their mind.

    Fascinating excerpts from James' letters. We are poor judges of our work, aren't we? It seems he wrote Washington Square without trying too hard to achieve a masterpiece. It's like Paul McCartney writing Yesterday in a night, on impulse.

    " A few characters and a minimal plot are all that a perceptive writer needs to make original and exciting discoveries."
    Yes, that's what I meant. No need for complicated sentences, crazy twists and turns or long descriptions.

    Now that I think of it, the money is a character in itself. So many things said and done in its name. It's a weapon, a bait, an obstacle.


  2. An irony: James was writing Washington Square to achieve a masterpiece. The masterpiece was The Portrait of a Lady! He wrote WS as well as The Europeans and Confidence in order to cash in a little on the surprise success of "Daisy Miller" and to raise funds to live on while writing his big book.

    I have got to get moving on this "money" issue. It is pretty darn interesting. Let's see if I can convince anyone else of that.

    Thanks for the invitation!

  3. I try to recover form the shock of seeing Eugénie Grandet called the greatest Balzac novel... Maybe I would have to go back to your post and find out if that's really what you meant. Of course I disagree, for me it's and will always be either Les illusions perdues seen as a stand alone and Le père Goriot seen as part of La comédie humaine.
    I have made the same experience with all of the Henry James novels I've read so far (3 or 4.) They were very readable, no twisty sentences. I guess The Wings of the Dove and/or Ambassadors might be more like that.

  4. Of course that's what I really meant! Most artfully constructed, best written. The same standards I apply to everything. I do not really make the case for EG in that post, though - I just go out for a stroll in the book.

    James thickens as he ages. The Turn of the Screw (1898), for example, is much twistier. First sentence:

    "The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case
    he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child."

    It as written as James talked.

    1. Balzac most certainly has some badly constructed books, usually the longer ones like Splendeurs et misères but Illusions perdues, for a long novels, is very well constructed and well written.
      I cannot remember The Turn of the Screw... I only remember it was the only one of his books I found tedious. Maybe the writing was part of that reaction.

  5. I didn't see that. Lost Illusions looks like a ragbag. The history of paper-making over here, a mysterious priest with a bag of gold over there, a lot of this and that. Most of the "this and that" is quite interesting.

    I would love to read a defense of the book, an explication of its principle of construction. Just because I could not see it does not mean it is not there. It is easy to convince me!

  6. You mean construction from a thematical point of view?
    I will not be able to write that defense unless I re-read it but that's not going to happen any day soon. There are still too many books by him I haven't read.
    I wonder if the translation did mess up Les illusions perdues. If you compare them to Splendeurs et misères - and that makes sense as they belong together - then it's a work of perfection almost.
    In any case, I'm in good company, Proust thought that Les illusion perdues was Balzac's best work.

  7. Sure, thematic - any clever thing Balzac does with the organization of the novel. How he weaves details in and out - that's the really hard & rare stuff.

    (Note: you don't have to write the defense! But maybe you know of one.)

    I remember Splendeurs et misères as being more coherently structured, not less, in the manner of a grand opera. Crazy, but clear enough in its thematic movement.

    The combination of Goriot, Lost Illusions, and Splendeurs et misères is an amazing and unprecedented work of art - and then add in the appendices, the other directly related "Human Comedy" stories. It's unbelievable!

    I have the exact same argument or valuation of Proust's work. The "Cambrai" section of Swann's Way towers over the rest of his work, going by the same kind of standards that lead me to prefer Grandet.

  8. Very interesting discussion.
    Follow Guy's blog, he's reading La Comédie Humaine, he'll come to it sooner or later.

    PS: I think that Le Temps retrouvé is the best of La Recherche, at least that's what I thought when I first read it. I still have two volumes before I read it again, and I'm a bit reluctant as I didn't like La Prisonnière and Albertine Disparue.Who knows what my response will be this time?

  9. The long ending of Le Temps retrouvé is fantastic. That's the one I still need to re-read. The two short Albertine novels are the weakest - I agree with you there.

    I have had Guy's blog in the ol' Google Reader for years.

  10. Great work. I couldn't get on to comment earlier. Not sure why. The main thing I was going to suggest that might be worth thinking about is the fact that Dr. Sloper is just that, a doctor. I like to keep my eye out for that profession in 19th century literature, how it's practiced and what it means, and how the subject stacks up against some of the other doctor characters out there. It seems especially interesting that Sloper is conservative, close-minded, and limited, which seems to go against the grain, as medical men and men of science are usually thought to be more enlightened. And the doctor/father and daughter construct is also rather extraordinary. Sloper seems, if I recall, to underestimate Catherine because he believes she has an inferior mind, and isn't capable of being an intellectual companion. And I wonder if there's a Henry James Sr/Alice James commentary going on here, as the Father was a bit of a crackpot, no? Brother William devoted himself to making up for that, of course.

  11. I would have to go back and look into this but not all of Balzac's novels were serialized. Splendeurs was and you can see it, there are cuts and repetitions and it's not well written. Les illusuions perdues however, wasn't written for a newspaper ( I can be wrong but at the time I think, the difference in writing did surprise me a lot).
    I know, I don't have to write the defense...I think I got one somewhere.... Will have to hunt and come back.

  12. I thought Splendeurs was not serialized but published in 4 volumes. Maybe the contents of those volumes were serialized.

    At some point I guess I will have to be more precise about what I mean by "structure" and "well written" - although what else am I doing at Wuthering Expectations?

    Feel free to refer me to authority - "Erich Auerbach argues..." I know you think critics are frauds and con men, but I don't.

    zhiv - you have provided a list of things I do not know much about. Doctors in literature, Alice James. My experience with doctors and scientists is not that they are particularly open-minded about questionable characters marrying their daughters.

  13. Jean Strouse wrote a nice biography of Alice James. It's only about 300 pages, so a quick read, and a nice sidelight on some of these things.

  14. I am interested in the Strouse book, but it seems perverse to read it before, say, the one volume Edel biography of Hank, Jr., not to mention a lot more of James's writing.