Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A villa, a carriage, a piano and a banjo - detail in James

The smart thing to do would be to expand – or, honestly, rewrite – yesterday’s business about how Henry James sometimes allows ambiguities that other writers telling similar stories would close off, whether to satisfy convention or to show off their cleverness.  I have a strong taste for writers in the latter group, so this is a reason I do not always read James so well.  I am looking for the wrong kind of clues and solving the wrong mystery.  Failing to solve, of course.  But I will save this for “The Figure in the Carpet.”

Now I will mention a characteristic of James that I think is related, his maddening physical vagueness, which unfortunately intersects another strong taste for the opposite.  Neither of these are merely tastes, but well-defined, justifiable aesthetic positions, but that is irrelevant for this whine about the difficulties of reading James.

The fixed observer of “The Pupil” is a tutor who becomes entangled with a slippery, almost devious family, the Moreens, rich enough to lounge around Europe as long as they occasionally skip town ahead of their creditors.  The tutor is not the narrator but is what D. G. Myers calls a “third-person onlooker,” an outsider who observes only pieces of the family’s eventful story and does not comprehend everything he does see.  The real story, the important one, is the deep friendship between the tutor and his sickly, sensitive pupil and the alliance they form against the boy’s horrible family, so of course the tutor’s point of view is perfect for all of that, even if it is a story taking place “backstage” in some sense.

A description of the chaotic family, part of it, early in “The Pupil”:

They lived on macaroni and coffee—they had these articles prepared in perfection—but they knew recipes for a hundred other dishes.  They overflowed with music and song, were always humming and catching each other up, and had a sort of professional acquaintance with Continental cities.  They talked of “good places” as if they had been pickpockets or strolling players.  They had at Nice a villa, a carriage, a piano and a banjo, and they went to official parties.  (718)

Now, there is a lot to like here, obviously.  Strolling players!  A banjo!  One of the marriageable daughters even strums it a bit later.  Henry James is not typically described as efficient, is he?  But this is pretty crisp.  The tutor “once found [the father] shaving in the drawing room.”  They all mix their French and Italian with “cold, tough slices of American.”  It takes just one long paragraph to pump the Moreens full of life.

But the description remains at this level.  Scenes are almost entirely conversation, sometimes but not always with a few words to establish the setting.  James is specific when generalizing, and general when specific.

Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901) begins with a long party scene in which Mann describes what every character is wearing, where they are sitting in relation to each other, the furniture they sit on, plus all of the other furniture, and also the paintings and wallpaper.

He wore a cinnamon jacket with broad lapels and leg-of-mutton sleeves that closed tight just below the wrist.  His fitted trousers were of a white, washable fabric and trimmed with a black stripe down each side.  The silk cravat wound around his stiff high-wing collar was fluffed to fill the broad, open neck of his multicolored vest.  (5, tr. John E. Woods)

Maybe this all becomes pointlessly fussy as the novel goes on, I don’t know.  Mann demands that I see that pair of pants; James rarely wants me to see anything.  He fills his fiction with imaginative blank spaces.  And he does it on purpose, he says so openly.  But that is “The Figure in the Carpet,” so it will have to wait until tomorrow.


  1. Well, certainly writers like Mann or Nabokov give the reader more focused (and plentiful) details of setting and character description (even in a short novel like Mary, VN pauses to tell you what furniture is in each room of the pension and what everyone wears, and there's that long description of Ganin's boyhood room, right down to the design on the wallpaper), but I think writers like that also have more focused or maybe pointed goals for their fiction. I adore James, but certainly it's built up from a lot of gray areas and it seems that he's more interested in nudging the reader in the general direction of an emotion than he is in making claims about truth or whatever. I'm not quite sure what I mean, no. But certainly HJ is going after a different end than other writers, so the minutia of changing moods are ever so closely observed while a lot of the external world is ignored. But on the other hand, in The Ambassadors, there's a lot of architecture and countryside. It seems to me that Portrait of a Lady has a lot of setting and dress styles, too. So, umm, hmm.

  2. One reason why it seems like James does not want us to see anything is because many of his stories are traps, and concealment is necessary for him to catch us unawares. In the words of Oscar Wilde 'wonderful, lurid, poisonous little tales'.

    Or in The Master's own words about The Turn of the Screw: 'an amusette to catch those not easily caught (the 'fun' of the capture of the merely witless being ever but small) the jaded, the disillusioned, the fastidious'.

    Needless to say, the fish on the hook don't find the experience particularly amusing.

    1. Yeah, one can almost read James as if he wrote detective stories. He lays out clues and hides other stuff behind elaborate screens, often made of the ignorance of his characters.

      Lambert Strether is another good narrator in the vein of DG Myers' recent post: the big family drama takes place right behind him, almost invisibly. He's the only person in the novel who thinks he's at the center of the action, while the family knows he's just an errand boy. It takes a long time for that to become clear to the reader.

  3. These remarks are so helpful. First, they suggest that I am actually getting my dang point across. I was not at all sure. Second, they contain good ideas.

    I'll note that not all James fiction has seemed so wide open. Washington Square and The Spoils of Poynton certainly were not. "Daisy Miller"? No way, no way. Or I failed to see their openness! All too possible.

    Nabokov is creating actual, discernible figures in his carpets, figures that magically transform into other figures. James seems to be - well, I should wait to write about "The Figure in the Carpet," which is the radical example, the one where the gray areas turn out to conceal pits and the clues are all false. I kick down the screens to find more screens, recurring forever.

    I am the fish, boy am I. Ouch, my lip! Yet in another sense I am amused by it all, too. Good one Henry, tell me another.

    So there's little Flaubert-like stuff - in this later set of stories James is turning into Borges. It is awfully disorienting.

  4. AR(T), good point about James turning into Borges.
    Borges himself was a great fan of James' little traps: 'I've frequented some literatures from the the East and the West, I compiled an encyclopedic anthology of fantastic literature, I translated Kafka, Melville and Bloy, and yet, I do not know of any books more mysterious than the work of Henry James. The writers I listed before are weird from their very first sentence; the universe, as portrayed on their pages, is almost professionally unreal. James, on the other hand, before we realize that he is a resigned and ironic chronicler of Hell, runs the risk of seeming another ordinary and banal writer.

  5. I had read that, or something similar, from Borges, but I will confess that until the last couple of weeks I had no idea what he was talking about.

    I had even read "The Figure in the Carpet" twenty - hmm - twenty-five years ago. Right over my head, I guess.

  6. Imaginative blank spaces - excellent, Tom. It's the incompleteness of the narrator's vision, the partial pov that tells, the angled view. Surfaces & hidden depths. Traps, too, as suggested. Stimulating post & discussion - thanks

  7. I hope to return to James soon, but to earlier James, not this tricky, without this many traps.

    James is a really interesting writer to trace over time. That, at least, I have figured out.