Thursday, March 26, 2015

All human life is there - kitsch and tourism in James

I wanted to include some Henry James humor from “The Madonna of the Future,” which I thought was among the funnier James that I’ve read.  How to describe his tone – not exactly withering:

She lived on a fourth floor, and she was not rich; but she offered her visitors very good tea, little cakes at option, and conversation not quite to match.

But a good ding on the hostess.  Subtle.  James, is subtle, yes?  Not always.  Most of the story is about the painter s obsessed with perfection that he produces nothing, but the narrator also has a run-in with the creator of “a peculiar type of statuette” made of “a peculiar plastic compound” of his own invention.  The statuettes “consisted each of a cat and a monkey, fantastically draped, in some preposterously sentimental conjunction.”

“The idea is bold; does it strike you as happy?  Cats and monkeys, – monkeys and cats, – all human life is there!”

James like that last line so much, and I do not blame him, that he later ends the story with it.  The contrast of the idealist painter with this artiste of horrible kitsch is blunt, not subtle, but effective, and funny.

What did I want to mention, besides the monkeys and cats?  The travel writing.  The title story of the 1875 A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Stories has some importance as the beginning of James’s fictional engagement with the big subject of Europe, or of Americans in Europe, and as I noted a couple of years ago it at times literally turns into travel writing, as if for the travel section of the newspaper.  James even switches to second person and present tense in these sections, as if they were written separately and then pasted into the story.

“The Madonna of the Future” integrates the travel writing into the fiction better, but the Florence of the story is the tourist Florence and nothing more.  The David statue, the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace, that’s Florence.  I almost expected the narrator to step into that gelato shop I liked so much.

We lingered often in the sepulchral chapel of San Lorenzo, and watched Michael Angelo’s dim-visaged warrior sitting there like some awful Genius of Doubt and brooding behind his eternal mask upon the mysteries of life.  We stood more than once in the little convent chambers where Fra Angelico wrought as if an angel indeed had held his hand, and gathered that sense of scattered dews and early bird-notes which make an hour among his relics seem like a morning stroll in some monkish garden.

A passage like this is a reminder that the narrator is not quite James, who in his own travel writing would turn the goop down a notch.  The narrator is more susceptible to the beauty-worshipping painter, more of a believer, than James would be, thus allowing the story to function, much as James restricting the settings to the Florence he knew himself makes perfect sense for the story.  The painter’s natural calling was to be not an artist but a tour guide.


  1. Yes, his "travel writing" within fiction is compelling, but I too often find the settings more interesting than the characters, and James would have been disappointed by that kind of a reaction.

  2. His settings would get better than in this story, as he got to know his European cities. The Venice of "The Aspern Papers" feels more full than the tourist Florence he knows here. Given that the only Florence I know is tourist Florence, though, this was fun - I'd been everywhere the characters went.

  3. There's another, very slight, James story that integrates the travel into the fiction - I cannot recall the title, but its schtick has stayed with me for a couple of decades. It involves a character finally getting a long anticipated chance to go to Europe and then, upon arriving in England, learning that he must immediately return to the U.S., without even leaving the harbor where he's landed. It's so cruel. It sticks in my head like a bad dream.

  4. How horrible. That is hilarious. What a good gag.