Friday, March 27, 2015

to sharpen his perception of the ridiculous - James claims Europe

Let’s see, what other Henry James stories did I read that I have not mentioned.

“The Last of the Valerii” (1874).  Almost a fantasy story, a Hawthorne story, a comedy at the expense of Europe.  An American woman marries a Roman Count, who is devoted to her.  There is a trivial conflict about the bride’s Protestantism and the groom’s Catholicism, which is just a screen for the real story, which is that the Roman Count actually worships Roman gods.  He is a pagan.  Those Europeans are as bad as you thought, says James.  On the other hand, James is falling in love with Italy, and who can blame him.  The one “tourist” scene is in the Pantheon, the only Roman monument I have visited myself, which was handy for me:

“This is the best place in Rome,” he murmured.  “It’s worth fifty St Peters’…  Now, only the wind and the rain, the sun and the cold, come down; but of old – of old” and he touched my arm and gave me a strange smile – “the pagan gods and goddesses used to come sailing through it and take their places at their altars.” 

“Madame de Mauves” (1874) also has a naïve American who marries a pagan, this time a corrupt Frenchman:

The Baron was a pagan and his wife was a Christian, and between them, accordingly, was a gulf.

The Baron’s paganism is “the same sort of taste, Longmore moralized, as the taste for Gérôme in painting, and for M. Gustave Flaubert in literature.

That is the judgment of a sexless American loafer  who is too in awe of the perfection of the woman to begin an affair with her.  Some bits of what I quoted may suggest that James thinks he is an idiot.

An early chapter – “Madame de Mauves” is a novella – describing the rich young woman’s education and courtship by the caddish French nobleman is the best thing in the story, which has a lot in common with The Portrait of a Lady which James will write a few years later, having realized, with the assistance of Daniel Deronda, that the interesting point of view is that of the wife who enters into the bad marriage open-eyed.

It is only now sinking in how often James rewrote his own, and other people’s, stories.

In “Eugene Pickering” (1874 – these are all from 1874 – busy writer) the corrupt European is the woman, the American fool hypnotized by the idea of Europe the man.

“Pickering’s unworldly life had not been of a sort to sharpen his perception of the ridiculous” – no, that is what James is here for.  In this story the stakes are much lower than in “Madame de Mauves” so James can have a narrator stand-in  who openly ridicules poor Pickering.

“That’s a polite way of calling me a fool,” said Pickering.  “You are a sceptic, a cynic, a satirist!  I hope I shall be a long time coming to that.”

And despite a hard fall, he does not come to that, being given the gift of innocence by his creator James in spite of the worst Europe can throw at him.

This first collection of James stories is like a flag James has planted in Europe.  “I claim this territory for my fiction.”


  1. And here we have what is special about book blogs: Because of your postings, I have been transformed; my reluctance to engage more fully the work of James has evaporated, and I now am poised to begin reading my Kindle version of the James stories and novellas. Well done!

    1. I continued scared of James; so much by him has bored me. But Tom chooses the bests bits, makes them look awesome, and leaves me feeling bad for not liking him.

  2. There is enough of James - there is so much James - that I imagine even many of his best readers must have their own James. The James of the psychological fantasy story can be made distinct from the writer of the domestic fiction of "Madame de Mauves," even though both stories are built around marriages of American women with European noblemen.

    I am certainly finding the James who writes little puzzles about creativity to be highly appealing. This is the James that Borges liked.