He stooped and picked up the pug, lifted it to his face and wiped his eyes on its little soft back. (The American, Ch. 25)
Easily the greatest single sentence I have found in Henry James. Context does it no harm, but I will just note that it is from near the end of The American, not the more goofy beginning. There have been deaths, heartbreak, betrayals , renunciation – “serious” stuff. The protagonist Newman has become a new man, almost but not quite wrecking himself against old, cruel Europe. Yet James can still have an old man use a dog as a handkerchief.
Of course she was joking, but there was always something ironical in her jokes, as there was always something jocular in her gravity. (Ch. 10)
I was surprised by the genuine grotesques in The American:
Madame de la Rochefidèle had an aged, cadaverous face, with a falling of the lower jaw which prevented her from bringing her lips together, and reduced her conversations to a series of impressive but inarticulate gutturals. She raised an antique eyeglass, elaborately mounted in chased silver, and looked at Newman from head to foot. Then she said something to which he listened deferentially, but which he completely failed to understand. (Ch. 12)
Proust would have been happy with this character. Then there are the Wildean lines I have mentioned before:
Between him and Newman, his whole manner seemed to declare there could be no interchange of opinion; he was holding his breath so as not to inhale the odor of democracy. (Ch. 13)
I am tempted to put in something from the obese duchess, too. These examples have all been at the expense of the French nobility, who lend themselves to grotesquerie. Who would really know if James was exaggerating; who would have ever met any of them? I am only guessing myself.
“Madame de la Rochefidèle says that she is convinced that she must have seen Americans without knowing it,” Madame de Cintré explained. Newman thought it probable she had seen a great many things without knowing it… (Ch. 10)
The two strains of jokes are combined, by Newman himself, which suggests that the narrator has been seeing what his character is seeing and hearing what he is hearing. In other words, one way Newman loses his blankness is that I am allowed to notice what he notices. There is a great deal of personality in noticing.
Now a sentence that I was surprised to find in James for other reasons – Newman is trying to persuade a Frenchman to avoid a duel:
“I don't say you are the most useful man in the world, or the cleverest, or the most amiable. But you are too good to go and get your throat cut for a prostitute.” (Ch. 17)
Most shockingly, the character referred to is not actually a prostitute, but more of a kept woman. Newman can be direct. Henry James, famously evasive, can be direct, or could at one point in his life. He wrote to William Dean Howells that William James, reading the serial in the Atlantic, was shocked – “he speaks of some phrases (on Newman’s part) as being so shocking as to make the ‘reader’s flesh creep’” (Library of America edition, p. 1271). The example given as objectionable, though. is Newman calling a woman “a high class of goods.” I will never quite understand this sensibility.
Is there more James like The American? Are there more James sentences like the one with the damp pug? I doubt it. So next I try some different James, similar yet different.