Friday, August 28, 2015

Of course she was joking, but there was always something ironical in her jokes - the greatest sentence of Henry James

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)

Yes, exactly.

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.


  1. Are you going on to The Europeans? That seemed more similar to The American than Roderick Hudson, which is interesting and worth reading but a very different kind of book. The Reverberator from ten years later is similar to the farce-like beginning of The American (and a quick read).

    And I hesitate to recommend Watch and Ward again but it does have the kind of slapstick quality combined with luridity – almost a really bad draft of The American.

  2. A bad draft of The American - almost tempting. Sometimes you have to see these things with your own eyes.

    The Reverberator is a real possibility. What a title.

    Anyway, yes, The Europeans is next, although it won't get as much attention as I gave The American.

  3. remarkable, the things i didn't know about james. i've read roderick hudson and sort of enjoyed it but it definitely didn't show any of the characteristics that would emerge in the later novels. have to add to my tbr list, for sure...

  4. Ah, this is funnier James than I remembered. I studied him at college, and didn't cotton much to him until I read Gore Vidal's excellent piece on him - that restored my faith and I read on, until all the energy ran out again. Lately William Gass' essays have tempted me to give another go. And of course it's always a pleasure to read your posts on him.

  5. "There is a great deal of personality in noticing." Quite so. What is left out, what is chosen to include is often fascinating.

    I haven't read Henry James in years (except the ghost stories, which I did read a few years back, at the same time that I read a batch by the other ghost-story-loving James, M. R. James), though I did at one time sail valiantly through stories and novellas and a decent number of novels. Also his book on Hawthorne. Have you read it?

    The pug line is good! (And now we know what they did in a world without kleenex! XD)

  6. I suppose I ought to read Roderick Hudson. I feel like I am getting a handle on early James, pre-Portrait, but I have skipped three (!) novels. He was so prolific. I am happy, though, that no one has been inspired to recommend Confidence (1879).

    "until all the energy ran out" - boy, yes. I am about there. I will have to rest and make another urn at James next year.

    I did not understand James at all when I read him in college. No, I understood "Daisy Miller." But nothing else.

    I have not read Hawthorne. It is tempting. Gee whiz, it is also from 1879 - how on earth did he write so much?

    I love that pug. Could hardly believe what I was reading.

  7. Confidence isn't that good! Even the Library of America couldn't muster enough interest to bother about getting the title right – on their title page of the first collected novels, they have it as The Confidence. But especially coming after The American and The Europeans, it feels like a noticeable dip, James filling pages to make money. There are minor James novels that are entertaining – The Reverberator and The Tragic Muse – but Confidence is lacking interesting characters and an entertaining plot. Don't feel bad about it.

  8. The Confidence - they were hoping they could somehow turn it into a Melville novel.

    1. The Reverberator is funny; it's about journalism and celebrity gossip columns (the book's title is the name of a fictional newspaper). Another good short James novel is The Coxon Fund, which is funny and biting and subtle. It's mature James, 1894. Well worth reading, a poke at the Transcendentalists.

    2. "The Coxon Fund" is a tale, not a novel.

      I am mystified by James's distinctions. I was definitely planning to read "The Coxon Fund" some time. Wasn't so sure about The Reverberator.