Thursday, February 4, 2016

too serious for a joke and too comical for anything else - more Henry James comedy - What a place for me to live, who hate arithmetic!

I said James, post-Portrait of a Lady was bringing his Europeanized Americans back to America, but I only quoted an Englishman, a stuffy Member of Parliament.  James was bringing some Europeans over, too, as in “Pandora,” where the protagonist is a German nobleman and diplomat, the perfect combination of education, manners, and complete cluelessness, a good source of laughs, as when he gives a tour of the Capitol building – the one in Washington, D. C., that Capitol – despite the “certain bedaubed walls, in the basest style of imitation, which made him feel faintly sick” and its “lobby adorned with artless prints and photographs of eminent congressmen, which was too serious for a joke and too comical for anything else.”

And there we have a self-description.   “Pandora” is “Daisy Miller” turned inside out and put in reverse, just as claimed at The Little White Attic, “James’s little joke,” especially when a woman in the know warns the German that Pandora, the appealing girl from the title, “should be a Daisy Miller en herbe.”  It is six years after “Daisy Miller,” which was such a hit that James is only distantly referring to his own story at this point.

This Daisy Miller, who is perhaps something else, the self-made girl, “got into society more or less by reading, and her conversations was apt to be garnished with literary allusions, even with sudden quotations.”  Perhaps today’s Pandoras have book blogs.

There are some good jokes about Pandora’s “fat, plain, serious” parents, who “spoke sometimes, but they seldom talked.”  My favorite bit, about the father:

Her husband had a stiff gray beard on his chin, to which constant shaving had imparted a kind of hard glaze.

In “Pandora” the jokes come from James’s comments on his narrators point of view, while in “Impressions of a Cousin” (1883), we get a full-on comic narrator, the semi-Bohemian artist companion of her wealthy, beautiful heroine-like cousin, amusingly unreliable in that she mistakes what is going on around her, mostly which suitors are in love with which suitees.  They have returned to New York City from Europe to review their accounts or something.  The romance in the story is a little thin, but the jokes are good:

…  he asked me why I didn’t try people.  What people? the people in the Fifth Avenue?  They are even less pictorial than their houses.  I don’t perceive that those in the Sixth are any better, or those in the Fourth and Third, or in the Seventh and Eight.  Good heavens! what a nomenclature!  The city of New York is like a tall sum in addition, and the streets are like columns of figures.  What a place for me to live, who hate arithmetic!

The story is trivial, but the narrator is fun.  “I answered – I hardly remember what; but there was a taint of that perversity in it.”  Another self-description.


  1. Narrators' intrusions and asides are always worth noting in older stories and novels, but then people start arguing about narrators' v. authors' identities, and James seems to be ripe for the argument (which I say based on my limited reading of James).

  2. James is sophisticated about different kinds of narration, yes.