“I sometimes think in effect you’re incapable of anything straightforward.” (Ch. 31)
The Awkward Age (1899) is the most difficult Henry James text I have ever read, and I predict the hardest I will ever read. It is a genuine avant-garde performance. I think it is the most difficult 19th century novel I have read (edit and second thought: most difficult novel in prose).
The novel is primarily in the form of speech, mostly dialogues, as if it were an enormous play. I would love to know what proportion of the text is between quotation marks. But there is also some scene-setting, some descriptions of characters, quite a lot of speech inflection (“he almost musingly repeated,” Ch. 21), and occasional instructions to the reader from the narrator. There is no interiority of thought whatsoever, so the novel is built on opposite principles from The Golden Bowl (1904).
It is something like William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955) or J.R. (1975), decades earlier, and thankfully at half the length. There is some action, including a climactic scene where characters wrestle over a dirty French novel, like Zola’s Nana.
Most of the scenes involve two characters gossiping about a third character, and her relations with a fourth.
“We discuss everything and every one – we’re always discussing each other. I think we must be rather celebrated for it, and it’s a kind of trick – isn’t it? that’s catching. But don’t you think it’s the most interesting kind of talk?” (Ch. 12)
What a blessing it is that people now have television.
Characters constantly interrupt each other, finishing sentences or interjecting questions. They deploy the vaguest possible nouns at every opportunity – “he,” “that,” “it.” They frequently ask each other what they mean, which should help, but is often more confusing.
“Well,” said Vanderbank, “how did she put it?”
Mrs. Brook reflected – recovered it. “’I like him awfully, but I’m not in the least his idea.’”
“His idea of what?”
“That’s just what I asked her.” (Ch. 14)
Characters frequently compliment each other. Maybe these are not compliments. They frequently describe each other with complimentary language:/p>
“He cares more for her,” he presently added, “even than we do.”
Mrs. Brook gazed away at the infinite of space. “’We,’ my dear Van,” she at last returned, “is one of your own, real wonderful touches.”
[snip snip snip, but same page]
It was as if he could not at last but show himself really struck; yet what he exclaimed on was what might in truth most have impressed him. “You are magnificent, really!” (Ch. 21)
Even the narrator gets in the game. “Mitchy was splendid” (Ch. 32), apparently meant to describe his manner of speaking. For the most part, I have little idea what James means when he or his characters use such words. A number of my notes are along the lines of “gibberish” or “what are they gibbering about.” I was amused to discover that Edmund Wilson, a much more knowledgeable and serious reader of James than I am, called the characters “this disemboweled gibbering crew.” I wish I had thought of “disemboweled.”
I want to spend a couple more days on this novel. Its difficulties give me unusually good opportunities for large errors.