Thursday, May 4, 2017

he turned off his vagueness - which sounded indeed vaguer still - the hybrid Wings of the Dove

The piece about The Ambassadors in The Cambridge Companion to Henry James (1998) was all about sex.  The chapter on The Wings of the Dove by William Stowe is titled “James’s Elusive Wings” and is all about how the book is hard to understand – how the sentences are hard to understand.  What I wrote about yesterday, in other words.  Stowe begins with the same William James and Willian Dean Howells quotes!

Stowe has the advantage over William James, and me, of having read the book several times and worked on the secondary literature with all of the skill an expert can give it.  So, again, if this guy is having trouble…

Despite its melodramatic plot, furthermore, the book’s language is notoriously difficult, sometimes even undecidably obscure; sentences wind interminably on, pronouns lack definite antecedents, characters use words like “everything” and “nothing” and phrases like “Well, there you are,” which simultaneously suggest and obscure meanings and conclusions that they may or may not have reached.  (188)

Stowe is interested in the hybridity of the text, the combination of the melodrama with an interiorized, modernistic whatever it is, that functions in “traditional humanistic terms as a moral or spiritual fable” but at the same time is “a radically elusive text that entices the reader into an unendable process of supplementation and (over-)reading” (189).  And we wouldn’t want any of that, for certain specific groups of “we,” and we would and do want it, those of us in this other “we.”

The melodrama is the devious attempt by a pair of English grifters to get into the good graces of a rich, dying American girl, perhaps even to marry her, so that the grifters, once enriched with her estate, can marry each other.  Some variation of this story must be the base of a thousand bad plays and a hundred good farces.  The Wings of the Dove did not feel, to me, remotely like a melodrama, nor is that plot description one that would be recognized by the characters themselves, at least not until the end of the novel, when at least one has a moral epiphany – these are the “traditional humanistic terms” – that he has done something terribly wrong.

“I suppose I’m in trouble – I suppose that’s it.”  He said this with so odd a suddenness of simplicity that she could only stare for it – which he as promptly saw.  So he turned off as he could his vagueness.  “And yet I oughtn’t to be.”  Which sounded indeed vaguer still.  (10.4)

The bit I put in bold is both splendid and magnificent.  It is not that James is not aware of how he sounds.

At times the frankly pleasant, lovely, and in other circumstances entirely sympathetic young couple I am libeling as “grifters” act like they are playing at decadence.  At times it was like I was reading a version of Dangerous Liaisons with characters who were new to the whole thing, not jaded to the point of exhaustion.  At times I wondered if the couple really were, at least as a couple, ethically dubious, an example of some kind of dominant-submissive relationship with occasional rebellions by the submissive side to keep things interesting.  Maybe what appears to be, through the last fifth of the novel, an ethical struggle is in fact just a power struggle between these people.  Maybe Stowe’s article should have been about sex.

How did I not know that The Good Soldier (1916) is an elaborate parody of late James?  But I had not read the right James books, so even if told directly how would I really know?  Now I know.


  1. In googling to see if anyone else has talked about the parody idea, I found this on p. 122 of Thomas C. Moser's The Life in the Fiction of Ford Madox Ford:

    The very last words in Ford's book on James are “The Golden Bowl.” That novel echoes in The Good Soldier so strikingly as to have inspired an ingenious if perverse interpretation of Ford's masterpiece as a conscious parody of James's own four-square coterie.

  2. John Bayley called The Good Soldier "Early Kipling told by Henry James," which is a good line. The Kipling is perhaps embodied in just the one character.

    Foolish pattern-making creature that I am, I do not want to push the idea too far right now, but how John Dowell looks like a grotesque version of Lambert Strether, and a number of other sexless James Americans; how poor Florence looks like a grotesque version of Milly Theale.

    As Dowell so often says, "I don't know."

  3. The melodramatic nature of late James was a topic for discussion a few years back when the films of Wings and The Golden Bowl came out. How could such cerebral works translate themselves on to the screen? Critics suggested that the screenwriters had brought out the novels' underlying sensationalism - at the expense of course of the strange cerebral atmosphere that is for many their chief pull. Neither film quite works, though I prefer Wings. But I've always liked Helena Bonham Carter!

  4. To my mind, the gold standard for translating a hyperliterary novel to the screen is Raúl Ruiz's Time Regained. It uncannily captures (some of) the impact of reading Proust; the downside is that I'm not sure what you'd make of it if you hadn't read Proust. And, of course, such a movie is not going to be a blockbuster hit.

  5. I saw all three of these movies upon their theatrical release. That was a longtime ago, but these descriptions fit my memory. The Proust adaptation is a preposterous triumph.

    The Norton Critical Edition for some reason gives a lot of space to the 1997 adaptation. I suppose it is often shown in English classes, along with or in place of the novel.