Wednesday, May 17, 2017

vague with a perverse intensity suggesting design - the late late style of Henry James

I’ve been reading some of the last stories of Henry James – “Julia Bride” (1908), “Crapy Cornelia” (1909), “The Bench of Desolation” (1909) and “A Round of Visits” (1910) – all very much in his late style, his late late style, even.  The single tic of James that drives me the furthest up the wall is his fussy, ludicrous stage-directing of dialogue.  From a couple of pages of “Julia Bride”:

… he almost fluted.

He ever so comically attenuated.

… he humorously wailed…

That kind of thing.  Real Jamesians must develop a taste for it?  Or an immunity?  To the extent that I understand it as comedy, I enjoy it myself, in smallish doses, and my point is that a few passages aside, late late James has lost interest in dialogue.

He will instead spend three pages moving a character fifty yards.  He is approaching a bench (“The Bench of Desolation”), he sees a lady on the bench, he recognizes her, and then not a hint of exterior movement for several pages as the character thinks.

The lady indeed thus thrust upon Herbert’s vision might have struck an observer either as not quite vague or as vague with a perverse intensity suggesting design.  (Ch. 4)

The constant slippage from the character’s thought is part of why a short walk takes so long.  I need to know not just what Herbert sees in some detail, but what other, theoretical, people might see, and also what Herbert does not see.  The second observer, by the way, is correct – there is design, and it is perverse in more ways than one.

The stories are generally on the perverse side.  In “Bench,” the vague lady has sued Herbert for breach of promise and drained money from him, ruining his life and that of his (eventual, short-lived) wife and children.  She is now returning the money with interest, which was her plan all along, because although she truly loved him she knew he would never make anything of the money himself.  Which is certainly true, since at the beginning of the story Herbert operates a used book store.  Still, it is hard to recognize the vague lady as quite human.

“Julia Bride” is desperate to convince an ex-boyfriend, and perhaps also a former stepfather, the fluty fellow up above, to persuade her current boyfriend that her six previous engagements did not really mean anything.  A real social issue, the rise of divorce and other changes in permissiveness, are swamped in this story less by the oddness of the characters than by the remarkable variety of metaphorical language applied to Julia’s every move and thought.  She has just learned that the ex-boyfriend is marrying.  It is like a deluge, and she

was positively to find on the bosom of her flood a plank under aid of which she kept in a manner and for the time afloat.  She took ten minutes to pant, to blow gently, to paddle disguisedly, to accommodate herself, in a word, to the elements she had let loose…

All of that activity is presumably describing conversation, which is what I meant to say James has lost interest in dialogue.  He is at this point much more likely to describe a conversation.  By the end of this long paragraph, Julia is (metaphorically) climbing a pedestal.  At the beginning of the next:

… her consciousness had become, by an extraordinary turn, a music-box in which, its lid well down, the most remarkable tunes were sounding.  It played for her ear alone, and the lid, as she might have figured, was her firm plan of holding out till she got home, of not betraying – to her companion at least – the extent to which she was demoralised.

I thought about writing a post that just listed the metaphors in order.  The story is packed with them, built out of them.  Maybe that would give me a clue about how James moves from the flood to the music box and its lid.  I was baffled, often impressed by the originality of James’s invention but with no understanding of where any of it came from, what the language had to do with this character.

Presumably as and if I re-read, the design will become less vague and perverse.  The first time through any complex text, this sort of thing is so hard to see, yet here I go after it, again and again.


  1. since brevity is the soul of wit,
    And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
    I will be brief:

    "in a word" is funny here.

  2. One of James's best jokes, if it is indeed a joke.

  3. I can't help but feel that by this time James had lost interest in humanity, in fact in anything but his own recondite musings about musings, his vague vaguenesses. A very specialized taste, and I may or may not ever come round to it. The first sentence you quote ("The lady indeed thus thrust upon Herbert’s vision might have struck an observer either as not quite vague or as vague with a perverse intensity suggesting design") makes me shudder and not want to read anything else contingent to it. I realize this reaction is neither original nor sophisticated, but it is my own, and I own it.

  4. It has taken some effort on my part to suppress a similar shudder and to take James more for what he was and less for what various Jamesians think he was. Whatever progress I have made, I am still no Jamesian.

  5. A crawling, hedging, philosophical exploration. Or maybe a painstaking psychological study. Either way, I understand the impulse though I don't know how much of a fan I am of this late stuff. You should read his final published work, The Outcry, which was apparently wildly popular in its day. It's not at all like the stories you discuss here. It's light and fluffy and about cultural appropriation.

  6. Perhaps the following excerpt will clarify a bit James' intentions regarding his late style: a quotation from Auden quoting Dudley Fitts quoting a translation of a bit of Stichomythia from Euripides:

    "'MEDEA: Why didst thou fare to earth's prophetic navel?
    AEGEUS: To ask how seed of children might be mine.
    MEDEA: 'Fore Heaven! -aye childless is thy life till now?
    AEGEUS: Childless I am, by chance of some god's will.
    MEDEA: This with a wife, or knowing not the couch?
    AEGEUS: Nay, not unyoked to wedlock's bed am I.'

    This is, as he [Dudley] says, comically absurd, but what is the poor translator to do? If, for instance, he translates into modern idiom, he must write: 'MEDEA: Are you married or single? AEGEUS: Married.' This is no longer funny, but it has completely lost an essential element of the original style, the poetic ornamentation of simple statements by casting them in the form or riddles."

  7. On his late works, James's every other sentence was a riddle set for the reader to unpack. What differentiates James from lesser talents is that, instead of his riddles wrapping around puerile polyglottal punning (as is the case in Finnegans Wake) or typographical / anagrammatic / soramimi-like word permutations (as is the case with Arno Schmidt), they wrap around insights, ideas and descriptions relevant to the plot of his stories.

  8. a quotation from Auden quoting Dudley Fitts quoting a translation of a bit of Stichomythia from Euripides

    I am now contractually required to link to Housman's immortal Fragment of a Greek Tragedy, for those who have not had the pleasure of encountering it.

  9. But certainly there's more to Finnegans Wake than puerile polyglottal punning. I remember that the final section, where Anna Livia fully takes up the narrative, is one of the most beautiful and moving things I've ever read, full of human insight.

  10. Of course there is. But James fans dump on late Joyce, Joyce fans dump on late Pound, everybody's got their favorite whipping boy.

  11. Of course there is more to Finnegans and to Arno Schmidt's books: their content. I was commenting about their style, their surface. That, plus what Languagehat said.