Thursday, October 4, 2012

It's a thing so hollow, so dishonest, so lying - more James, "The Author of 'Beltraffio'"

Lemme just slip over to another Henry James story.  That last post will be kinda left dangling.  I’ll wrap ‘er up later.

“The Aspern Papers” led me to a similar story written four years earlier, “The Author of ‘Beltraffio’” (1884), not so much fun although more intricately written.  A young worshipper has a letter of introduction to meet and spend a few days with his favorite English novelist, Mark Ambient, author of Beltraffio, “the most complete presentation that had yet been made of the gospel of art…  a kind of aesthetic war-cry.”  At the writer’s house, the mooncalf narrator observes the growing enmity between Ambient and his wife over the upbringing of their “languid and angelic” son Dolcino.

So the poor kid’s name is Dolcino Ambient.  It’s like reading Thomas Pynchon.

The conflict between the parents is centered on the art of the novel.  This is the husband speaking to his guest about his wife:

“She's a very nice woman, extraordinarily well-behaved, upright and clever and with a tremendous lot of good sense about a good many matters.  Yet her conception of a novel – she has explained it to me once or twice, and she doesn't do it badly as exposition – is a thing so false that it makes me blush.  It's a thing so hollow, so dishonest, so lying, in which life is so blinked and blinded, so dodged and disfigured, that it makes my ears burn.”

Mrs. Ambient’s position: she “thought his writings immoral and his influence pernicious.”  The narrator of course venerates Ambient, and there is some good comedy in his utter inability not to talk about her husband’s novels in her presence, even though she “probably thought me an odious chattering person.”  This narrator, unlike the one in “The Aspern Papers,” is not a con man.  He is merely rude.  He may or may not provoke a crisis that moves the story to a tragic end, but the events are so unlikely that I have trouble blaming a character who is a fool, not a monster.

I’ll try to tie the literary fool and the biographical grifter together a little more tomorrow.

“The Author of ‘Beltraffio’” features some nice, if curious, metaphorical language.  This struck me (and has a bonus example of the narrator’s cluelessness – “she” is Mrs. Ambient):

"I assure you that for me this is a red-letter day," I added.

She didn't take this up, but after a pause, looking round her, said abruptly and a trifle dryly:  "We're very much afraid about the fruit this year."

My eyes wandered to the mossy mottled garden-walls, where plum-trees and pears, flattened and fastened upon the rusty bricks, looked like crucified figures with many arms.

“Crucified” is a strong image, isn’t it?  Maybe too strong.  Most of the religious or mythological imagery is attached to a character I have not mentioned, the novelist’s gossipy sister, whose “robe arranged itself in serpentine folds at her feet,” and who “had some of the qualities of the sibyl and had therefore perhaps a right to the sibylline contortions” – these slithery descriptions are separated by 16 pages in the Library of America volume I read – so this character becomes a sort of magical figure, the prophetess of the evils afflicting the house. 

I am not sure how to pull this and other images into a coherent whole, but James gives me plenty to look at in this story.


  1. I like this story, but really, what is James saying about art? That you have to kill your innocence in order to really appreciate mature art that shows the world as it is? That the death of this innocence is a beautiful thing (the son grows more beautiful in the narrator's eyes the sicker he gets)? That killing this innocence is an act of goodness? I don't remember a lot of details about "Betraffio," but I remember it as a beautifully written allegory about art. The narrator is a narcissistic nincompoop who wants to be what he pretends Mark Ambient is, and can't understand why anyone wouldn't want to be Mark Ambient. Or his imagined Mark Ambient, anyway. This story may be a bit slight thematically, maybe, but it's got that remarkable Jamesian technique of showing how the truth of the matter lies just beyond the perceptions of all the characters in the story, visible only at a distance, maybe even visible to the reader and the writer. I appear to be rambling.

  2. Wait: I get it, it's irony. I am so thick sometimes. The narrator sees the most important two things in this story as 1) his meeting his literary hero, and 2) Mrs A reading Mr A's books. The family tragedy is just another artisitic moment in his hero's world; it's got a tone to it that one might find admirable. But that still doesn't clarify where James situates himself regarding all this. Which isn't necessary anyway.

  3. Never heard of this story, but now I feel curious about reading what seems like a very interesting work of fiction.

  4. Whatever else I might think of James, his obsessive return to writers and artists in his short fiction usually has pretty interesting results.

    Scott, irony, yes, and an irony generated by the difference between the narrator's religious point of view and what is going on in the rather more complex real world. He can fit it all, even the death of a child, into his ideology.

    We'll see if I can flesh any of this out for tomorrow. Who knows. maybe I'll just paste in a lot of silly quotes about art.

  5. "Religious" is good and apt. The narrator goes on pilgrimages and preaches to the unbelievers. He reads sacred texts and establishes a rapport with the deity. Mrs Ambient's possible conversion is his personal victory.

    Have you read "The Coxon Fund?" It's sort of the opposite side of the worshipper-of-artists coin from "The Author of 'Beltraffio'." Longer and less substantial, too, now that I think about it.

  6. No, I followed the trail to "The Coxon Fund," though - clearly a logical place to go next.