Friday, October 30, 2015

"Ah" - Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

Never before have I read a novel where so many characters begin their lines with “Ah.”  I have been using “Ah” while answering comments lately, to test it out.  It is annoying.

“Ah, too interesting; you shouldn't allow it to be that, you know!” (Ch. 1)

“Ah, happy boy!” the old man commented. (Ch. 2)

“Ah,” said Isabel slowly, “you must be our crazy Aunt Lydia!” (okay, I love this one, Ch. 3)

“Ah, we never know why!" said her companion, laughing.”  (Ch. 5)

A total of 96 “Ah”s going by the computer search, or almost two per chapter, and they feel more concentrated because some chapters are especially dialogue-heavy.  In Chapter 5 there is one on every other page.  The “Ah”s were useful in helping me notice how much banter there was in the novel, especially early on, as if the characters were in a Golden Age Hollywood comedy, like Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant trying to impress each other with their sharp wit.  Isabel Archer is Beatrice and every man she meets is Benedict – how exhausting for her.  And at times for me.

Most of the worst parts of the novel are in the dialogues:

“You are very selfish as I said before.”

“I know that.  I am selfish as iron.”

“Even iron sometimes melts.”  (Ch. 32)

Then the characters begin to banter around the word “reasonable.”  All so trivial, although given who one of those characters is, the best he could do.

The worst line in the novel – I want to be fair – replaces dialogue: “In that brief, extremely personal gaze, however, deeper meanings passed between them than they were conscious at the moment” (Ch. 43).  What novel is that from?  This one, really?

Everything in The Portrait of a Lady leads to something better.  The apotheosis of the banter is in Chapter 34 – James is explaining a one year gap and Isabel’s engagement, so this is before the three year gap and her marriage.  She is sparring with her cousin Ralph, one of her many men.  The situation has gone beyond banter, but Ralph has been poisoned by irony.

“Wait for what?”

“Well, for a little more light,” said Ralph, with a rather absurd smile, while his hands found their way into his pockets.

“Where should my light have come from?  From you?”

“I might have struck a spark or two!”

See, wit of a pretty low kind.  Ralph cannot resist.  But after a couple more pages, Isabel can. 

“I don’t think I understand you,” she said at last, coldly.  “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

This was, I found, a shocking moment, the first time someone refuses combat.  Ralph refuses the refusal, which then becomes a new struggle which Isabel wins by treating the subject of her liberty, money, and love life with seriousness and sincerity.  It felt like the novel had swiveled.  “Isabel had uttered her last words with a low solemnity of conviction which virtually terminated the discussion,” and the loser enjoys his self-pity:

Ralph, standing there with his hands in his pockets, followed her with his eyes; then the lurking chill of the highwalled court struck him and made him shiver, so that he returned to the garden, to breakfast on the Florentine sunshine.

I should note that James, aware that he has perhaps overloaded the novel with dialogue, came up with another solution that was always a lot of fun when he deployed it, a breathless wall of text, often a paragraph of a page or two, of nothing but babble.  Another side of the conversation is implied, but it likely consists of little but nods and “Mm, yes.” 

“Papa left direction for everything.  I go to bed very early.  When the sun goes off that side I go into the garden.”  (Ch. 30)

That’s Pansy, of course.  Remember, there’s over a page of that stuff in one paragraph.  It’s often the dimmer characters who are given this treatment, characters incapable of wit.  Again, I am sure I am wrong, that James borrowed this trick from someone. (Note added later: from Jane Austen - see Miss Bates in Emma).


  1. Never had much luck with James, but I should try him again at some point, and this seems like one I should try.

    Having said that, 'The Wings of the Dove' was my turkey of the year a while back, so I'm very wary of returning to the scene of the crime...

  2. I have always been afraid of Henry James, and this is not convincing me otherwise! And actually pretty funny because I am a reader not afraid of difficult books. I bought Il Malovoglia on your recommendation, but haven't read it yet.... Henry James, Robert Musil, Karl Ove, Gertrude Stein. That's my eccentric list of people I won't read.

  3. Vladimir Nabokov to Edmund Wilson, p. 209 of Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya:

    “What are you writing now? I have read (or rather re-read) What Maisie Knew. It is terrible. Perhaps there is some other Henry James and I am continuously hitting on the wrong one?”

    So you are all in good company. I have been consciously, quietly pushing back against VN.

    I'll note for Tony's sake that the style of A Portrait of the Lady is vastly different than The Wings of the Dove. Much more ordinarily readable. Most readers love having all of that dialogue, for reasons that maybe do not have much to do with art, but it does help the novel move forward.

    Then compared to The Europeans, which is early and similar in prose style, Portrait is vastly more ambitious and sophisticated.

    Anyone nervous about James should try his short fiction. "Daisy Miller" was a bestseller! That's a good way to sample the late style, too - see how things go with "The Beast in the Jungle" or something like that.

  4. Ah, I wonder if James realized how many "ahs" he had? Or maybe it is verbal tick of his own?

  5. I think the "Ah" tic is especially strong in Portrait, although The American is just as loaded with them. I wonder if James starts to tamp them down. The Bostonians has a third as many.

    Electronic texts are either marvels or great time-wasters.