Tuesday, January 24, 2017

“I sometimes think in effect you’re incapable of anything straightforward.” - The Awkward Age is difficult

“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:

“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.


  1. Yes, "disemboweled gibbering," even though it does not make much sense, is a great bit of critical annihilation; in this case Wilson reminds me of Harold Bloom's savagery.

    I don't know enough about James to enter the dispute, but I hope others will visit and come to his defense. That should be fun.

    BTW, what is your hands-down favorite by James? I could use a good late 19th / early 20th century diversion via James.

  2. Defense! There is no attack here. Just desperate attempts at description. "Disembowelled" gets at the disembodied nature of the characters that comes from the dialogue-heavy form. "Gibbering" is a rhetorical strategy. This is an unusual novel.

    I do not have a "hands down" favorite work by James. (I realized I did not really know what "hands down" meant - from horse racing, no kidding). I like James-the-trickster a lot, and "The Figure in the Carpet" is the perfect example of that side of James. It seems entirely antithetical to your approach to literature, but maybe that would make the diversion more diverting.

  3. What? Really? You think that I have an "approach to literature"?

    Well, I will take a look at "the perfect example" of James-the-trickster via "The Figure in the Carpet." Thank you for the diverting Rx.

  4. Postscript: Today, if I were to admit to an "approach to literature," I would sum it up in these words:

    Somerset Maugham said, "To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life."

    Yep! A refuge! Why not?

    You, I sense, are a much more serious and committed reader of literature (and have much more confidence in your reading-and-critical abilities than I have). I am at this stage of my reading life little more than a bewildered pilgrim in search of refuge.

  5. Everybody has an approach. If a book blog does nothing else, it makes the writer's approach to reading clear enough. That's why I read so many of them, to learn through all those different approaches.

    I mean, is the critic more interested in beauty or meaning? Ironic or sincere? Tendency to re-read, or always reaching for something new? Big, basic differences. All of them good ways to read.

  6. I understand. My confusion about having an "approach to literature" comes out of my state of mind in recent months; I am more confused, my memory wobbles, and my senile Swiss-cheese brain undermines any stable "approach" to anything. Once upon a time, I think (hope) I was more sensible, articulate, and intelligent when I spoke and wrote about literature. Now I am wobbly and unhinged. Getting old really sucks!

  7. I am enjoying your conversation very much and have to admit that I have not (yet) read "The Awkward Age." I have much more frequently heard readers call "The Wings of the Dove" the ultimate test of loyalty to James. He's certainly a "trickster" in "Turn of the Screw."

  8. That's funny - for some reason I have gotten more warnings about The Golden Bowl. I assume that whole set can be rough going.

    Leafing through Wings, though, with its long paragraphs and long sentences, it is startling to find entire chapters with no dialogue at all. Is this the same Henry James that wrote The Awkward Age just three years earlier?

    Technically impressive.