Tuesday, January 31, 2017

the commonness of failure and the strangeness of life - gentle James - "The Abasement of the Northmores" and "The Great Good Place"

“The Great Good Place” (1900) features a writer overwhelmed with his profession, not the writing itself but everything surrounding it, “the bristling hedge of letters” and the “newspapers too many – what could any creature want of so much news? - … each with its hand on the neck of the other, so that the row of their bodiless heads was like a series of decapitations.”  Decapitated heads that also have hands – weird.  Then of course there are the huge mounds of new books, “books from friends, books from enemies.”

The exhausted author, somehow transports himself to a rest cure, or a writer’s retreat, perhaps by means of a dream, perhaps not.  It is in England, it takes currency, it has a library – “He could bring a book from the library – he could bring two, he could bring three.”  That’s my favorite line.  The joy of three books!  I have experienced that.

The “story” is little more than a description of James’s Utopia.  “There, for a blessing, he could read and write; there, above all, he could do nothing – he could live.”  In the end the very idea of the Utopia proves to be a cure.

“The Abasement of the Northmores” is about writers, too – letter writers.  Lord Northmore has died, and his wife has put out a call for his letters.  The less famous, less important, better Warren Hope has also died.  Why does no one want to read his letters, wonders Mrs. Hope?  But she dutifully sends her husband’s correspondence with Northmore, extensive and surprisingly well organized, to his widow.  She keeps secret her own, earlier letters – she could have been Lady Northmore.

There is a twist, a sharp sting, but for the most part the story is warm and gentle, a story about how mourning becomes tangled with resentment.  Appreciate – mourn – Warren Hope more, the wife demands, and that mediocrity Lord Northmore less.  She has two kinds of grief to work through.  Fortunately – this is the twist – her husband has left her a little gift that helps with this exact problem.

When she got home indeed she at first only wept – wept for the commonness of failure and the strangeness of life.  Her tears perhaps brought her a sense of philosophy; it was all as broad as it was long.

I do not usually think of James, a ferocious ironist, as gentle, and “The Abasement of the Northmores” is as much a story of revenge as anything else, but still.  These two stories pair well.

Tomorrow, more Jamesian revenge.

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