Wednesday, February 1, 2017

the adventures of innocence have so often been the material of fiction - more useful Henry James short stories

“The Two Faces” (1900) was helpful in decoding the obscurities of The Awkward Age.  It is written on similar principles, but is simpler and only fifteen pages long.

Mrs. Grantham introduces a young woman into society, purposefully dressing her to look like a fool, which means “many things – too many, and they appeared to be feathers, frills, excrescences of silk and lace.”  Mrs. Grantham commits this small act of minor cruelty as revenge on the woman’s husband, who is Mrs. Grantham’s ex-boyfriend.  The point of view is that of Mrs. Grantham’s current boyfriend, Sutton.  When he witnesses the revenge – when he sees the cruelty in Mrs. Grantham’s face and humiliation in the young woman’s – there we have “The Two Faces” – he decides to dump Mrs. Grantham.

That’s a version of the story, with some translation.  Most of what I wrote has to be inferred.  For example, all Sutton does at the end is leave the party early.  If I want that action to be meaningful, I have to do something with it.  None of the sexual connections with Mrs. Grantham are explicit.  They are barely even implicit.  But to interpret what is visible in the text – to have it make sense at all – I have to start filling the void.

I first read The Awkward Age as if James would eventually provide clues to resolve the novel’s ambiguities.  “The Two Faces,” easier to absorb, showed me more clearly how much was going to remain unstated.  It is not so much a technique to allow multiple possibilities of motive, but to demand the reader work harder, and take some risks, just to piece together the plot.  Without some reasonably big leaps, “The Two Faces” makes no sense.

I want to note one fun description of a secondary character, introduced for expository purposes:

She was stout, red, rich, mature, universal – a massive, much-fingered volume, alphabetical, wonderful, indexed, that opened of itself at the right place.

Look, there is one of those mystifying superlatives, “wonderful,” used in a way I don’t understand.

James was using his short stories of this period to work on a number of techniques.  “The Story in It” (1902) works in the opposite way, removing every shadow from a simple case of unrequited love and then wondering, per the title, whether there is a “’story’ in it.”  This meta-fictional question is asked in a story which mostly consists of an argument about the purpose of fiction, an essay in dialogue disguised as a short story.

“You mean that the adventures of innocence have so often been the material of fiction? Yes,” Voyt replied; “that’s exactly what the bored reader complains of.  He has asked for bread and been given a stone.  What is it but, with absolute directness, a question of interest, or, as people say, of the story.”

The random reader of The Anglo-American Magazine likely found this story incomprehensible, but for anyone following James, who at this point had completed The Ambassadors and was writing The Wings of the Dove, it is revealing.

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