Friday, March 31, 2017

absorbed interested and interesting - a discovery and a question (still on The Ambassadors)

While writing yesterday’s post, I got tangled in a Twitter “conversation” with people who were pretending to be crazy; it was about, in a sense, The Ambassadors, and in the course of it I realized that Alexander Payne’s brilliant closing segment (link goes to the clip) of the anthology film Paris je t’aime (2006) is an adaptation of The Ambassadors.  The most direct evidence is at the six-minute mark.  Payne also borrows a bit from the closely related “The Beast in the Jungle” (1903).

Maybe it was something I’d forgotten, or something I’ve been missing all my life.  All I can say is that I felt, at the same time, joy and sadness.  But not too much sadness, because I felt alive.  Yes, alive.

That was the moment I fell in love with Paris.  And I felt Paris fall in love with me.

The internet does not seem to be aware of any of this, so it is a gift from me to some poor schmoe writing a paper on Alexander Payne and adaptation.

Now, a question.  What in the devil are these:

… and if he had never seen her so soundless he had never, on the other hand, felt her so highly, so almost austerely, herself: pure and by the vulgar estimate "cold," but deep devoted delicate sensitive noble. (7.3)

He was neither excited nor depressed; was easy and acute and deliberate – unhurried unflurried unworried, only at most a little less amused than usual.  (8.1)

The occupant of the balcony was after all quite another person, a person presented, on a second look, by a charming back and a slight shift of her position, as beautiful brilliant unconscious Mamie – Mamie alone at home, Mamie passing her time in her own innocent way, Mamie in short rather shabbily used, but Mamie absorbed interested and interesting.  (9.3)

In case my edition was full of typos, I checked against two other sources.  The punctuation – and rhymes! – are just as I have them.  This is new in James, right?  New in, well, everybody.  I have been pushing on with shorter James, “The Papers” and so on, and I have not noticed these unpunctuated chains of adjectives.

There is a conventional explanation that the late James style is a combination of the way James talked with a switch from writing to dictation.  Lambert Strether, the center of this novel, frequently speaks like James thinks.

“How can he but want, now that it’s within reach, his full impression? – which is much more important, you know, than either yours or mine.  But he’s just soaking,” Strether said as he came back, “he’s going in conscientiously for a saturation.”  (9.1)

It is not just the hesitations – although Strether does wander – “as he came back,” exactly – but the metaphors that not only become part of speech, but are actually developed.  “Soaking” continuing to “saturation.”   Why is Strether so “tormented”?

“Because I’m made so – I think of everything.”  (9.1)

His companion’s response is that “’One must think of as few things as possible,’” but I do not believe that option is available to Strether.  He is in this sense the shadow of his creator.  James, too,  thinks of everything.

Still – “unhurried unflurried unworried” – that’s not the way anyone talks, is it, even Henry James?  What is it?


  1. A refined version of an ellipsis? It does sound hurried and flurried. Or the Jamesian equivalent of blah blah blah, yada yada yada?

  2. A mental, high-level blah blah blah, Strether's brain filling in the space with all the words that are handy, which is why some of them rhyme.

    That could easily be a depiction of James-think.

  3. Unhurried unflurried unworried might be my favorite but the others are priceless too.

  4. I omitted one more, because it is not as interesting, but what I wonder is how many examples I missed before I noticed the phenomenon.

  5. I've been racking my brains trying to think of anyone at all who talks or writes like that other than James. All I've come up with is maayyybe Gerard Manley Hopkins, but I'm not thinking of any specific examples just yet. It's certainly odd.

  6. The rhymes aside, the first and third examples would have seemed like normal stuff in Faulkner and many of his many, many followers. It would surprise me to see it in Henry Green. This early, though, and in James, it was a surprise.

  7. I read it as a superposition rather than a sequence of adjectives. All of those are in a cloud, somewhere bracketing the wordless thought. So no, I don't think it's intended that anyone speaks like that.

    I would be surprised if similar usage is in Hopkins, though I can't say I can rule it out from "The Wreck of the Deutschland".

  8. Right, words surrounding something else. That's useful, and certainly fits my idea of James.

  9. I was thinking more of Hopkins's journals and letters- those unpunctuated adjective chains seem like something that might pop up in his descriptive passages. But I haven't read any of his prose in ages and I don't have the book with me, so I couldn't check it - it was just a thought. Not a very useful one, I'm afraid.

  10. On the one hand, I barely know Hopkins; on the other I can hear how you could hear him. There's a "pile it on," mad rush quality to the notebooks.

    I wonder if James is mimicking or inspired by someone's published journals, or even private letters to him - something informal, like Hopkins's notebooks.

  11. Not quite the same thing, but along the same lines, is "a high distinguished polished impertinent reprobate" from V,III. Henry James creating Modernism.

  12. And a few lines lower a character is "an isolated interesting attaching creature." I had missed those.

    There is no way that Henry Green, for example, did not notice these whatsits.

  13. When you say "It would surprise me to see it in Henry Green," I take it you meant to say "It would not surprise me to see it in Henry Green"?

  14. Saul Bellow wrote in Humboldt's Gift: "the limp silk fresh lilac drowning water".

  15. A lot of things I write would probably be more accurate if one assumed an implied "not," but here, yes, thanks, I meant to include "not." Henry Green seems more and more James-like to me - the more I read James. Now I need to read more Green and test that impression from the other side.

    I wonder if that Bellow line is meant to be an echo? He would have known James well.

  16. On second thought, Hopkins does enough similar things that I shouldn't have shot my mouth off.

    He has "This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond", but that I read as tracking a moving thought, not bracketing a stationary one.

    "Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, vaulty, voluminous,... stupendous / Evening" what is that even?

    "Or a jaunting vaunting vaulting assaulting trumpet telling" could be this.

    "Of some branchy bunchy bushybowered wood", how about that?

    I'm any candidate it's hard for me to be _sure_ Hopkins doesn't have more going on, more structure than I read James as having.

  17. James's use of the device seemes to be "poetic" in more basic sense that he is making the alliteration and rhyme stand out.

    Those examples almost make me wonder if, I don't know, if James knew Robert Bridges? And thus read - ah, who am I kidding.

    Those are great excerpts.

  18. I am dabbling in the middle James short stories (Volume 3 of the Library of America), and came across this from "Death of the Lion" from 1894: "Loose liberal confident, it [a new manuscript] might have passed for a great gossiping eloquent letter..." So James was doing the thing with rapid-fire modifiers many years earlier. This only caught my eye because I am, as you know, an avid reader of this blog.

    And, although it is not on point, this sentence from "The Coxon Fund" just slayed me: "She often appeared at my chambers to talk over his lapses; for if, as she declared, she had washed her hands of him, she had carefully preserved the water of this ablution, which she handed about for analysis."

    Now that's fine writin', which could only have come from the hand of the Master.

  19. Very interesting. Not much earlier, but still. It looks like the same thing to me. I wonder who has written about this device.