Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Henry James brings it out roundly - The Golden Bowl, the nerve-wearing stuff first

Sometimes I start a round of posts on a big book with my complaints.  Let’s do that again.  It works.  The book is The Golden Bowl (1904).  These are hardly even complaints.  It is just an attempt to see straight.

I am near the end of the book.  Two of the characters are having an all too typical conversation about two of the other characters.  There are only six characters total, and no one ever talks about one of them, so the number of combinations is limited.  What exactly are they talking about?  For my purpose here it does not matter:

‘Well then -?’

‘Well then you think he must have told her?  Why exactly what I mean,’ said Maggie, ‘is that he will have done nothing of the sort; will, as I say, have maintained the contrary.’

Fanny Assingham weighed it.  ‘Under her direct appeal for the truth?’

‘Under her direct appeal for the truth.’

‘Her appeal to his honour?’

“Her appeal to his honour.  That’s my point.’

Fanny Assingham braved it.  ‘For the truth as from him to her?’

‘From him to any one.’

Mrs Assingham’s face lighted.  ‘He’ll simply, he’ll insistently have lied?’

Maggie brought it out roundly.  ‘He’ll simply, insistently have lied.’  (5.1)

Then the two women hug.  This passage has two and a half of the four aspects of late James that most get on my nerves.  First, the conversations built out of repetitions; second, the baffling directions to the actors – I even tried, aloud, to bring out the last line roundly, but I have not the slightest idea if I succeeded; and third, and it is just hinted at here, what I call, in honor of Daffy Duck, the incessant “pronoun trouble,” the constant confusion, by the speakers, within their own conversations, of exactly which “he” or “her” is under discussion, again in a novel where it is only a few people exist.  The fourth nerve-wearer, not in this example (although there is one a few paragraphs earlier) is the use of adjectives like “splendid,” “magnificent,” and “immense” to describe people as if the words have some well-defined meaning.

Yes, these are all tics of dialogue.  That’s where I had to brace myself for James’s mannerisms, and those of his characters.  To James, these are assuredly not mannerisms but central, well-worked aspects of his style, essentially his, part of who he is.  True Jamesians presumably love them all.  And I have perhaps even understood some of them, sometimes, like the ingenious way James developed the seemingly empty word “wonderful” in The Ambassadors.  Or for that matter, look at the jokey use of “immense” in this description of the guests at a dinner party: “a large, bright, dull, murmurous, mild-eyed, middle-aged dinner, involving for the most part very bland, though very exalted, immensely announceable and hierarchically placeable couples” (3.6)  “[I]mmensely announceable” is immensely deflating.

This is a long way of saying that Henry James, by this late point, writes like himself and no one else and that his characters live in Henry James novels and behave accordingly.  So I am not so much complaining as acknowledging fixed facts.  All right, so sometimes James’s dialogue drives me crazy.  Now, on to the rest of the book.


  1. You are a man of splendid, magnificent and immense patience. One loses one’s way in that parenthetical fog which is the late James particular. At present I’m reading The Princess Casamassima which only occasionally lapses into statelyness that is more than mitigated by the humour and an alert eye and ear. I think I may respectfully recommend it as an offering which retains, within the bounds of propriety, a fascination with anarchy.

  2. I am going to enjoy these posts much more than I enjoyed the book. Though after I'd wrestled with it as hard as I could, I did eventually make a sort of rueful peace with it for just the reasons you say at the end here -- it's late James, this is the game. That I kind of hate the game is as much on me as on him. Well, almost.

  3. I think I would enjoy reading a real Jamesian defend the speech tics. They have some charm, but at length - which is most of the time - they turn characters into grotesques. Why is everyone so bizarre, I wonder. Why don't they ever use a name when the pronoun is ambiguous? "A rueful peace" - that is right.

    The Princess Casamassima is fascinating, with James turning a lot of not-James - characters, subjects, styles that are unusual for him - into pure James. And the humor is real, and welcome. While The Golden Bowl turns pure James into ultrapure James.

  4. Tom: you started me on a long James streak with your postings about The Awkward Age, which to me is the most Jamesian James there is, particularly with the dialogue. So I went back and am trying to read the novels mostly in chronological order. Still love Roderick Hudson, but struggled with Princess Casimassima and The American (Mrs. BREAD, really?) In one of the short stories, "A New England Winter," this amazing sentence occurs: "In the little artistic circle in which he moved in Paris, Florimond Daintry was thought to have a great deal of eye." If that were meant to be comic, it could be straight out of Dickens--and it might possibly be intended to be comic. Such vaguenesses are part of the reason that James will always come out as "magnificent" in the end, the true Master.

  5. You are a man of splendid, magnificent and immense patience.

    Seconded. I enjoy your James posts a great deal, but the more I read them the more sure I am that I will never be a Jamesian.

  6. The Awkward Age was more difficult than Golden Bowl, just on the "what's going on here" level.

    I suppose there is an aesthetic division between specificity and vagueness. I know that Languagehat is over on the specificity side, where I am. Specificity has its own Masters.

  7. I love it when you get irritated. Somehow, I feel vindicated at experiencing the same emotion at the same authors.

  8. Critically, it is just part of breaking a book into pieces. What aspects of a book do I understand, which do I just not get. Where do I need the help of another critic.

    Some high percentage of arts criticism is just answering the question "What is this thing?" Irritation helps me the see the book's prickles, I guess. Or detect its allergens.