Henry James

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k-j
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Henry James

Post by k-j » Sat Jan 25, 2014 4:58 am

My wife used to know a woman whose husband was called Henry, and they had a son called James. My daughter and I would frequently encounter the two of them in the local playground, and they were sufficiently inseparable that I jocularly termed them "Henry James".

"Did you see anyone at the playground?" my wife might ask, and I would smile absently and say "no... well yes, we did run into Henry James."

Now I'm reading "The Portrait of a Lady" and about 25% of the way in I'm enjoying it much, much more than I'd expected based on my previous limited (The Bostonians, Turn of the Screw, few shorts) experience. The characters are both exciting and well-written, there's loads of snappy dialogue, and the trademark leaden Jamesian explication is perfectly palatable.

It's actually quite remarkable that PoaL was written in 1881. It's barely later than Dickens! And the characters refer to Dickens, in much the same way as we refer to Dickens today. But PoaL reads infinitely more like a modern novel than, say, "Bleak House", which I finished last week.

Edit: obviously Dickens isn't a fair comparison. He's really more in the line of Smollett and Fielding, not a realist, in spite of all his earnest pleadings for the serfs of London. James I suppose grows out of Eliot, and indeed his characters have read her, too - but he's practically a contemporary! Without knowing the dates, you'd place James in about 1920, with Conrad and Ford and maybe even Woolf, instead of closer to Eliot and Dickens as he was.

Well, the truth is he straddled the eras, but from the start he was of the new era, not the old.
fine words butter no parsnips

David
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Re: Henry James

Post by David » Sun Jan 26, 2014 12:53 pm

Hmm. Running into Henry James at the playground nowadays, you might be inclined to contact Operation Yewtree. Perhaps I libel him.

I haven't read as much h-j as I should. We did Washington Square for A-level. There's a great James Thurber parody called The Beast in the Dingle. (I always thought it was called The Figure in the Carpet, but it turns that really is by James.) And Colm Tóibín's The Master is a lovely reimagining of the man.

I agree, James and Dickens seem decades apart. And I loved Bleak House. His best?

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Re: Henry James

Post by k-j » Sun Jan 26, 2014 2:28 pm

David wrote:I agree, James and Dickens seem decades apart. And I loved Bleak House. His best?
Best I've read by him for sure, and the first Dickens I've read in which the many good things outweighed the many bad. I still think he's wildly overrated though.
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David
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Re: Henry James

Post by David » Sun Jan 26, 2014 3:26 pm

I think we've agreed to disagree about Dickens before. (I'll agree that there's lots not to like, though.)

I'm reading Tolstoy's Childhood. Apparently he semi-repudiated it later, calling it an awkward mixture of fact and fiction (although there's no reason why that would bother me anyway), but I love it. So much glowing detail, and his childhood self is a very attractive one.

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Re: Henry James

Post by Antcliff » Sun Jan 26, 2014 9:54 pm

Not read any Henry James for 20 years. Big fan of his brother William though.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
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David
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Re: Henry James

Post by David » Tue Jan 28, 2014 5:17 pm

I keep meaning to read William. But is it hard going?

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Re: Henry James

Post by Antcliff » Tue Jan 28, 2014 5:22 pm

David wrote:I keep meaning to read William. But is it hard going?
The saying goes that Henry wrote his novels like a philosopher, William wrote his philosophy like a novelist.

He's very readable.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
Richard Wilbur

David
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Re: Henry James

Post by David » Tue Jan 28, 2014 5:24 pm

I like the sound of that.

k-j
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Re: Henry James

Post by k-j » Fri Jan 31, 2014 11:03 pm

I finished PoaL, not without an embarrassing moment. I was at or about chapter 49, and browsing the Wikipedia entry for critical reaction to the novel, when I saw chapter 42 mentioned as being pivotal or widely-praised, or something. I had no recollection of the events (well, "events" is the wrong word) described, so later I got out my ereader and discovered that some glitch had resulted in certain chapters not displaying. As soon as I closed the file and reopened it, it worked fine, and I realised I had missed maybe five chapters, about fifty pages of the 500 total, without being the slightest bit inconvenienced... I dutifully went back and read them, and very fine they were, but surely it says something negative about a novel - and/or perhaps about its reader - that a thing like this can happen?

I think the problem is James's extreme logicality. Every thought and event in James proceeds rationally from some previous thought or event; everything is a development of something else. There's really nothing new in James; he doesn't admit of the possibility. He's a determinist, and his stories (the four of them I've read) are a delineation of cause and effect in minute detail. And he does it so well! Cause and effect are very hard to identify with people, emotions, etc., and James refines it relentlessly so that he can show that even people are subject to this orderly - fast, or very slow, but always orderly - progression. So at any point in a James story, when you see a character behaving (or more often, thinking or feeling) in a certain way, it almost goes without remarking - it's preordained. Of course there are events - things do happen - and if you miss them you may notice. But in probably two out of three chapters, nothing happens. These chapters are devoted to showing us why things happen, why this thing might happen, but probably not, why certain things could never happen at all. His project is really to pick apart the weft of reality and then stitch it back together again seamlessly. It's to James's immense credit that he's so readable, given the lust for plot that is strong in me, and stronger in most people.

He must have been a very strange man indeed.
fine words butter no parsnips

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Re: Henry James

Post by Antcliff » Sat Feb 01, 2014 10:02 am

I realised I had missed maybe five chapters, about fifty pages of the 500 total, without being the slightest bit inconvenienced... I dutifully went back and read them, and very fine they were, but surely it says something negative about a novel - and/or perhaps about its reader - that a thing like this can happen?
Laughed at that. Missing a couple of scenes, maybe, but 50 pages seems a rather large amount.

Seth
...mind you, it is possible to hack out page after page of Pound and it not matter in the slightest.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
Richard Wilbur

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