Instigations Part 22

"Nona Vincent," he writes like an adolescent, might be a person of eighteen doing first story.

Page 201. "Public interest in spiritual life of the army." ("The Real Thing.")

Page 201. German Invasion.

Loathsome prigs, stiff conventions, editor of cheap magazines ladled in Sir Wots-his-name.

1893. In the interim he had brought out "In the Cage," excellent opening sentence, matter too much talked around and around, and "The Two Magics." This last a Freudian affair which seems to me to have attracted undue interest, i.e., interest out of proportion to the importance as literature and _as part of_ Henry James's own work, because of this subject matter. The obscenity of "The Turn of the Screw" has given it undue prominence. People now "drawn" to obscene as were people of Milton's period by an equally disgusting bigotry; one unconscious on author's part; the other, a surgical treatment of a disease. Thus much for progress on part of authors if public has not progressed. The point of my remarks is that an extraneous criterion comes in. One must keep to the question of literature, not of irrelevancies. Galdos' "Lo Prohibido"

does Freud long before the s.e.x crank got to it. Kipling really does the psychic, ghosts, etc., to say nothing of his having the "sense of story."

1900. "The Soft Side," collection containing: "The Abas.e.m.e.nt of the Northmores," good; again the motif of the vacuity of the public man, the "figure"; he has tried it again in "The Private Life," which, however, falls into the allegorical. A rotten fall it is too, and Henry James at his worst in it, i.e., the allegorical. "Fordham's Castle" appears in the collected edition only--it may belong to this period but is probably earlier, comedietta, excellently, perhaps flawlessly done. Here, as so often, the circ.u.mstances are mostly a description of the character of the personal tone of the "sitters"; for his people are so much more, or so much more often, "sitters" than actors. Protagonists it may be. When they act, they are apt to stage-act, which reduces their action again to being a mere attempt at description. ("The Liar," for example.) Compare Maupa.s.sant's "Toine" for treatment of case similar to "Fordham Castle."

1902-05. "The Sacred Fount," "Wings of a Dove," "Golden Bowl" period.

"Dove" and "Bowl" certainly not models for other writers, a caviare not part of the canon (metaphors be hanged for the moment).

Henry James is certainly not a model for narrative novelists, for young writers of fiction; perhaps not even a subject of study till they have attained some sublimity of the critical sense or are at least ready to be constantly alert, constantly on guard.

I cannot see that he will harm a critic or a describer of places, a recorder of impressions, whether they be people, places, music.

1903. "Better Sort," mildish.

1903. "The Amba.s.sadors," rather clearer than the other work. Etude of Paris vs. Woollett. Exhortation to the idle, well-to-do, to leave home.

1907. "The American Scene," triumph of the author's long practice. A creation of America. A book no "serious American" will neglect. How many Americans make any attempt toward a realization of that country is of course beyond our power to compute. The desire to see the national face in a mirror may be in itself an exotic. I know of no such grave record, of no such attempt at faithful portrayal, as "The American Scene." Thus America is to the careful observer; this volume and the American scenes in the fiction and memoirs, in "The Europeans," "The Patagonia,"

"Washington Square," etc., bulk large in the very small amount of writing which can be counted as history of _murs contemporaines,_ of national habit of our time and of the two or three generations preceding us. Newport, the standardized face, the Capitol, Independence Hall, the absence of penetralia, innocence, essential vagueness, etc., language "only definable as not in _intention_ Yiddish," the tabernacle of Grant's ashes, the public collapse of the individual, the St. Gaudens statue. There is nothing to be gained by making excerpts; the volume is large, but one should in time drift through it. I mean any American with pretenses to an intellectual life should drift through it. It is not enough to have perused "The Const.i.tution" and to have "heerd tell" of the national founders.

1910. "The Finer Grain," collection of short stories without a slip.

"The Velvet Glove," "Mona Montravers," "A Round of Visits" (the old New York versus the new), "c.r.a.pey Cornelia," "The Bench of Desolation."

It is by beginning on this collection, or perhaps taking it after such stories as "The Pupil" and "Brooksmith," that the general literate reader will best come to James, must in brief be convinced of him and can tell whether or not the "marginal" James is for him. Whether or no the involutions of the "Golden Bowl" will t.i.tillate his arcane sensibilities. If the reader does not "get" "The Finer Grain" there is no sense in his trying the more elaborate "Wings of a Dove," "Sacred Fount," "Golden Bowl." If, on the contrary, he does feel the peculiar, uncla.s.sic attraction of the author he may or may not enjoy the uncanonical books.

1911. "The Outcry," a relapse. Connoisseurship fad again, inferior work.

1913. "A Small Boy and Others," the beginning of the memoirs. Beginning of this volume disgusting. First three pages enough to put one off Henry James once and for all, d.a.m.n badly written, atrocious vocabulary. Page 33, a few lines of good writing. Reader might start about here, any reader, that is, to whom New York of that period is of interest. New York of the fifties is significant, in so far as it is typical of what a hundred smaller American cities have been since. The tone of the work shows in excerpts:

"The special shade of its ident.i.ty was thus that it was not conscious--really not conscious of anything in the world; or was conscious of so few possibilities at least, and these so immediate and so a matter of course, that it came almost to the same thing. That was the testimony that the slight subjects in question strike me as having borne to their surrounding medium--the fact that their unconsciousnes could be so preserved...."

Or later, when dealing with a pre-Y.-M.-C.-A. America.

"Infinitely queer and quaint, almost incongruously droll, the sense somehow begotten in ourselves, as very young persons, of our being surrounded by a slightly remote, yet dimly rich, outer and quite kindred circle of the tipsy. I remember how, once, as a very small boy, after meeting in the hall a most amiable and irreproachable gentleman, all but closely consanguineous, who had come to call on my mother, I antic.i.p.ated his further entrance by slipping in to report to that parent that I thought _he_ must be tipsy. And I was to recall perfectly afterwards the impression I so made on her--in which the general proposition that the gentlemen of a certain group or connection might on occasion be best described by the term I had used, sought to destroy the particular presumption that our visitor wouldn't, by his ordinary measure, show himself for one of these. He didn't to all appearance, for I was afterwards disappointed at the lapse of lurid evidence: that memory remained with me, as well as a considerable subsequent wonder at my having leaped to so baseless a view...."

"The grim little generalization remained, none the less, and I may speak of it--since I speak of everything--as still standing: the striking evidence that scarce aught but disaster _could_, in that so unformed and unseasoned society, overtake young men who were in the least exposed.

Not to have been immediately launched in business of a rigorous sort was to _be_ exposed--in the absence, I mean, of some fairly abnormal predisposition to virtue; since it was a world so simply const.i.tuted that whatever wasn't business, or exactly an office or a "store," places in which people sat close and made money, was just simply pleasure, sought, and sought only, in places in which people got tipsy. There was clearly no mean, least of all the golden one, for it was just the ready, even when the moderate, possession of gold that determined, that hurried on disaster. There were whole sets and groups, there were 'sympathetic,'

though too susceptible, races, that seemed scarce to recognize or to find possible any practical application of moneyed, that is, of transmitted ease, however limited, but to go more or less rapidly to the bad with it--which meant even then going as often as possible to Paris...."

"The field was strictly covered, to my young eyes, I make out, by three cla.s.ses, the busy, the tipsy, and Daniel Webster...."

"It has carried me far from my rather evident proposition that if we saw the 'natural' so happily embodied about us--and in female maturity, or comparative maturity, scarce less than in female adolescence--this was because the artificial, or in other words the complicated, was so little there to threaten it...."

On page 72 he quotes his father on "flagrant morality." In Chapter X we have a remarkable portrayal of a character by almost nothing save vacuums, "timorous philistine in a world of dangers." Our author notes the "finer civility" but does not see that it is a thing of no period.

It is the property of a few individuals, personally transmitted. Henry James had a mania for setting these things in an era or a "faubourg,"

despite the continued testimony that the worst manners have constantly impinged upon the most brilliant societies; that decent detail of conduct is a personal talent.

The production of "Il Corteggiano" proves perhaps nothing more than the degree in which Castiglione's contemporaries "needed to be told." On page 236 ("Small Boy and Others") the phrase "presence without type." On page 286, the people "who cultivated for years the highest instructional, social and moral possibilities of Geneva." Page 283, "discussion of a work of art mainly hung in those days on that issue of the producible _name_." Page 304, "For even in those days some Americans were rich and several sophisticated." Page 313, The real give away of W.J. Page 341, Scarification of Ste-Beuve. Page 179, Crystal Palace.

Page 214, Social relativity.

One is impatient for Henry James to do people.

A LITTLE TOUR IN FRANCE. The disadvantage of giving impressions of real instead of imaginary places is that they conflict with other people's impressions. I do not see Angouleme via Balzac, nor do I feel Henry James's contacts with the places where our tracks have crossed very remarkable. I dare say it is a good enough guide for people more meagrely furnished with a.s.sociations or perceptions. Allow me my _pieton's_ shrug for the man who has gone only by train.

Henry James is not very deep in ancient a.s.sociations. The American's enjoyment of England in "The Pa.s.sionate Pilgrim" is more searching than anything continental. Windy generality in "Tour in France," and perhaps indication of how little Henry James's tentacles penetrated into any era before 1600, or perhaps before 1780.

Vignette bottom of page 337-8 ("Pa.s.sionate Pilgrim") "full of glimpses and responses, of deserts and desolations." "His perceptions would be fine and his opinions pathetic." Commiseration of Searle vs. detachment, in "Four Meetings."

Of the posthumous work, "The Middle Years" is perhaps the most charming.

"The Ivory Tower," full of acc.u.mulated perceptions, swift illuminating phrases, perhaps part of a masterpiece. "The Sense of the Past," less important. I leave my comment of "The Middle Years" as I wrote it, but have recast the a.n.a.lysis of notes to "The Ivory Tower."

Flaubert is in six volumes, four or five of which every literate man must at one time or another a.s.sault. James is strewn over about forty--part of which must go into desuetude, have perhaps done so already.

I have not in these notes attempted the Paterine art of appreciation, e.g., as in taking the perhaps sole readable paragraph of Pico Mirandola and writing an empurpled descant.

The problem--discussion of which is about as "artistic" as a street map--is: can we conceive a five or six volume edition of James so selected as to hold its own internationally? My contention is for this possibility.

My notes are no more than a tentative suggestion, to wit: that some such compact edition might be, to advantage, tried on the less patient public. I have been, alas, no more fortunate than our subject in keeping out irrelevant, non-esthetic, non-literary, non-technical vistas and strictures.

"THE MIDDLE YEARS"

The Middle Years is a tale of the great adventure; for, putting aside a few simple adventures, sentimental, phallic, Nimrodic, the remaining great adventure is precisely the approach to the Metropolis; for the provincial of our race the specific approach to London, and no subject surely could more heighten the pitch of writing than that the treated approach should be that of the greatest writer of our time and own particular language. We may, I think, set aside Thomas Hardy as of an age not our own; of perhaps Walter Scott's or of L'Abbe Prevost's, but remote from us and things familiarly under our hand; and we skip over the next few crops of writers as lacking in any comparative interest, interest in a writer being primarily in his degree of sensitization; and on this count we may throw out the whole Wells-Bennett period, for what interest can we take in instruments which must of nature miss two-thirds of the vibrations in any conceivable situation? In James the maximum sensibility compatible with efficient writing was present. Indeed, in reading these pages one can but despair over the inadequacy of one's own literary sensitization, one's so utterly inferior state of awareness; even allowing for what the author himself allows: his not really, perhaps, having felt at twenty-six, all that at seventy he more or less read into the memory of his feeling. The point is that with the exception of exceptional moments in Hueffer, we find no trace of such degree of awareness in the next lot of writers, or until the first novels of Lewis and Joyce, whose awareness is, without saying, of a nature greatly different in kind.

It is not the book for any reader to tackle who has not read a good deal of James, or who has not, in default of that reading, been endowed with a natural Jamesian sensibility (a case almost negligible by any likelihood); neither is it a book of memoirs, I mean one does not turn to it seeking information about Victorian worthies; any more than one did, when the old man himself was talking, want to be told anything; there are encyclopedias in sufficiency, and statistics, and human mines of information, boring sufficiency; one asked and isks only that the slow voice should continue--evaluating, or perhaps only tying up the strands of a sentence: "And how my old friend.... _Howells_...." etc.

The effects of H.J.'s first breakfasts in Liverpool, invited upstairs at Half Moon Street, are of infinitely more value than any anecdotes of the Laureate (even though H.J.'s inability not to see all through the Laureate is compensated by a quip melting one's personal objection to anything Tennyson touched, by making him merely an old gentleman whatsoever with a gleam of fun in his make-up).

All comers to the contrary, and the proportionate sale of his works, and statistics whatsoever to the contrary, only an American who has come abroad will ever draw _all_ the succulence from Henry James's writings; the denizen of Manchester or Wellington may know what it feels like to reach London, the Londoner born will not be able quite to reconstruct even this part of the book; and if for intimacy H.J. might have stayed at the same hotel on the same day as one's grandfather; and if the same American names had part in one's own inceptions in London, one's own so wholly different and less padded inceptions; one has perhaps a purely personal, selfish, unliterary sense of intimacy: with, in my own case, the vast unbridgeable difference of settling-in and escape.

The essence of James is that he is always "settling-in," it is the ground-tone of his genius.

Apart from the state of James's sensibility on arrival nothing else matters, the "mildness of the critical air," the fatuity of George Eliot's husband, the ill.u.s.trational and accomplished lady, even the faculty for a portrait in a paragraph, not to be matched by contemporary effects in half-metric, are indeed all subordinate to one's curiosity as to what Henry James knew, and what he did not know on landing. The portrait of the author on the cover showing him bearded, and looking rather like a cross between a bishop and a Cape Cod longsh.o.r.eman, is an incident gratuitous, interesting, but in no way connected with the young man of the text.

The England of a still rather whiskered age, never looking inward, in short, the Victorian, is exquisitely embalmed, and "mounted," as is, I think, the term for microscopy. The book is just the right length as a volume, but one mourns there not being twenty more, for here is the unfinished work ... not in "The Sense of the Past," for there the pen was weary, as it had been in "The Outcry," and the talent that was never most worth its own while when gone off on connoisseurship, was, conceivably, finished; but here in his depiction of his earlier self the verve returned in full vigor.

THE NOTES TO "THE IVORY TOWER"[11]

Receive SMS and Send Text Online for free >>

« Previous My Bookmarks Chapters Next»

Novel »
Next  »