Book Notes: Henry James and company - and a note for your calendar
Browsing, as I do, through book reviews and book essays I came across this in one of those “What our readers have read this year” columns, a piece by Toni Bentley, author of “Serenade: A Balanchine Story”:
“In time of great need ... I read only classics. ... I returned to Henry James - I can think of no greater pleasure than getting lost, entirely lost, in the four-page paragraphs and half-page sentences … I feel more intimacy with the beautiful windings of James’s mind than I ever could with a mere human.”
The writer continues by describing “exclamation points and ”Ha!’s of delight, the occasional Post-it note for easy re-visitation of the transcendentally wise.”
It was that “Ha! of delight” that found me turning to W.H Auden’s “At The Grave of Henry James,” finding myself, in my imagination, standing alongside Auden by “the small taciturn stone that is the only witness/ To a great and talkative man…. O poet of the difficult, dear addicted artist.” And then reading on to these very Audenesque lines in this passionate elegy (Cynthia Ozick called it “an incantation”):
“As I stand awake on our solar fabric,
That primary machine, the earth, which gendarmes, banks
And aspirin presuppose,
On which the clumsy and sad may all sit down,
and any who will
Say their a-ha to the beautiful, the common locus
Of the master and the rose.”
And so through 24 six-line stanzas, held together with an almost Jamesian rigor of structure, of iambic pentameter and hexameter lines, with every third and sixth line a rhyming tetrameter, we come to the penultimate stanza and a plea that all writers should be judged by their “works” that “are in better taste than their lives.”
This was something which Henry James himself believed, following the writers and artists he most admired, Sainte-Beuve, Proust, Ruskin and, above all perhaps, Turgenev, that “a book is the product of a self other than that which we display in our habits, in company, in our vices ... the self that has been waiting while one was with others, which one feels clearly to be the only real self, for alone artists end by living, like a god… to whom they have sacrificed a life that serves only to do him honor.” (Proust - Contre Sainte-Beuve). A god that James referred to as his “Bon” - his good.
The final stanza reaches an apogee of incantatory, operatic even, music, with Old Testament echoes made more poignant in that they were written in 1941:
“Because the darkness is never so distant,
And there is never much time for the arrogant
Spirit to flutter its wings,
Or the broken bone to rejoice, or the cruel to cry
For Him whose property is always to have mercy, the author
And giver of all good things.”
On Aug. 4, 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, James wrote to Emerson’s son, Edward, “It fills me with anguish and dismay - it gives away everything one has believed in & lived for.” He died on Feb. 28, 1916, having become a British citizen so that he could join the war effort.
It is, yes, exhilarating to spend time in the company of this “great and talkative” man. Among all the biographies, the editions of his letters, and his Notebooks, I have recently been reading “Henry James: A Life in Letters” edited, with copious notes and commentary, by Philip Horne.
Henry James knew everyone: Henry Adams was a life-long friend; he met Ruskin, Darwin, Tennyson, George Eliot, Flaubert, Zola, Turgenev to name some; and in these letters - his voice springing from the pages - one meets with the literary, social and political world of the second half of the 19th century. You learn of the writers who were his inspiration and mentors, how young he was when he was an acclaimed writer, how hard he worked! How, in those early days, the demands of his social life often left him little space to work, making the novel he was thinking about (“Portrait of a Lady”) “a lingering ache.”
You learn in London of “the times when the fog, the smoke, the universal uncleanness - overwhelm the spirit…. Considering that I lose all patience with the English about fifteen times a day & vow that I renounce them forever, I get on with them beautifully and love them well.” (L. to Charles Eliot Norton, Nov. 13, 1880). You travel with him to Europe and you are with him when he begins a life-long love affair with Venice, Ruskin’s “Stones of Venice” his inspiring guide.
It is fascinating to see in The Prefaces to his novels how much Ruskin’s principles of architecture, as well as Turgenev’s vision, became building blocks for his own writing. This passage in the Preface to “Portrait of a Lady” reads to me as though it came from “Stones of Venice,” though it was Turgenev whom James had in mind as he wrote: “it took nothing less than technical rigor… to inspire me with the right confidence for erecting on such a plot of ground the neat and careful and proportioned pile of bricks that arches over it, and was thus to form, constructionally speaking, a literary monument… a structure reared with an “architectural” competence…though I should clearly have to pile brick upon brick for the creation of an interest, I would leave no pretext for saying that anything is out of line, scale or perspective. I would build large - in fine embossed vaults and painted arches… yet never let it appear that the chequered pavement, the ground under the reader’s feet, fails to stretch at every point to the base of the walls.”
In his essay on Turgenev, James could be describing his own creative process, what he called his “donnée”: “he is a story-teller who has taken notes. … he notes down an idiosyncrasy of character, a fragment of talk, an attitude, a feature, a gesture, and keeps it, if need be, for twenty years, till just the moment for using it comes…”
James continues, “He has an eye for all our passions, and a deeply sympathetic sense of the wonderful complexity of our souls.” Here is one artist, one genius, recognizing another.
But for all that Henry James has written about his art and for all that has been written about Henry James - captivating as it is - what we have are his novels and stories - 20 novels and 112 short stories and novellas. For this reader there is nothing to compare to the delight of taking up, say, “Portrait of a Lady,” “The Ambassadors,” “The Golden Bowl” or “The Wings of a Dove,” “The Aspern Papers” or “The American,” “The Bostonians” or “Washington Square,” and being drawn into a drama of the mind and consciousness that will not let you go until its often ambiguous, always surprising, and somehow very modern ending, modern in that there are no easy resolutions.
Debates continue about the fate of Isabel Archer, and we realize that Lambert Strether can only do what he does if he is to be true to himself, and in “The Golden Bowl,” which James called “the solidest of all his fictions,” Maggie Verver, faced with “the horror of finding evil, seated all at ease, where she had only dreamed of good,” reacts to her situation with strength, wit and courage - a psychological drama that speaks clearly to the sensibility of the 21st century.
All is told with the sublimely “beautiful windings”of his sentences, sentences which are guaranteed to leave you in a different place after a transcendent journey. This is time richly rewarded, always, and we will say our “a-ha to the beautiful”.
As Henry James writes, rather disarmingly, at the end of his lengthy Preface to “Portrait of A Lady,” as though overwhelmed by the enormity of his artistic endeavor, “There is really too much to say.”
But most fortunately for us, on Sunday, April 16, we will have the opportunity to hear more about these “beautiful windings” from Julie Rivkin, the Charles MacCurdy Professor of American Studies at Connecticut College, at 5 p.m. at Stonington Free Library in our Sunday Evening Lecture Series. Please join us.
Belinda de Kay is director emeritus of the Stonington Free Library.