Sunday 26 July 2009

He asked me, "Does not Volume 1 of James lay heavily on your conscience?"

Cyber-spacial Thomas asked me this cutting question about a year ago, when I'd already been reading Volume 1 of Henry James' Collected Stories for 6 months or so. Not surprisingly, the answer was a "yes" followed by my donning a hair shirt which I only managed to take off last Thursday night when I finally finished this book.

Taking a year and a half to read a book was not good for my soul. I like closure. I enjoy looking back, in my mind, on a completed book almost as much as I like reading it in the first place. I also am not good at reading multiple things by a single author in a short period of time; and because James' idea of "short" fiction meant something like "less than 300 pages" I feel as though I've read about a thousand Henry James novels since March 2008.

HOWEVER, I have to say that as the volume progressed my pleasure in it increased. James' writing was superb from, I suspect, the moment he first put pen to paper, which was likely when he was about 4 hours old; but it got exponentially better as time passed (this volume is organized chronologically) and there were countless moments at which I stopped to re-read and re-read just startlingly beautiful or perfectly observed (usually both) passages.

While I enjoyed everything in this volume (well, almost - I don't think I'll ever be reconciled to "Daisy Miller"), two stories in particular stuck out for me: "The Aspern Papers" and "The Chaperon". "The Aspern Papers" was, to me, quintessential James in its look at what social boundaries one may in good conscience (or at least good appearance, which too often amount to the same) cross in pursuing artistic goals; like so many of James' stories, this one exhibited all the quiet and civilized cruelties humans can enact upon one another while remaining beautifully picturesque.

"The Chaperon" began in a similarly harsh way but ended in a surprisingly positive manner; it didn't focus as entirely on the "brutality...bright and finished" (p.1030) as the majority of the tales in this volume did. But its happy ending was purchased at such an expense of cynicism, cruelty, and closed-mindedness that I can barely wrap my head around it; I do know that I think it was perfect and astounding and SO good that as I was reading it I was also considering launching directly into volume 2 of James' Collected Stories in the hopes of finding more like it!

I will not do this, of course. For one thing, I clearly need to work on my neuroses concerning how long it takes me to finish any particular book; for another, there are some short stories by Gogol and essays by Montaigne and writing journals by Dostoevsky that have all been understandably reproaching me for my neglect of them. If I'm going to engage in more super-long, guilt-ridden collections soon, they'll have to be decidedly not Henry James-ish in nature.

But whatever my next massive "feel-bad even though the writing is amazing collection" is, I won't begin it very soon because I plan to enjoy, for as long as I can, the incredibly novel experience of having only one book on the go at a time.

Thomas emailed me a few days ago to congratulate me on having the James millstone removed from around my skinny neck and he included the following quotation from Henry James, Sr.; it's from a letter to his sons, William and Henry. Thomas forwarded this to prove to me that, contrary to my suspicions about James selling his soul at the crossroads for his writerly gift, it does seem to have been an example of quite enviable genetic lottery winning:
Every man who has reached even his intellectual teens begins to suspect that life is no farce, that it is not genteel comedy even, that it flowers and fructifies on the contrary out of the profoundest tragic depths of the essential dearth in which its subject's roots are plunged. The natural inheri­tance of everyone who is capable of spiritual life is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters.


Celine said...

This obscene bird congratulates you, madam, on your perseverance.

verbivore said...

"exhibited all the quiet and civilized cruelties humans can enact upon one another while remaining beautifully picturesque" I think I'll be hunting out Vol 1 of James now.

J.G. said...

I think it was Mark Twain who said that a clear conscience was the softest pillow, or something like that. (Hence my Themed Reading challenge was to achieve just that!)

Congrats on plowing on through and getting some closure.

Bookphilia said...

Thanks, Celine and J.G. I don't know if I'm sleeping better but I'm enjoying an extremely fat Dickens novel completely sans guilt.

Verbivore: If you do read some James, I want to hear about it...