Last week I re-read E.M. Forster's classic set of lectures on literature, Aspects of the Novel. In general, I like what Forster had to say about writing. But he talks, in his chapter on "Rhythm and Pattern," at some length about Henry James (using as his example the very James novel I'm reading now, The Ambassadors). Forster says that he admires James' use of language and James' formal control over his story, but James' novels always leave him cold because they are so controlled that they become almost inhuman, all about the form and the language and there's no beating heart under it all. Forster claims that, in order to read a Henry James novel, you must first accept that all human life has been removed from the narrative. When I was reading Forster's book, I was almost convinced he was right and that I should put away my James lest it poison my delicate artistic sensibilities.
Today at lunch I spent more time with The Ambassadors. And you know what? E.M. Forster was an idiot. The chapter I just read was amazing and human and funny and warm and is what a good novel should be. You can see a real emotional crisis about to explode for the protagonist, and you know that he can't see it coming. That's dramatic tension, right at the hinge between the second and third act. Just like you get in any E. M. Forster novel. So. There we are. Hurrah for art. I might also add that all of James' short stories and novellas are fabulous and rich and perhaps Forster just had no patience for James' long strands of fine observation. But Forster's impatience does not make Henry James cold and inhuman. It's worth noting that Forster admires D.H. Lawrence, and his novels were clearly influenced by the novels of Henry James (Forster claims Melville as Lawrence's primary influence, which is interesting but I think mistaken). I also pause to note that Virginia Woolf (whom I quite adore) couldn't stand Henry James, but her "interior" novels come hard on the heels of what James was doing. Woolf's problem (and, I think, Forster's as well) has to do with a dislike of the lower classes. Neither Woolf nor Forster understood the working classes or the poor, and while both of them were deeply interested in the life of the mind, I think they had definite ideas about what the mind contained, whereas James had more curiosity than preconceived notions. James' curiousness, his centipede-burrowing-through-a-dictionary way with words and his constantly provisional characterizations all probably meant nothing to his English critics.