Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Henry James Gets Down to Business

H.G. Wells once called Henry James "Leviathan moving a pebble." James Thurber, I think, once said that Henry James' writing was like an elephant trying to pick up a pearl. Which is more-or-less the same comment as Wells', but it's a better image so points to Thurber. It's true that the writing in the "big" James novels was enormous and dense and that all of this mass was used to examine the smallest of things, generally a delicate moment of sensitive awareness wherein a character realizes that life is not quite what he imagined it to be. Sort of like using a wind tunnel to create a fleeting sigh, though I'm just trying to outdo Thurber and I see that I have failed. Sigh.

But not all of James' writing can be slandered with the lie of ponderousness! For example, I'm currently reading the early short novel Washington Square. It is a very rapid novel, moving briskly forward with each word. Compare it to Portrait of a Lady and you'll see what I mean: in WS James puts as much into 12 pages as it would take him 120 to do in Portrait. But the narrative doesn't feel rushed, either; it's just, as I say, briskly rolling along.

Of course, in a work that gets underway so quickly and keeps up a great deal of forward motion, a writer has to get right down to business with every line. There's no filler, no passage work, no fluff and no coming to the point reluctantly. If James says something about a character, or gives that character a line of dialogue, you can rest assured that he's building the plot and developing character. Yes, usually at the same time. It's a remarkable primer on the craft of storytelling. I don't know why it's not taught in MFA programs. Maybe it is. But I doubt it.

Here is Catherine Sloper (the heroine of the tale) in conversation with Morris Townsend (a young man who has come to woo Catherine):

She confessed that she was not particularly fond of literature. Morris Townsend agreed with her that books were tiresome things; only, as he said, you had to read a good many before you found it out. He had been to places that people had written books about, and they were not a bit like the descriptions. To see for yourself--that was the great thing; he always tried to see for himself.

That sounds like nothing, like filler, like James giving a loose description of a couple of young people chatting, but it's not. There is so much happening in those four sentences: Catherine is not well-read, and now Morris knows it. Morris lets on that he's read a good many books and so he is well-read, but he's above all that now. He's sophisticated and worldly, but look how down-to-earth he really is. He tries to see for himself. And Catherine, you know, should see for herself just how honest and charming Morris is. He goes on to call himself "natural," contrasting his way of against with the artifice of art. See what a bright, charming, superior person he is. But of course he doesn't look down on Catherine, because she's come to the conclusion that literature is tiresome without bothering to tire herself out. Look how charming and bright and natural she is, too! No wonder Catherine is so flattered by his attention. All of this in four sentences, though of course you get all of the context in the actual novel, so you know something already about Catherine and you've seen by now how quickly Morris Townsend has descended upon the young lady. Still, it's a good lesson in brevity and making every word count.

Also, why did no one tell me how funny this book is? It's not the "Oh, what exquisite drollery, Henry" of his later novels; it's laugh-out-loud funny, Hank.


  1. I couldn't have told you the book was funny, unfortunately. I've yet to read a James book. But this makes me much more likely too.

  2. Read the short story "The Aspern Papers" and the novella "The Turn of the Screw" maybe. And then read this book! It's pretty great so far. I think I'm going to read Hadji Murad next, by the way.

  3. I must admit, I was traumatized by "The Golden Bowl" at a tender age. Not in a "I hate James" way, but it was intimidating. He was someone I should read, not that I wanted to read.

    But you should read "The Golden Bowl," to complete your books with "Bowl" in the title requirement.

  4. The Golden Bowl is on my "must read everything by Henry James" list already. It's something I *want* to read. There aren't a lot of good novels with "bowl" in the title. I just looked. Really, there's a serious shortage. I should write a book with "bowl" in the title, just to add to the list. It's a worthy project.

  5. The Bowl of Eels

    Cocke & Bowl

    The Last Bowl

    Go to the Bowl, Miss America

  6. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner: Davin Malasarn!