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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Baroque Henry James

Monday, October 15, 2012

Writing in the latest London Review of Books, James Wood lauds Henry James. I confess that I struggle to get on with Henry James, and I struggle also to understand what it is about his famous style that gets critics - even great critics like Wood - so dizzily appreciative. Time and again a sentence that Wood extracts and applauds in his review seems to me to fall flat on reflection.

For a start, there is the much-quoted sentence about Mrs Touchett, who:
had a face with a good deal of rather violent point.
Is this not the oldest trick in the book, defining someone's inner character by their outer characteristics? That "good deal" and "rather" is cheaply condescending, though one might be generous here and say that James is adopting a free indirect mode, taking on the colloquial judgmentalism of the Anglo-American community in the novel and passing it off as his own.

But James' renowned free indirect style in which the voice of character and narrator blur together seems rather more problematic in the following, when in Portrait of a Lady Osmond announces his love for Isabel, who is forced to confront the possibility of marrying him:
the tears came into her eyes: this time they obeyed the sharpness of the pang that suggested to her somehow the slipping of a fine bolt - backwards, forwards, she couldn't have said which.
This troubles me on two levels. Firstly, there's that pedantic "somehow," which implies that the image of the bolt arrives spontaneously, unintentionally. We are invited to see that Isabel's tears are rising in spite of herself - hence the passive voice, "the tears came into her eyes" - yet through the trauma Isabel is still able to make a metaphor. Of course the image actually comes from from the writer himself, and that "somehow" is an apology for the confusion. The idea of the bolt slipping backwards and forwards, opening and closing, is conveniently metonymic of Isabel's wider fate, the closing off of certain other prospects that this marriage represents. It is an image seen from the outside in, the writer's eye view of Isabel in his plot, not - as that "somehow" seems to impute - from the inside out, Isabel pondering her own fate in the uncertain moment of its happening.

And then there is that qualification: "backwards, forwards, she couldn't have said which." One visualises a woman in tears of confusion, nevertheless trying to solve a complex mechanical problem. And yet when one thinks about it some more, would it matter even if she could say which? For the bolt to go backwards - open - in relation to Osmond must make it go forwards - closed - in relation to her other prospects, or vice versa. Even if she could say which way it slides with Osmond, then, the ambiguity as to her fate would still be there, as the reader already well knows.

One is grateful, then, that this concept is stated more effectively in the next sentence:
The words he had uttered made him, as he stood there, beautiful and generous, invested him as with the golden air of early autumn; but, morally speaking, she retreated before them—facing him still—as she had retreated in the other cases before a like encounter.
This is more realistic, paring the scene back to its outer essentials rather than trying to delineate a mind which seems to work with the precision of clockwork. The surface image is all here: a man stands before Isabel, attractive and seductive. What he represents is also problematic. Which to choose? The fact that Isabel continues to face him physically whilst retreating from him morally is a neat contrast, privileging the reader with access to her thoughts that Osmond standing before her cannot possess.

Of course, I am being very pedantic in all this, taking apart a single phrase and seeing the ways in which it does or does not fit together. Nevertheless, this is the problem with James, the sense of a complete explanation concealed in each remark, so that one wants to unpick it to figure out how the trick happened - whereupon there is sometimes little real magic after all, just the sleight of the sentence. The most obvious example of this, and my favourite-worst Jamesian sentence, is this bewildering conjuring act, from The Turn of the Screw:
Nothing was more natural than that these things should be the other things that they absolutely were not.
I read this sentence numerous times. I turned the book upside down. I tried it backwards. It still makes not one head or tail of sense to me. Perhaps that is the point, since the story is precisely about what Flora knows, projects or objectively sees, and in this case things which are true can also be false, things present for one may be absent for another. But please, show me this at the level of the novel, whole as it were, rather than asking me to scrutinise it closely, like a scientist whose eyes ache from trying to pin down the wriggling cells at the end of his microscope.

Henry James accused Thomas Hardy of having "little sense of proportion and almost none of composition." To my mind, James is the other way around, all composition and little proportion, so that what emerges is the overbearing sentence that does more work than it needs or ought. Grammatically perfect, yes. Syntactically sinuous, certainly. But the craftsmanship seems at best excessive and at worst redundant. Writing this grumpy blog, I've been struggling for the word I want to summarise what I object to, and I think it is this: Henry James is too baroque.

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Posted by Alistair at 4:06 pm

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