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Friday, July 10, 2015

Henry James as supermike

This summer I decided, once again, to go the eight rounds with James’ The Ambassadors, a novel I have never been able to finish. This is weird to me, since I am a great admirer of the late James, and in particular the two novels associated with The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, which preceded it, and The Golden Bowl, which came after it – speaking strictly in terms of order of publication.
Of course, the late style is either damned for its obscurity or praised for its epistemological complexity – but it is always there as a fact, one of the stranger facts in American literature, to put besides Melville’s style, and Faulkner’s.  James managed, in these late novels that were dictated to his secretary, to combine the diffuse and the dense, and by their opposition and entanglement create those great sentence-enigmas.  James, by this point, knew what he stood for ethically, aesthetically, and even, one might say, ontologically – he stood for discrimination. By this, he meant a fidelity to the adventure of perception, to the adventure of not missing things. The problem is that too much perception seems to fatallly thwart the larger narrative movement – or so say the haters. But to me, and to other Jamesians, the effect is really to only that of making it necessary to subdue oneself to the peculiar pulse and pattern of James’ telling. As Aubrey Beardsley supposedly said on his deathbed, beauty is difficult – an ethos which, in Henry James, sometimes seems to have been overused, as though the difficult were always beautiful. Still, once you have the sound down, the novels go at a good clip. In fact, the lentissimo introduced by certain curling and recursive passages becomes something to look forward to, much as a kayaker looks forward to white water downstream. The enigmatic sentences are sport.
Of course, this is not the whole story. The structures wouldn’t work without their vicious little human interest at the base. What is Wings of the Dove, in the end, but the story of a grift – Kate Croy’s beautiful vision for all of Milly Theale’s gorgeous money? And what is The Golden Bowl but a page six gossip item, quasi incest and full on adultery among the wealthy? Intimacy, in James, is the prelude to betrayal. Treason is in the blood – the close connections woven by family, old friendship, sex, and the inescapable proximities of the house hold. For this reason, its turned out that James’s works are really easy to turn into great television – they have a surprising affinity to the soap opera. Although soap operas are teased for their grand production of coincidences, those coincidences, too, are subordinate to the violence visited by nearest and dearest one upon the other.
Unfortunately, this tabloid spirit is absent, or nearly absent, as far as I can tell, from The Ambassadors. James was proud of this novel, his last novel to be serialized in a major magazine – The Atlantic. I can just  imagine the editorial conferences as the novel wended its incomprehensible way through the issues. In this novel, James finally exhausted his Racinian jones, his desire to create a piece of work that left as many things as possible out. Discrimination is, after all, the art of getting as much as possible out of a hint. And I can see the fun in that!
But still – the novel tends to defeat me by page one hundred. It is a curious thing – ordinarily, novels that defeat readers defeat themselves. James is right, though, that this rule is not universal. All of his novels in one way or another press on the initiatory expectation that the reader is never a passive recipient of the novel, never a mere consumer, a like/don’t like automaton. Rather, the reader’s reflexes, his or her skills, must be tested, must be ritually hazed, before he or she can be granted the full force of the whole, impossible vision of life the novel delivers. Impossible, in as much as it is fiction, and a whole vision, in as much as it is art.
Sign me up! I usually think.
Well, this time around, I think I’ve finally figured out the thing about the Ambassadors. Other novels of its cohort were written to maximize the obliqueness of the prospect – but in this novel, James lets himself go to the extent that he dispenses with “good” writing altogether – or if not altogether, at least for large stretches.  I noticed this early on – there’s a scene in which Lambert Strether, our percipient in this book, meets Maria Gostrey, another percipient. Percipients, in James’ novels, tend to associate in order to conspire – and so these two do, almost immediately. Strether is on a mission for the woman to whom, as we are not exactly told, he is betrothed, or at least whom he is confident of marrying if he carries his mission out. This woman, Mrs. Newsome, is a formidable widow, rich and rectitudinous, whose son Chad lives in Paris with his mistress. Chad, so far, has preferred this life to a position in the Newsome business. Strether’s mission is to separate Chad from Paris and his mistress and pack him back to America. He is relying on help from Waymarsh, a New England lawyer of the grand American type, who finds Europe uppity and corrupt.
There’s the making of a good plot here. Patricia Highsmith saw that and, with suitable alterations, made her first Ripley novel out of a similar mission from America to Europe. But James’ adage, always dramatize, seems to fail him here, partly because of what he does leave out.
But I am not going to go in that direction. Rather, this is the passage where I got hooked on a different reading of this novel.   The she here is Maria Gostrey, the he Lambert Strether:

“She was as equipped in this particular as Strether was the reverse, and it made an opposition between them which he might well have shrunk from submitting to if he had fully suspected it. So far as he did suspect it he was on the contrary, after a short shake of his consciousness, as pleasantly passive as might be. He really had a sort of sense of what she knew. He had quite the sense that she knew things he didn't, and though this was a concession that in general he found not easy to make to women, he made it now as good-humouredly as if it lifted a burden. His eyes were so quiet behind his eternal nippers that they might almost have been absent without changing his face…”

Say what? I said to myself here. You could have plucked out his eyes and their absense might almost have gone unnoticed?
Which makes me want to cry out: Everybody go, hotel motel holiday inn/ if your girl starts acting up, then you take her friend. Or something. Because the hip has definitely gotten the hop on me, here. And then it dawned on me that James, sly dog, was laying down a mandarin appearance that really disguises a letting go of all the highly structured shit that went into Victorian and Edwardian prose. As soon as it occurred to me that the Ambassadors might be badly written, I began to see more possibilities in the thing. More humor, more hidden intention, more self mockery.
Now I’m past the dangerous 100 page point, and so far the awfulness of the writing, under the beautiful pretense, has called out to me again and again. I’m not sure what is up, but I am beginning to think that James, for a change, is playing Supermike and committing a long crime against his own style of art for the very hell of it.  

All I'm here to do ladies is hypnotize
Singing on and on and on on and on
The beat don't stop until the break of dawn
Singing on and on and on on and on
Like a hot buttered a pop da pop da pop dibbie dibbie
Pop da pop pop ya don't dare stop

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