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On Loving Henry James

Earlier this year, as part of my effort to read all of William Gass’s “Fifty Literary Pillars” (I’m over half way through it), I read Henry James’s The Golden Bowl. This complex novel, which acutely renders the verities of marriage and the duplicities of adultery, is full of breathtaking, not to mention quietly intimidating, syntactical convolutions, and it inspired me to follow through on a plan to read all of James’s novels, next year. This past week-and-a-half I decided to get a headstart, and thus plowed through the first three novels, Watch and Ward, Roderick Hudson, and The American; and by “plowing” I mean to conjure the image of a farmer slowly using an iron-beam walking plow to furrow the earth, turning back, himself, every so often, to drop a seed into the ground, using his foot to loosely cover up the seeds again. While none of these novels comes close to the infectious complexity, the architectural quality of The Golden Bowl, a late novel in the James canon, I’m continually impressed with James’s style in these early novels, with his robust descriptions, his erudition, his leaving-no-stone-uncovered examinations of intentions, his perspicacious attention to detail. What I’m describing about James is hardly new, and this lavish praise will perhaps do little to convince anyone to drop that ridiculously anemic novella written by the latest hipster writer, or the bloated and beached whale from the latest pretender, but perhaps it will encourage those readers out there who have long been enamored of James to share some thoughts about him, here.

That said, I think I’m going to detour from my project, for the moment, to read Frost, Thomas Bernhard’s debut novel, whose narrator, ironically enough, is in the middle of reading a novel by Henry James.

  • John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

8 thoughts on “On Loving Henry James

  1. I love James, too, and his protege, Wharton, although I could never get through the denseness of the The Ambassadors for some reason. You’ve inspired me to try again this year!

    1. Hi Jen,

      Apparently, James considered The Ambassadors the best of his novels, so I’m looking forward to reading it, too.

      Funny you mention Wharton. I read here that she was considered to edit James’s letters but the heirs rejected her, presumably because she was “a shockingly immoral woman.” Makes me want to read all things Wharton, too.

      1. Hey Jen,

        Another thing, I’m reading Thomas Bernhard’s Frost (of which I talk about, briefly, here, or, rather use a passage from it as a jumping off point for some dialogue). It’s narrator is reading a novel by James, but never mentions the title. At one point, he provides some clues: “I read my Henry James, without understanding what I’ve read: I seem to remember women following a coffin at a funeral, a railway train, a destroyed town, somewhere in England.” Not enough of a clue for me (it’s probably immediately obvious to James obsessives), I clicked around and found this article positing that the novel is The Ambassadors.

        The narrator of Frost later talks about an “incomprehensible sentence” by James “which kept [him] up all night,” which is further corroboration that it is late James that he may be reading. Though I’d hardly call anything by James “incomprehensible,” late James’s sentences definitely defy easy parsing.

    1. Hey John,

      I’m now in the middle of Frost, and enjoying it immensely. The painter’s observations and rants are alternately insane and evocative, and sometimes both. Passages about memory and time particularly stand out. And the medical student’s biting descriptions are beginning to shadow the man he’s supposed to observe and report on:
      “The landlady was an instance of someone not putting herself out because she doesn’t want to make anything of herself beyond the ordinary, unless it were something over time horribly repulsive, which doesn’t require any exertion, just a general letting-onself-go.”

      1. Oh, and here‘s a post about my intention to read all of Gass’s books (something I accomplished) and his Fifty Literary Pillars, the full list of which is in the comments. And you can find Gass’s commentary about most of the “pillars” here (unfortunately Google didn’t include some of the pages, but that’s a perfect incentive to pick up the book from the library or used somewhere).

  2. Oh, I can’t resist quoting from Bernhard’s Frost, again. Two-thirds or so into the novel, the narrator, while the painter takes a nap, once again takes out his Henry James, and says:
    “I often read for several pages, without understanding what I’ve read. Then I read them again, and see that what I read was good. It’s all about unhappy people.”

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