February 27, 2007

A NOVEL DEFENSE:

Illiterary criticism: If you can't stand Henry James, if Flaubert seems rubbish and Wordsworth simply 'a pile of arse', maybe that's your problem, not theirs. (Stephen Moss, February 26, 2007, The Guardian)

Sam Jordison doesn't think much of Henry James, and told us so on this site recently without any Jamesian syntactical beating about the bush. "Wading through his books seems to me to be the literary equivalent of wearing a very stiff and uncomfortable shirt simply in order to attend an endless speech given by a dull and pompous old headmaster," said the Hammerer of Henry, though the critique was weakened somewhat by his assertion that he had read only three of his novels and by his disappointment in finding that The Turn of the Screw was not "fun".

If Jordison wants straightforward early James, might I recommend The Portrait of a Lady and Washington Square? Then perhaps he could move on to the stodgier, often hard-to-assimilate later James - The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl. No one who has any serious interest in the evolution of the novel can afford to ignore these books, and James's oh-so-painful efforts to exactly represent human thought and emotion, every shade of it, in prose. It will exhaust you: James said his ideal reader would get through just five pages a day; you will lose his thread in the way you do with Proust's labyrinthine sentences; but you will surely appreciate the art and the ambition.


Translation: Sure, we all know James sucks, but you'll never understand why even suckier stuff follows without wading through the suckage. And folks wonder why the Anglosphere is so contemptuous of intellectuals?

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 27, 2007 9:17 AM
Comments

James's oh-so-painful efforts to exactly represent human thought and emotion, every shade of it, in prose

What is so laughable about this is how utterly false it is. Anyone who reads James is immediately struck by how inhuman his characters are. Forster had an ungrammatic point about James and his creations: "Their clothes off never come." (or something to that effect)

A Simpsons cartoon is a better representation of human nature: more honest and a helluva lot funnier.

Posted by: Dreadnought at February 27, 2007 10:47 AM

Wading through his books seems to me to be the literary equivalent of wearing a very stiff and uncomfortable shirt simply in order to attend an endless speech given by a dull and pompous old headmaster

That's the best description of reading James that I've ever heard.

Posted by: Brandon at February 27, 2007 12:15 PM

Dread -- yes, painful is the word for James.

"No one who has any serious interest in the evolution of the novel":

So that's the only reason to read James? That I can agree with.

I also resent the comparison with Proust. Proust may not be to everyone's taste, but he's infinitely more readable, and does in fact represent human emotion well. (and surprise, suprise, oj gave Swann's Way an A+)If this were the 18th c I'd challenge this twit Moss to a duel simply for the audacity of comparing James to someone with talent.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at February 27, 2007 12:34 PM

Orrin is forever regretting (and explaining) that "B" he gave to The Turn of the Screw.

He hasn't read much of anything else by James. He knows so little about James, he once said HJ was a Jane Austen fan.

Posted by: casey Abell at February 27, 2007 12:54 PM

Turn of the Screw is a fine genre ghost story. He should have stuck to them and he'd be a junior Poe or LeFanu.

Posted by: oj at February 27, 2007 3:38 PM

casey abell:

I think OJ made a comment a while ago that The Turn of the Screw was a pretty good ghost story.

I've never read it so I wouldn't know, but my general impression is that's the only James novel anybody ever reads, including literature professors.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at February 27, 2007 3:39 PM
« THEIR DEBT MADE THE BRITS A GREAT NATION: | Main | HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DEXTER: »