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Cathy

Henry James - any recommendations?

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Someone gave me 'Author, Author' by David Lodge for my birthday, I'm already finding myself swept along with the story of it, but feel I should also make the effort to read one of his novels to get the most out of it - any recommendations for where to start?

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James is one of those writers that many people find hard to like. He is famed for his long, winding (some might say tortuous!) sentences and his books can take a little work to get into.

 

This is also because what he excels at doing is portraying repressed emotion. These portraits are skilled and insightful, though necessarily have the quality of pastels rather than vivid colours.

 

His greatest work is probably The Portrait of a Lady, charting the fortunes of a young American in Europe, Isabel Archer. She is pretty, intelligent and independent-minded and we see her life in the midst of the 'older' values of Europe (a familiar topic for James). It's actually very moving and I like it, though wouldn't rave as much as many commentators do.

 

It's a reasonably hefty novel and if you fancy something shorter you might like Washington Square, which isn't as innovative as James' later novels but is still highly engaging. Different again is The Turn of the Screw (even shorter!). This is arguably the greatest ghost story ever written and is a fine exercise in psychological fiction that has been turned into film on more than one occasion (Most notably, The Innocents).

 

The Bostonians is also very well thought of.

 

Should keep you busy!

:)

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Oh dear! I'll have a go and see how I get on... was going to try Portrait of a Lady but maybe I'll go for something shorter!

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I'm sure I read Turn of the Screw about 10 years ago. I can't remember anything about it though. I had a phase where I had exhausted the local library and most of the school library and it was suggested I tried some classics - I'm positive this was one, I also read James Joyce Ulysses and ever since have always got the two muddled up! Don't ask me why!

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katrina 25th April 2006 08:43 PM

 

Cathy not sure if youre still looking for advice on Henry James but I would recommend What Maisie Knew or The Turn of the Screw I really enjoyed both and neither are too long to read.

 

What Maisie Knew is written from the viewpoint of a child about her parents divorce and The Turn of the Screw is kind of a ghost story if I remember rightly, I know it was a book within a book scenario but can't quite remember the details (was a good 6 years ago)

 

Momo 25th April 2006 09:51 PM

 

I have read The American and quite liked it. But maybe because of this:

Originally Posted by David

James is one of those writers that many people find hard to like. He is famed for his long, winding (some might say tortuous!) sentences and his books can take a little work to get into.

If you see some of my postings, you'll understand. :D

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I first became aware of Henry James when Colm Toibin released The Master. After The Master, I would have been happy never to hear of James again - it was a dull, dull book about an apparently dull, dull man. Imagine my ambivalence, then, when I was given a copy of The Aspern Papers and The Turning of the Screw...

 

But from a sense of duty, I did open the book. And I'm glad I did. Yes, Henry James does write some long and pompous sentences. In The Aspern Papers, these are forgivable since the narrator has to be a bit of a pompous man himself. I thought it worked less well in Screw, simply because it made the female private tutor seem, somehow, mannish. But where both tales excelled was in creating suspense and mystery. In Aspern, the suspense centres around a game of cat and mouse to persuade an aged former lover of the poet Jeffrey Aspern to part with her private writings and papers from Aspern; and in Screw it seems to concern the possession of two children by ghosts. In both, though, the eventual outcome is genuinely up for grabs right to the end with twists and turns aplenty.

 

And David is right about the leitmotif of repressed emotion. But unlike the portrayal in The Master, I got the feeling that James understood the whole gamut of human emotion very well. It must have taken a great sense of empathy, both with the characters to understand the emotions being surpressed, and also with the reader to understand how to create a welling feeling of hope, expectation and fear. Henry James seemed very much a man of the world - as he probably had to be, selling his work by installments in magazines.

 

I couldn't help noticing a similarity in style with Sheridan LeFanu, particularly in the ghostly theme of Screw. LeFanu also wrote a mixture of short stories, tales and novels, many of which had a deepening sense of mystery and forboding. I suspect LeFanu's writing style is often more acessible (i.e. shorter sentences) but there is also a tendency towards Victorian pomposity. The two writers also seemed to share a real need to set the narrator into a context - it was not enough to pitch in with the story, the narrator had to have a reason for telling it. This may seem rather outdated (although Neil Bartlett took it to new heights with Skin Lane this year), but it does have quite a charm to it.

 

Of the two tales, I much preferred The Aspern Papers, perhaps because it didn't rely on ghosts (although the old lady did claim to be 150) and thus created a surreal but conceivable world. It also seemed to twist more as the narrator found himself variously on the front foot and back foot, but always erring on the side of caution for fear of losing the prize. Screw is, perhaps, a bit more linear. But as an introduction to Henry James - and even one jaded by Toibin's unfortunate tribute - the two tales make an excellent starting point.

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I have to own up to being the Henry James pusher in this particular instance, so I'm glad the read didn't turn out to be all unpleasant duty ;)

 

There's a very interesting alternative reading which can be made of The Turn of the Screw, in fact, one of the reasons I enjoy it so much is because you can read it in two ways at the same time. This is that the children are not haunted at all, not by ghosts, not by anything except the governess's own, well, for want of a better word, insanity. In a much simplified form of this reading (entire books have been written on it) she is attracted to the children's father, but being Victorian and repressed, she interprets her own desire as evil and projects this onto the children's previous caretakers. I strongly suspect Henry James of playing a game with us. Something along the lines of, you want to hear a ghost story? Let me show you a thing or two about ghost stories... I think, too, that this could be behind the 'framing' device whereby other characters read the governess's transcript.

 

I realise this risks a descent into psychobabble but it's still interesting to note that Henry was actually the brother of William James, the psychologist. (They must have had some interesting dinner table conversations!) In any case, whether the ghosts are real or the governess insane is a continuing point of literary debate.

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There's a very interesting alternative reading which can be made of The Turn of the Screw, in fact, one of the reasons I enjoy it so much is because you can read it in two ways at the same time.

Exactly so - some of the best novels (or novellas) endure because they are far from clear. The ambiguity of this story is beautifully executed and as teasing as a spectral shadow in a darkened room on the periphery of your vision!

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I first became aware of Henry James when Colm Toibin released The Master. After The Master, I would have been happy never to hear of James again - it was a dull, dull book about an apparently dull, dull man.
Oh no, Mr H! Just the opposite! Don't listen to him, dear readers ;)

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Oh no, Mr H! Just the opposite! Don't listen to him, dear readers ;)

You can all read the discussion about that here, whilst Mr HG and BP may want to duke it out there! ;)

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There's a very interesting alternative reading which can be made of The Turn of the Screw...

I'm afraid I missed it entirely. It went right over my head, and my head was at 11000m at the time so it must have been very high indeed.

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I just found a website here www.turnofthescrew.com that is actually a survey of the ghost/insanity debate over 80 years. It looks scarily like a PhD thesis with hyperlinks because... uh... that's what it is. I don't feel remotely tempted to read it but just a glance at the number of texts the author cites reveals what an astonishingly large amount of time and ink has been devoted to this debate - over such a short novella, too.

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Thanks for the link Kimberley. It does report plausible arguments for the non-apparitionist cause but these seem to rely to some extent upon a wider knowledge of James's works. I was aware that the children had never acknowledged the presence of the ghosts but I thought that their general behavious, plus Mrs Grose's identification of the ghosts, was an indication that the ghosts were real (in fact, I had no reason to even question their existance other than the opening framing device which offered an element of scepticism) but now I can see the other argument. Not being a subscriber to the joys of Freud, I have to take others' word for the symbolism that should have aroused my suspicions of the governess's personal morality.

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HI

I enjoyed all of your posts especially about TOTS. I remember reading a piece about Henry James being very surprised at the reaction this book received. To him it was a straight ghost story w/no particular symbolism or double interpretations. This of course may or may not be true ... but the writer goes on to say that when questioned about the ending James realized what he had done and couldn't comment on who was crazy and who was not.

 

The fact that so many books, articles, theses and more have been written discussing TOTS speaks to the psychological impact it has on readers right on into the 21stC. James was able to confront the collective unconscious and put readers on guard against their own primative fears.

 

The value of reading TOTS lies in its ability to provoke readers to ask questions about the characters, plot, setting and leitmotif and their reactions to them all.

 

I read the book more than 25yrs ago and one small scene still resonates with me: the governess is in the parlor where a large vase of roses is on display ... as she passes the table the petals begin to fall off the flowers and die. I love interesting symbolism and Henry James's novels are full of so many instances of 'hidden messages' like this ... whether he meant them to be or not.

 

I have not read all of his books but the ones I read have given me great pleasure and TOTS has fortified me w/much to discuss.

 

For more on James you might want to read one of the sterling bios. of his life or just put his name in your search engine and actually surf the net.

 

ENJOY

GERBAM

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For beginners I'd recommend Washington Square, the story of a plain honest girl, Catherine Sloper, who, much to her father's chagrin, falls for a charming fortune-hunter. The moral and psychological struggle between the competing claims of parental and romantic love recall the similar predicament of Fanny Price (not that Fanny was all that romantic in her sensible sibling-like attachment to Edmund) at the Bertrams in Mansfield Park. We even have an interfering aunt a la Mrs Norris in Mrs Penniman. It's a very tense and moving story and, typically Jamesian, in having a sad withdrawing end, a sense of life never quite living up to what it might have been. Unlike JA, no rosy endings in James.

 

From there I would suggest venturing into the stormy waters of the so-called 'mandarine-style' later James - Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove especially. Of course, unlike JA, HJ has also written some clunkers - I'm thinking of The Princess Casamassima especially, and I was never quite sure What Maisie Knew or even if it was worth the effort of finding out.

 

As for The Turn of the Screw, a goldmine for academics and grad students of Am Lit, I was never convinced that it was much more than a clever little thriller. The heavy symbolism both teased and annoyed me.

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Let me put my cards on the table. I find it very hard to forgive Henry James for having the sheer effrontery to write that George Eliot's Middlemarch was "a treasure-house of detail but an indifferent whole". It is a magnificent whole, and one of the most intricately plotted novels ever written. And in consequence I relish re-reading the following anecdote from Malcolm Bradbury's The Modern British Novel, relating the visit paid by James to George Eliot towards the end of the latter's life:

From James' account in his memoir The Middle Years (1917), he clearly had high hopes of the encounter. He knew Eliot, admired her, celebrated her in print. He plainly hoped that some acknowledgement of descent, some apostolic laying on of hands, would occur - that she would recognize, as he put it, that he was doing "her sort of work."

 

The occasion, alas, did not go as planned. Tea was, James noted, "a conceivable feature of the hour"; it was not served. The visit was brief, then, as James and his companion were going, Lewes [Eliot's literary adviser and sexual partner] told them to wait a moment, left, and returned with two books, saying, "Ah, those books - take them away, please, away, away!" The books, when inspected outside, proved to be the two volumes of The Europeans, James' new novel, which his companion had thoughtfully sent in advance.

One would love to have been a fly on the wall.

 

You will have gathered that I'm in the anti-James camp. Yes, but with a lingering malaise about the situation... because I constantly feel I am supposed to be able to appreciate James, and because there is the vague threat that, if circumstances so conspire against me, I may have to teach something by him one of these days...

 

But my unsuccessful attempt at re-reading What Maisie Knew has just confirmed that I really can't bear James. The novel is famous for being a child's-eye-view of her parents' divorce, the subsequent remarriage of each parent, then the affair that begins between the stepfather and the stepmother, the parents having moved on to further conquests and ensnarements. Which results in prose such as the following:

She turned her fevered little eyes over his friend's brightnesses, as if, on her own side, to press for some help in a quandary unexampled. As if also the pressure reached him, he after an instant stopped short, completing the prodigy of his attitude and the pride of his loyalty by a supreme formulation of the general inducement. 'You've an eye, love! Yes, there's money. No end of money.'

You can just hear the little six-year-old consciousness puzzling it all out, can't you? And no, I haven't deliberately quoted these sentences out of context to make them sound unfathomable - believe me, they sound just as unfathomable in context. And now ("henceforth", James would have said) mark the point where I decided, last night, that I shall possibly never again, circumstances permitting, try to pretend that Henry James is worth bothering with. Even if, admittedly, I enjoyed The Aspern Papers. And sort of liked The Ambassadors and The Portrait Of A Lady. And hated The Turn Of The Screw, about which the only good thing is the opera Benjamin Britten turned it into.

 

But the man is such a total pedant. There is an anonymous, and quite probably apocryphal, remark along the lines that Edith Wharton wrote the sort of novels Henry James would have written if he had been a man. It is a bitchy kind of remark, but if you've read Wharton and James you will see exactly what is meant. Edith Wharton, and indeed George Eliot as well, threw caution to the wind and got on with living their decidedly unconventional emotional and sexual lives. Which can only have contributed something to their fiction. Whereas, as far as I'm concerned, the portrait of James painted by Colm Toibin in The Master hits the spot. I really reckon he was all brain, all intellectual analysis, no passion (passion inconveniently taking up time and energy that can be put into concocting tedious novels) and - most emphatically - no balls.

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Such an interesting thread. I have been meaning to read James for ages - having read Wharton and loved her work and because they were of a time and place together. Up until your comments jfp, I was quite convinced I would enjoy his works - now I am really intrigued to find out for myself. Thanks everyone.

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James is possibly the subtlest and most illuminating of novelists. Following every scruple and motive of his main characters, he gradually lets in shafts of light into that cavern that is the human mind (if that's not too pretentious a way of putting it). For me a re-reading of The Ambassadors, Portrait of a Lady or The Wings of the Dove is sheer delight. Which is not to say that George Eliot in her way is not equally sharp as a tack in analysing human motive; it's just that her way is not his way, which is to show the cloudiness and uncertainty of human perception. Only gradually in James, only agonisingly does a moment of revelation strike - both central consciouness and reader together. Thus in The Wings of the Dove Densher loves Kate Croy and both love in their way the dying heiress Milly Theale, but Kate's love has ulterior motives, which Densher only gradually comes to appreciate. Here Densher has evidence of Kate's duplicity as they face each other for a showdown:

 

'Densher accordingly, at last, acted to better purpose: he drew, standing there before her, a pocketbook from the breast of his waistcoat and drew from the pocketbook a folded letter, to which her eyes attached themselves. He restored then the receptacle to its place, and, with a movement not the less odd for being visibly instinctive and unconscious, carried the hand containing his letter behind him.'

 

Of course this little cameo could have been rendered in fewer words, less formally and in less pedantic language, but think what would have been lost if James had written simply, 'She saw him take out his pocketbook and hide the letter behind his back.' If you cannot appreciate the slow back and forth processes you miss the tension behind the fairly simple gesture. And you should be reading not James but John Grisham.

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I appreciate James but I don't like him. I congratulate him on Portrait but I can never forgive him for creating Henrietta Stackpole! (character I would most like to throttle.)

 

He is very hard going-you cannot read quickly or you will get completely lost. Better understood with more readings. But if you like a challenge go for it.

 

It also gets my award for most infuriating ending.

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