I read at some point over the summer a review in the NYRB of a book or two by Geoff Dyer. I bought both books on my Kindle because I’d read a novel by Dyer and enjoyed it immensely, and wanted to check out his non-fiction (I’m reading one now and digging it quite a bit, in fact). But I stray from my point, which I’ve made as yet no attempt to make: in the review there was a quote from one of the books under review, something about Dyer having “saved” Henry James for later in life, and then having discovered that he was incapable of reading Henry James in middle age because his brain was no longer up to the task.
That line set me to thinking about The Master, and how it had been nearly a decade since I’d read him–and the most recent attempt in my 30s hadn’t been a smashing success. I’d read The Outcry and found it dull and pointless, and had re-read The Spoils of Poynton and loathed it–and that was a novel I’d really enjoyed the first time around.
James is, of course, an acquired taste. I initially encountered him during a Senior Seminar course earning my first BA ages ago. The seminar topic was American Realism, and though I loved Frank Norris and William Dean Howells and Dreiser and others from that syllabus, it was James and The Ambassadors which really caught my attention. I spent the better part of the next decade reading the short fiction and novels; while getting my first MA I took a James class with Daniel O’Hara at Temple University, and thought and wrote about many of the novels and novellas I came to love passionately.
And then I drifted away from fussy old Henry. The Dyer review, however, sent me scrambling back to The Ambassadors, which I spent the last two months wrestling. Oh, those labyrinthine sentences! I think Dyer has a point–James is work, and if you are distracted at all by work or electronic gizmos or politics you may as well give up trying to fight your way through his late phase novels. I nearly killed myself with the effort.
But it was worth it. When his sentences aren’t painfully obtuse and pages long, they can be magnificently beautiful and deliciously ambiguous. His sinuous descriptions with their endless phrases constrict the reader like a boa, demanding close attention, but portraying the human tendency to fumble meaning and interpretation of others more accurately than any other author, realist or not. Once upon a time I “got” Chad Newsome; now I “get” Lambert Strether, and I feel intensely his life not lived, and his desire to escape vapid Protestant Woolett for the fantasy of Paris. Paris gets the best of Strether, and Chad and Madame de Vionnet abuse his good nature, but Strether takes it all in stride, and makes a profound sacrifice for his young charge. Though he failed in his mission, Strether will return home to face the consequences of his behavior; he gives up true happiness with Maria Gostrey in order to do what’s “right.” I’m attracted to his sense of duty and reliability, but don’t understand it. Strether should “live” as he advised Little Bilham to do; perhaps he thinks it’s too late? Perhaps he feels diminished by the way Europe treated his innocent New World naiveté?
At any rate, it will likely be a while before I re-read a late phase novel again–I’m not up to The Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl right now. Perhaps I’ll dial it back a bit and re-read The Portrait of a Lady, or What Maisie Knew? Or just stick to the stories, like “The Beast in the Jungle”? I can’t read what I want during the school year anyhow!
PS: I completely mis-remembered the climactic scene when Strether sees Chad and Madame de Vionnet in a boat. I’d imagined him sitting on Chad’s balcony witnessing the scene, and had forgotten its true setting. Indeed, an old brain!