Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Profound Fog: Henry James cut off.

“Live all you can, it’s a mistake not to”, Strether told Little Bilham and I took that as permission to leave The Ambassadors that maundering saga of rentiers beset by velleity. The inherent snobbery of just saying Paris, Paris as though that were enough to explain its liberating effect, if such it has, smacks of provincial awe. What happened Henry? Ford Madox Ford in his Mightier than the Sword clearly distinguished the two James’s.

And you have to remember that some years after the 1888 in which he wrote the words I have quoted, Mr. James underwent an experience that completely altered his point of view, his methods, and his entire literary practice. His earlier stages, Mr.James the Second contrived entirely - or almost entirely - to obscure in a sort of cuttlefish cloud of interminable phrases. Until the middle nineties nothing could have exceeded the masculine firmness, the quiet force of his writing, and of no one else than himself could it more justly be written that “less than anyone did he beat the air, more than anyone did he hit out from the shoulder”.

Ford goes on to describe the demeanor of the earlier James, confident, firm, magisterial and contrasts it with a sad decline:

But about the later James, clean-shaven, like an actor, so as to recover what he could of the aspect of youth, nervous; his face for ever mobile; his hands for ever gesturing; there hung continually the feeling of a forced energy, as of a man conscious of failure and determined to conceal mortification. He had had two great passions - the one for a cousin whom he was to have married and who died of consumption while they were both very young, and the other for a more conspicuous but less satisfactory personage who in the end at about the time when the break occurred, let him down mercilessly, after a period of years. And the tenacity of his attachments was singular and unforgetting.

So then, a woman and a ‘personage’. Quite!

Ford considered The Spoils of Poynton a great example of the earlier firmer James and the nouvelle form at which he excelled. Thus counseled I read it and I agree. James himself was very fond of fine interiors as of course was another young pal Edith Wharton so the sense of the sacred trust of a collection, even if created by oneself, is perfectly believable.

It was not the crude love of possession; it was the need to be faithful to a trust and loyal to an idea.

Running the risk of creating a spoiler for ‘Spoils’ what of the ending? Is it the revenge of Owen and really Fleda might have been more brisk? James like a good cabinetmaker liked to line up the slots on his screws even with a final risky turn that might twist the head off them.

3 comments:

ktismatics said...

"Provincial awe" is a kind of theme song for James all the way through, isn't it? "Ooh, London!" the gauche but rich American gushes. "Ooh, Paris! Ooh, Italy!"

Amusing that Ford regards the rococo obliquity of the later James as effeminate. Maybe that's what creeped Hemingway out about Ford: "Ooh Ernest, you're so direct, so manly!"

ombhurbhuva said...

"Pretty soon I will have to throw this away so I better try to be calm like Henry James. Did you ever read Henry James? He was a great writer who came to Venice and looked out the window and smoked his cigar and thought." 

So wrote Hemingway though the influence of James was more of a counter-positive - James had to exist so that Hemingway could deny him. They both however are influenced by Turgenev. I have never read a biography of James so his snobbery and inverted provincialism are a mystery to me considering his long immersion in ‘abroad’.

The importance of being manly for Ernest certainly impressed itself on the littérateurs of Paree. Were there gibes by Ford in the worst sort of way saying the sort of thing that no man should say to another? It’s possible.

ktismatics said...

Recently I watched Woody Allen's fluffy nostalgic homage to Paris of the twenties. Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Stein show up, along with some post-impressionist painters. All are drawn as caricatures. The strong silent type with mustache and pensive furrowed brow: we already know who he is before he introduces himself? Ford Madox Ford doesn't make an appearance, probably because most of the intended audience would never have heard of him.