"but I come back, I come back, as I say, I all throbbingly and yearningly and passionately, oh, mon bon, come back to this way"
November 1, 2004 10:11 AM   Subscribe

The Ladder is a website devoted to the writer Henry James (1843-1916). It comprises electronic editions of a selection of James’s works and also
* a textual note on the source and any amendments required during editing
* annotations of the text explaining such things as references to real persons and places, references to other fiction by James, or in in his notebboks
* a summary and a detailed (chapter by chapter) synopsis of the plot, so you can easily find passages you remember, by what happens
* a bibliography including original publications, subsequent reprints
Interestingly enough, lately more than a few writers seem to have a bit of James-mania: in June, Colm Tóibín published "The Master", a portrait of James recovering from his humiliating failure as a playwright. Now comes "Author, Author", by David Lodge, which is about James' humiliating failure as a playwright as well. These in turn arrive on the heels of Emma Tennant's "Felony", a novel about James' near-romance with Constance Fenimore Woolson, and Alan Hollinghurst's "The Line of Beauty", a BookerPrize-winning novel in which James plays an important off-the-stage role.
posted by matteo (12 comments total)

Vidal's reply ends with the priceless

The Golden Bowl is neither Tosca nor a prothalamion. It is a story radiant with the art of a master fulfilled; and dark with the profound knowledge of how force is motor to all our lives. It is no accident that in Henry James's final delirium he thought that he was Napoleon Bonaparte.
posted by matteo at 11:56 AM on November 1, 2004

Matteo, I applaud your attempts to balance the front page over the past several months of AmeriPoliFilter. Only one more day until armageddon. Do keep up the good work. It is very much appreciated.
posted by shoepal at 12:09 PM on November 1, 2004

I like Alice. I like William. I like the father, with his "mental life destabilized by a horrible childhood burn, the indolence of inherited wealth, and an inexplicable mental collapse he learned (following Swedenborg) to call his 'vastation.'" But Henry James himself does not alchemize into pleasure for me, despite repeated attempts both the major and minor ends of him ouevre. Why is this? Am I not serious enough?
posted by Faze at 1:23 PM on November 1, 2004

I find you have to be in the mood for him, and his earlier editions are better (less turgid). If you can get into the flow, it's fab. (the father i want to read more of, actually)
posted by amberglow at 1:29 PM on November 1, 2004

Faze, amber,

I generally agree with a certain... difficulty one can find in enjoying fully James's art. but re this point Vidal -- in a subscribers-only nybooks article -- writes a few illuminating paragraphs, and I am sorry that I can't obviously quote more:

For him, the novel must now be something other than the faithful detailing of familiar types engaged in mating rituals against carefully noted backgrounds. Let the Goncourts and the Zolas do that sort of thing. James would go further, much as Flaubert had tried to do; he would take the usual matter of realism and heighten it; and he would try to create something that no writer in English had ever thought it possible to do with a form as inherently loose and malleable as the novel: he would aim at perfection. While James's critics were complaining that he was no longer American and could never be English, James was writing The Portrait of a Lady, as nearly perfect a work as a novel can be. From 1881, James was the master of the novel in English in a way that no one had ever been before; or has ever been before; or has ever been since. Even that Puritan divine, F. R. Leavis, thought The Portrait "one of the great novels of the English language."
ver the next twenty years, as James's novels got longer and longer, they became, simultaneously and oddly, more concentrated. There are fewer and fewer characters (usually Americans in a European setting but Americans at some psychic distance from the great republic) while the backgrounds are barely sketched in. What indeed are the spoils of the house Poynton? James never tells us what the "old things" are that mother and son fight for to the death. Balzac would have given us a catalog; and most novelists would have indicated something other than an impression of a vague interior perfection. As James more and more mastered his curious art, he relied more and more on the thing not said for his essential dramas; in the process, the books become somewhat closer to theater than to the novel-tradition that had gone before him. Famously, James made a law of the single viewpoint; and then constantly broke it. In theory, the auctorial "I" of the traditional novel was to be banished so that the story might unfold much like a play except that the interpretation of scenes (in other words, who is thinking what) would be confined to a single observer if not for an entire book, at least for the scene at hand. Although James had sworn to uphold forever his own Draconian law, on the first page of The Ambassadors, where we meet Strether, the principal consciousness of the story and the point of view from which events are to be seen and judged, there is a startling interference by the author, Mr. James himself, who states, firmly: "The principle I have just mentioned…." Fortunately, no more principles are mentioned by the atavistic "I."
There is the familiar joke about the three styles of Henry James: James the First, James the Second, and the Old Pretender. Yet there are indeed three reigns in the master's imagined kingdom. James I is the traditional nineteenth-century novelist, busy with the usual comings and goings of the ordinary fiction writer; James II is the disciplined precise realist whose apotheosis is The Portrait of a Lady. From 1890 to 1895 there is a break in the royal line: James turns to the theater; and most beautifully fails. Next comes the restoration. James returns in triumph to the novel—still James II (for purposes of simile, Charles II as well); and then, at the end, the third James, the Old Pretender, the magician who, unlike Prospero, breaks not his staff but a golden bowl.
After 1895, there is a new heightening of effect in James's narratives; he has learned from the theater to eliminate the nonessential but, paradoxically, the style becomes more complex. The Old Pretender's elaborateness is due, I should think, to the fact that he had now taken to dictating his novels to a series of typewriter operators.

posted by matteo at 3:18 PM on November 1, 2004

That puts it well i think, matteo--Tragic Muse, Cassamassima, and novels before then are more to my taste. And i hate that he (and other authors) changed his earlier works when it came time for a collected edition (the NY?)--I think they should be stopped from that sort of thing.
posted by amberglow at 3:28 PM on November 1, 2004

oops-changed their earlier works...
posted by amberglow at 3:29 PM on November 1, 2004

(Actually i recently finished a pretty good book that had him in it--Henry James' Midnight Song)
posted by amberglow at 3:35 PM on November 1, 2004

This looks like a hell of a post. But God I hate Henry James. Stories about rich people and their hair. Hurrah!
posted by scarabic at 8:47 PM on November 1, 2004

may I suggest some vintage Steinbeck, then?
hardly a rich man in sight, and hair is unimportant
posted by matteo at 3:07 AM on November 2, 2004

It doesn't matter what James' stories are "about," scarabic. Stories aren't "about" things. They are things. Wonderful contrivances, at their best. I can see no good reason why James doesn't light my fire. He's often criticized for his prolixity, but I happen to like a nice, complex sentence. I'm thinking that maybe in my old age, James'll click with me, and I'll be able to spend my 70s and 80s in an easy chair, happily wafting down the long, winding passages of his prose. Or watching "Matlock," one or the other.
posted by Faze at 7:01 AM on November 2, 2004

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