Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Remarriage of Henry James

Mariano Fortuny. Venetian Woman. 1910.

Months ago, you may remember, I announced my divorce with Henry James.  Mayhaps I was a bit too hasty, having only read one, a certain Wings of the Dove.  Quite honestly I was bored for those painful months, he put me to sleep, I couldn't follow what he was saying, my mind would wander, I wanted out.   A recipe for disaster. 

I'm not sure what triggered me to read The Aspern Papers (maybe it was your encouraging comments!), but I'm so glad I did and running back for forgiveness I've done as well.  How could I loose faith?  I should have given you a second chance!  Don't look at me like that!  PLEASE!

Mr James managed to combine all of my favorite things (crumbling palaces, crazy spinsters, subtle mystery, Venice) into a gorgeous novella that I couldn't put down.  Our narrator is in search of the supposed letters or papers of Jeffrey Aspern, a Romantic poet (based on Percy Bysshe Shelley) who left them with his muse, a now ancient Juliana Bordereau.  Miss Bordereau is an American that lives with her neice, Miss Tita, shut away from the world in a massive palazzo in Venice.  Our narrator, somewhat whimsically ("My tastes and habits are the simplest; I live on flowers!") asks the ladies to let some rooms in order to write and work in their abandoned garden, of course not telling them he's in search of the papers kept in the clutch of Miss Bordereau's talons.  They accept with a high price and he discovers little by little about the two (a 19th century Bouvier Beales) and the city in which they lived and live.

I found so many passages extremely beautiful, including the one found when Miss Tita decides to take his invitation for a ride in his gondola...

She had forgotten how splendid the great waterway looked on a clear, hot summer evening, and how the sense of floating between marble palaces and reflected lights disposed the mind to sympathetic talk.

...but I think I loved most how he beautifully portrayed Venice as if it was a character in itself...

I don't know why it happened that on this occasion I was more than ever struck with that queer air of sociability, of the cousinship and family life, which makes up half the expression of Venice.  Without streets and vehicles, the uproar of wheels, the brutality of horses, and with its little winding ways where people crowd together, where voices sound as in the corridors of a house, where the human step circulates as if it skirted the angles of furniture and shoes never wear out, the place has the character of an immense collective apartment, in which Piazza San Marco is the most ornamented corner, and palaces and churches for the rest, play the part of great divans of repose, tables of entertainment, expanses of decoration.

Such a drastic change in my opinion of him I have that I'm almost embarassed!  Has this every happened to you?  Nevertheless, I recommend you read this lovely gem, and if you are going to Venice in the future I would read it while you are there.  It's an enchanting place and James really captures it perfectly.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Daniel:
We cannot say how overjoyed we are to learn that you are once again reunited with Henry James who, in our view, really is, putting aside those tortuous sentences, one of the greatest of all Anglo-American writers of the early years of the C20.

He is never, in our experience, an easy writer but so, so worth persevering with not least for that remarkable richness of language and that insight into human behaviour and motivation.

We began with 'The Spoils of Poynton' and graduated from there. If you have not read it, then do, and we should be most interested to hear what you think.

harriet said...

I have a love/hate relationship with HJ -- I was reading The Golden Bowl and got about 2/3 through and then just couldn't bear any more even though I had enjoyed it up till then. But I do like this novel so I'm glad to hear you did too. And that photo is amazing!

Reggie Darling said...

Reading this, I am inclined to give Mr. James another try. Again. I have read a number of his books over the years and found them turgid, and heavy, and excessively wordy -- I always assumed he was paid by the word for them. The quotes your provide here are marvelous. Thank you, RD

Laurent said...

I would like you to go back to Roderick Hudson, first, for a very sound foundation in "the literature of power without force." This novel parallels your experience at the moment and offers less of the sense of the second and third-registered experiences here. It's sort of too bad that we tend to encounter James in contexts of assumption for the use of words which he simply doesn't share. We find we cannot 'put aside those tortuous sentences', for the reason that they not only articulate precisely the gold which is claimed for them in that comment, but the reluctance and the care and the perfecting of its disclosure. This is of course the agony of the book you just read, of the exploitive theft of privity from others for personal gain.

Posting of the week.

Bart Boehlert said...

Have you read The Master, a novel about Henry James? I loved it.