I took a break from The Ambassadors by reading some easier stuff, including some Henry James. For a long time, twenty-five years or more, the only “late James” I had ever read had been “The Beast in the Jungle” (1903), so I revisited that, and also tried the dark, strange, anti-comedy “Fordham Castle” (1904) and the surprising novella “The Papers” (1903), surprising in both subject and tone.
Everyone interested in fiction should at least see late James, even if he cannot stand to read it. How is this for a first sentence:
What determined the speech that startled him in the course of their encounter scarcely matters, being probably but some words spoken by himself quite without intention – spoken as they lingered and slowly moved together after their renewal of acquaintance.
There’s starting in the middle of the action, and starting in the middle of a fog bank. But in this case, the vagueness suits the theme – the plot – since the story is about a man who knows, just somehow knows, that something is going to happen to him – that the beast is going to pounce. But what any of that might mean is anyone’s guess. The story is an appendix to The Ambassadors. Where Strether implores that we “Live all we can,” this fellow says “Yes, exactly, just as soon as – ,” and just as Strether turns out to be living all he can pretty much by definition, this poor sap more or less discovers that the beast is life, and is perpetually pouncing. Or else the anticipation causes him to miss the pounce. Or he does not miss it, but misses that he does not miss it. And so on. I can see why Borges loved James’s stories (“I think that the whole world of Kafka is to be found in a far more complex way in the stories of Henry James”).
“The Papers” is about two young journalists who write up gossip and party-going for newspapers. They are in some sense a couple, and if their comic banter is not up there with His Girl Friday, it is getting there. The characters are surprisingly cynical for James. No, that is not right. The surprise is that they are forthrightly cynical, a necessary stance for survival in their shallow, parasitic profession. The woman is not sure she is capable of maintaining the proper level of cynicism, which could make for a plot, but James picked something more melodramatic – a celebrity disappears, perhaps committing suicide? Did the journalist drive him to his death?
A jolly little shocker, all too relevant. The profession of celebrity journalism seems to be fundamentally unchanged to the present day.
“Fordham Castle” is another comedy, although not of the funny kind, with another faked death. Abel Taker is at a Swiss hotel, calling himself C. P. Addard so that his wife can pretend he is dead and, presumably, marry someone better and richer. He meets a woman in exactly the same situation, he thinks, except that it is her daughter who wants her “dead” and out of the way. Some coincidences ensue. The last lines:/p>
He faced it completely now, and to himself at least could express it without fear of protest. ‘Why certainly I’m dead.’
It’s about as dark a James story as I can remember. And not especially “late” or difficult – nor is “The Papers” – although as I become accustomed to the period I have a lost my sense of what any of that means. Relative, I guess.