Thursday, May 18, 2017

It was beyond explanation - late late James bends time

A bit more late late James before my long long vacation, if that is what it is.  I’ll be back in June.  Let me know what you want me to bring you back from Lyon.

I have been enjoying the way the fiction writers of the first decades of the 20th century have freed themselves from the constraints of time.  Henry James is out there with the experimenters, responding not, as far as I can tell, to anything but his own concept of what his stories are trying to do.

“The Bench of Desolation” (1909) appears to be, and for about ten pages is, about a man being sued for breach of promise.  He has moved on to another girlfriend; he has nothing but his used bookshop but would rather just pay something and get it over with.  Social change and so on, that could be a story.

But the third chapter, just a few pages in, frantically accelerates into a chronicle of high-speed misery.  Herbert loses his business.  He marries, in the face of his poverty, the woman he loves, resulting in “the most dismal years, the three of the loss of their two children, the long stretch of sordid embarrassment ending in her death.”  In six pages “a dozen dismal years having worn themselves away, he sat single and scraped bare again, as if his long wave of misfortune had washed him far beyond everything and then conspicuously retreated.”  This metaphor is not as mysterious as the one’s I wondered about yesterday.  At least Herbert, when sitting on that bench, “stared at the grey-green sea.”

Then, in a jolt, comes the scene I mentioned yesterday, where it takes Herbert three pages to walk fifty yards and start up another story, a sequel to the story of the first two chapters.  The elasticity of time in the story is – well, it is common stuff now, but I was fascinated to see it come out of the egg.  The break James throws into the middle of this piece is bold.

His last story is more of a schematic thing, but it has a break right in the middle, too, in the fourth chapter of seven.  Mark Monteith has returned to New York City from Europe because his financial advisor has stolen some of his money.  The first three chapters each have a separate visit (I have to abuse the term a bit to make chapter I fit – Mark’s doctor visits him) which point him to the single, consequential, even melodramatic single visit of the last three chapters.  But the middle is just two pages of Mark walking around New York, thinking.

I would wonder if James were moving towards abstraction, to some kind of fiction of pure thought, but “A Round of Visits” also features a pistol, policemen, and some pretty wild plotty business by the end.  Check out this crazy Jamesian sentence:

It was beyond explanation, but the very act of blinking thus in an attempt at showy steadiness became one and the same thing with an optical excursion lasting the millionth of a minute and making him aware that the edge of a rug, at the point where an armchair, pushed a little out of position, over-straddled it, happened just not wholly to have covered in something small and queer, neat and bright, crooked and compact, in spite of the strong toe-tip surreptitiously applied to giving it the right lift.

The “small and queer” thing is the pistol, which Mark has glimpsed and his friend is trying to conceal.  Raymond Chandler would have described this moment a little differently.

James is nearing the end of a fifty year career, and he is still pushing, changing, figuring out how to turn his sensibilities into prose.  It is a heck of a thing to see.

I believe they have internet in France, so please comment, or not, as usual, and I will eventually respond.  “Great comment!” etc.


  1. "Let me know what you want me to bring you back from Lyon."

    A detailed description of your meals!


  2. Some French perfume, perhaps? An omelette? How about bringing back the story of your experience for us all to enjoy. (I haven't been to Lyon since I was eleven, do say, "Bonjour" for me.)