If this is what his admirers think, what do his detractors think?

“Like Austen’s plots, [Henry] James’s lack adventure and suspense. His novels progress at a very slow pace: his characters waver and postpone action interminably, and their conversations revolve awkwardly around unclear goals without ever seeming to reach them.”

That’s from Thomas Pavel’s The Lives of the Novel: A History, which is unlikely to be of interest to non-specialists but is much more interesting than most of its peers in the genre. There are a surprisingly small number of direct quotes and a surprisingly number of plot summaries but I’m going to read to the end. One paragraph also gave me an idea for a novel, which relatively few books do.

I would probably be less even less charitable than Pavel to Henry James, but a lot of old and well-read people say my view of him is likely to change in the future. Nonetheless I am struck by how few non-academics read him.

Further comments on John Barth’s Further Fridays

(See my initial laudatory post here.)

John Barth’s Further Fridays continued to delight till the end, and it hovers ceaselessly around literary questions about form, character, ways of telling, and meaning. Do those sound boring? Maybe when I list them, but when they become part of Barth’s stories—and the Further Friday pieces feel more like stories than essays—they come alive like a Maryland Blue Crab. Consider this great big chunk of quote—appropriate, maybe, for someone who often delivers great big chunks of novel—but it also shows some of Barth’s gift at the level of sentence and idea:

I confess to having gotten increasingly this way [as in, insisting for just facts, whatever those are] myself over the years—an occupational side effect, I believe, in the case of those of us for whom the experience of fiction can never be innocent entertainment. We’re forever sizing it up, measuring ourselves against its author, watching to see how the effects are managed and whether all the dramaturgical pistols that were hung on the wall in act one get duly fired in act three. We’re like those musicians who can’t abide background music: They can’t listen except professionally, and if they’re not in the mood to do that, they prefer conversation, street noise, silence—anything but music.

Right: notice the quick metaphor of the dramaturgical pistols—alluding to the idea that a gun seen in an early chapter should be fired in a later one—and the slightly more developed metaphor of the musician. The musician idea is particularly relevant to Barth, who played as a young man—more on that later—but it also expresses one of the central themes in his work: that innocence prolonged is detrimental to the person holding it and that naive readings eventually give way to sophisticated and experienced readings. They show the growth of not just the critic, writer, or reader, but also of the individual, whose early actions and impressions should be tempered by experience. But some attempt to prolong naiveté foolishly, while others forget to try and see the perspective of the innocent or the childlike joy that can lead to great art. So what is one to do? Muddle along as best one can, Barth seems to argue, and learn as much as you can about that imperfect state we call life and the reactions of other smart or wise people to it.

I realize that the above paragraph sounds almost like self-help lite, but it would be a mistake to see Barth that way, and he discusses far more than just the nature of a particular story. Elsewhere, he deals with literary categorization, which has never been among my favorite subjects because it often seems to generate vastly more noise than music, and its combatants often mistaken that cacophony for a symphony. Barth does a reasonably good job—which is to say, as good a job as one can, given the subject matter and persnickety pedants likely to be interested—of not being caught in its brambles. Adding sufficient qualification makes for fewer explosions but greater harmony; as Barth says of Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero

“the whole of literature,” [as Barth quotes Barthes] “from Flaubert to the present day, becomes the problematics of language.” If only he had been content to say that “the problematics of language”—indeed, the problematics of every aspect of the medium of literature, not language alone—becomes one of several prominent field-identification marks of our literature after “Flaubert.” But that kind of reasonable modification, I suppose, de-zings such zingers.

Given the choice of being mostly right and demure or mostly wrong and provocative, Barth takes the mostly right path. Still, he’s not “demure” as in boring, and his essays are filled with unusual zest. Sometimes the footnotes are the best parts; the blockquote above is one, and he sneaks another comment into a footnote, though it’s reiterated elsewhere in the body text: “As for twentieth-century literary Postmodernism, I date it from when many of us stopped worrying about the death of the novel (a Modernist worry) and began worrying about the death of the reader—and of the planet—instead.” The sentiment has its tongue-in-cheek enough not to be taken completely seriously, and yet it’s accurate enough to consider further consideration. Maybe in jokes we tell the greatest truths that could never slide by as bald assertions.

The piece the modernist definition comes from was published in the 1980s, although it reprises arguments from 1968 and 1979, about which one can read more in The Friday Book. But its concerns are still germane: global climate change fears fuel cataclysmic scenarios that aren’t implausible, as do those involving the death of reading. Reading’s demise seems to be greatly exaggerated—what do most of us do online and via e-mail if not read, as Steven Berlin Johnson argues in Dawn of the Digital Natives—but the quality of reading seems to diminish apace online. Still, websites with global reach and many visitors seem fairly literate, and the only well-known, sub-literate blog I can think of is Mark Cuban’s, which I won’t dignify with a link. Then again, Cuban is also sitting on such a giant pile of cash that I doubt he cares about literacy, or Postmodernism.

Like Barth, I seem to have wandered a bit, and also like him, I’d like to circle back round to the main point of this post, which is to emphasize how good Further Fridays is. Sections repeat and reiterate earlier ideas, but I think of the repetitions more as variations in different keys than as irritants, and I think Barth would like that metaphor: he played jazz as a teenager and writes of going to Julliard to discover he had no or too little talent for music (my own musical talent, if I had any to begin with, has probably become undetectable thanks to lack of exercise). Milan Kundera also took up writing after music, and I wonder if other good example of musicians-turned-writers exist aside from Alex Ross, who turned from music to write about music. Barth is as self-referentially modest about his musical abilities as his other points, almost cloaking himself in faux humility when he writes, for instance: “My modest point is that the story of your life might be told as a series of career moves, or love affairs, or intellectual friendships, or houses lived in, or ideologies subscribed to (even magazines subscribed to), or physical afflictions suffered, or what have you, and that every one of those series might be recounted from very different perspectives, to very different effect.” Indeed: and we appreciate that, and the way it implicitly makes the case for reading. He preaches like the native to a religion he nonetheless realizes fewer practice:

If you happen to be a refugee from the Dorchester County tide marshes… as I was and remain, and particularly if you aspire to keep one foot at least ankle deep in your native bog while the other foot traipses through the wider world, it is well to have such an off-the-cart smorgasbord [of reading] under your belt, for ballast.

Incidentally, I’m fascinated with the catastrophic view of reading and its discontents: consider Jonathan Franzen’s introduction to How to Be Alone:

I used to consider it apocalyptically [there’s that end-times terminology again] worrisome that Americans watch a lot of TV and don’t read much Henry James. I used to be the kind of religious nut who convinces himself that, because the world doesn’t share his faith (for me, a faith in literature), we must be living in End Times.

I wonder too, as this blog probably demonstrates. Still, I’d argue that you can’t avoid keeping one foot in your native bog, regardless of whether that metaphorical bog is the boring suburbs of Bellevue, Washington, as it was for me, or the foothills of the Himalayas, or New York City, so you might as well do so in a way that makes you part of the wider rather than narrower world, so you can reconcile the two as best you can. The most efficient way to do so, it seems to me, is the way Barth recommends: promiscuous and wild reading, and ideally of books as interesting as Further Fridays.

The Portrait of a Lady — Henry James

In the preface to the second edition of The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James preempts the criticism around which I would otherwise base this review: ” ‘To arrive at these things is to arrive at my “story,” ‘ [Ivan Turgenieff] said, ‘and that’s the way I look for it. The result is that I’m often accused of not having “story” enough.’ ”

I agree with those unnamed critics.

James may have subconsciously addressed this issue as he wrote or revised the novel; in the fifth chapter of volume I, a guy wanting to impress Isabel—the “Lady” of the title—and his mother worry about their respective impressions on her. Ralph says, “That sounds rather dry—even allowing her the choice of the two countries.” A few paragraphs later, his mother says, “Do you mean by that that I’m a bore. I don’t think she finds me one. Some girls might, I know; but Isabel’s too clever for that. I think I greatly amuse her.” If you’re concerned about being dry or boring, there’s a reasonably high chance that you are, and Ralph’s mother, in defending herself from charges of being boring, could also be implicitly be defending the novel itself from charges of being boring. Alas: if it isn’t boring, I’m not clever enough to realize it.

To the extent The Portrait of a Lady has a plot, it turns on marriage, and though I appreciate that institution’s importance to James’ time, I wrote about its contemporary problems as a driver of modern fiction in the third paragraph of this post on Francine Prose’s Blue Angel. It’s hard to get as excited about it as the characters in The Portrait of a Lady do. Furthermore, I’m sure the novel was relatively progressive and frank for its time, but now it seems reserved and euphemistic. The painful thing about describing its macro flaws is how spectacular and virtuosic many descriptions are. One in particular stood out: “Isabel perhaps took a small opportunity because she would not have availed herself of a great one.” Note the word “perhaps:” James is a master at depicting ambiguity, perhaps explaining why The Turn of the Screw is so exquisite in its depiction of the maybe ghosts, giving such creeping horror and power that I was compelled to keep reading it as if I were the one at the whip of an apparition—or insane. The Portrait of a Lady, however, is too still and reserved, too much like a portrait and containing too little narrative force to keep me attached, despite how often perfect turns of phrase appear in the context of characters who have not done enough to deserve them. There are enough aphorisms for months of daily quotes, but not enough sinew holding them together.

On the other hand, it may be that nineteenth century fiction demands the acceptance or acknowledgement of a set of conventions and writing practices, and I haven’t cultivated the skill to read it. Of pre-1900 writers, Melville is the only novelist who really chiseled a place in my imagination. The others I tend to read only if I have to, and The Portrait of a Lady didn’t change my outlook. It’s also possible that, as William Blake said according to the unreliable source Barney’s Version, “… that What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak Men […] That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care.”

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