May 132018

The enjoyment of a work of art, the acceptance of an irresistible illusion, constituting, to my sense, our highest experience of ‘luxury,’ the luxury is not greatest, by my consequent measure, when the work asks for as little attention as possible. It is greatest, it is delightfully, divinely great, when we feel the surface, like the thick ice of the skater’s pond, bear without cracking the strongest pressure we throw on it. The sound of the crack one may recognize, but never to call it luxury.

—Henry James, Preface to The Wings of the Dove

 James on Attention to Art  May 13, 2018  Tagged with: ,
Mar 132018

A reboot of The Matrix with Freedom standing in for The Real World and Keanu Reeves played by an autistic.

Less cheeky: part of what is compelling about Henry James’s novels is the pleasure of reading third person narration that is close enough to a character’s experience of their selves as to be near synonymous with it and yet that is also calmly, devastatingly clear-seeing to an extent that exceeds what we imagine to be possible for most people. That I thought this thought watching Elliot interact with the people in his life tells you which gear the first two episodes of the show shifted my mind into.

I’m excited for the rest of the season.

Jan 242017

Romance and the gothic, two dominant modes in the American novel, loom over Washington Square and frame expectations for how the plot might develop. Interestingly, all of these expectations are dashed.

The narration personifies both modes: romance is a meddling aunt, the gothic, a fierce and domineering father. Under their shadow, an allegory emerges both from the protagonist’s troubled courtship by a charming rake out to marry her for her fortune and from the narration’s evocation of and subsequent refusal of romantic and gothic expectations for how that courtship might proceed. The stakes of this allegory are nothing less than the novelist’s sense of the aesthetic possibilities of the American novel.

The heroine survives the mechanations of her father and aunt. She also escapes the rake’s attempts to marry her. And then twenty years after their engagement is called off, in the novel’s final and most powerful scene, the heroine, no longer young and no longer innocent, is confronted again by the rake and he still has eyes on her money. But this time around the heroine has her eyes on him as wellHe speaks, and she watches, and what she sees—powerfully and in an instant—is who he is and who he was. Fortified by a clear view of his character, she rejects him one last time and returns to her ordinary but not unhappy life.

What I read in this final staging of vision as knowledge is the author’s self-conscious choice of a realist mode and his glorious discovery of the character’s gaze as it’s vehicle.


Feb 242014

Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so. He is in the perpetual predicament that the continuity of things is the whole matter, for him, of comedy and tragedy; that this continuity is never, by the space of an instant or an inch, broken, and that, to do anything at all, he has at once intensely to consult and intensely to ignore it.

–Henry James,  Preface to Roderick Hudson

 Henry James: The Artist’s challenge  February 24, 2014  Tagged with:
Sep 022013

Hotel de DreamOne of the books I brought to Mexico was Edmund White’s Hotel de Dream. I’d just read A Boy’s Own Story and, after listening to Edmund talk about the book over lunch, I’d decided it should be the second book I read from him.

The novel’s origin is a short letter—which, as a note at the book’s end explains, may have been fabricated by an early biographer (but perhaps not)—a short letter that speaks of Stephen Crane’s accidental encounter with a gay hustler and the first pages of the book he decided to write about the boy. The pages, if they existed, were burnt in order to protect Crane’s fledgling celebrity.

White’s book imagines Crane in the final weeks before he died of tuberculosis, restarting and dictating the novel to his wife, the former Madam of the Jacksonville brothel, Hotel de Dream. As such, it narrates two stories: one of Crane, his health declining but troubled still by his passionately felt literary ambitions; the other of a young hustler in New York and his relationship with an older, married bank executive.

Both Henry James and Joseph Conrad  make appearances in the frame narrative, in letters and in person, and White offers convincing—and funny—portraits of both. An interesting survey of Crane’s life is also presented. The hustler’s story offers a tour of a queer New York absent from typical histories and fiction.

The center-piece of his story, however, is the lover’s decision to commission a statue of the boy. The commission leads to the boy’s and his own downfall but the statue as a literary symbol is quite powerful and moving, and makes this book about artists a meditation on Art.

Given the tragic nature of the stories told and the carefully artful construction of the fiction as historical fiction, it’s surprising to me how funny this book is. Over and over as I read, I would be brought short and laugh out loud. Many parts I read aloud to the Beav, which is something I just don’t do, and he would laugh too. And so, the book impresses me because it seems so delicate and light, even trashy, and yet, that filigree of jokes and period slang and literary history, carries the weight of tragic action and themes. This doubleness makes it an easy book to enjoy but a hard book to pin down or get out of your head.

I’m becoming a fan of White.

Feb 122013

Things struggle into life, even the very best of them, by slow steps and stages and rages and convulsions of experience, and utterly refuse to be taken over ready-made or en bloc.

-Henry James

 Henry James on Creation  February 12, 2013  Tagged with: