Monday, August 13, 2012

# 13 Henry James: Wings of the Dove

The more interested I am in the human mechanics of fiction, increasingly I'm more excited by fiction that has the ability to bore youth on a grand stuffy scale, and would have bored me, like Henry James. My only experience to date was Daisy Miller. she died, I remember this much. 
But it's the sentence that does it for me and has rekindled something in me about the material of words making sentences making paragraphs making pages, which make books, something in the first few chapters of Wings of a Dove have made reading Henry James a puzzling, exciting experience full of art and gamesmanship, full of cyphers and tricks, supersubtleties (his own word from the preface, and one of my favourite new words) and aesthetic high-wire acts. I might read James as a writer, but it is only through understanding what he's able to do to a reader - he is a conjurer and a pickpocket - that the effort seems worth making to try and rub a little supersubtely off on myself. That's not to say I want to do a Henry James. Nobody can pull off a Henry James and anyone that tries to take him into the 21st Century will find themselves standing in Washington Square dressed as a chimney sweep decrying the century they missed.
We don't talk that way anymore. A Jamesian dialogue doesn't exist anymore. Those meandering (not always a negative, I love a lingering sentence) psychological profiles through dialogue and insightful little asides, they don't work anymore. We're all too psych-popped. We all have a little unofficial diploma in a handful of Phys - we are all in some way obsessed with motives in as matter-of-fact way as we are in keeping a finger in the Culture, it is part of the culture, to call a thing phallic, accuse the least stutter of breaking into a full scale Freudian slip, we all get the Oedipal thing on some level whether we believe it or not. Phys-hobbyists all of us, we won't bow any longer to the insights of a Henry James. We think we know more than he knew about what we think. Whenever I read in a blurb - psychological insights - it turns me off like when I read the words 'loss', 'life', 'redemption,' 'love' and 'death'. I don't dislike the words or what they mean, but I hate a book to claim it is actually about these things. Just as I don't think there are any very interesting or accurate portraits of 'physiological insight' coming out anymore. And this is largely because our concepts of our own minds are made up, and also partly because the really interesting stuff - the neurophilosophyy of Patricia Churchland for example, or the more radical sociological studies - haven't made their debut in fiction. So, throwing the depth aside for later, it is all about the sentence and how one sentence following another sentence gives you - on the best pages - a whole though, a whole working-through of the mind of a James human.
It is thanks in part to William Gass' 'Word in the World' that I came back to James. There is not actually an essay on James in the book, but I know from listening to KBRW Bookworm show, with Michael Silverblatt, when Gass came on and read a passage from Wings of the Dove and deconstructed it, that James is one of his major pillars of the pantheon. Then taking James up I read it him more attentively, and found Gass was right. I saw the architecture, and Gass coupled with James' own preface, helped me see the pier which leads to the shore or high street, on into page-infinite places. I think there is a direct tract from James into modernism, it seems obvious to me. The details, the whirling surface area of human action and thought, how can't there be a link between James and Joyce - it just seems like an obvious connection. So what's now got my brain in a loose knot is wondering where you can go with James if you sidestep (I know, in reality this is impossible) modernism - what kind of book can you produce if you take Henry James alone and dip him in the gloss of the 21st Century, what's produced? It would not be naturalism as it's written now. That is as fallacious a movement in current literature as the further reaches of the avante-garde. It would have to first take account of all the neurological backwaters, it would have to be in part an fMRI scan and a map. Above all the problem might be that so crucially anti-elitist are we, another reason James is more respected than read, it becomes more and more difficult to get your 'type' in fiction. James lived in a time and place where people were ground into the hard surface of knowing their place. One of the most interesting things about writing about people today is that it is all interchangeable. Everybody can be a bit of everybody else. We admire rags that become riches and usually celebrate riches becoming rags. But there's more to that. When Riches can scale the trillions and rags dredge the slums of Mumbai, we're choosing between more than just your Aunt Maud's and Oliver Twists. I'll continue this when I've finished Wings of the Dove.

Which, incidentally, you can get for Free here. I chose not to, there are just some books I need to see and be able to tear a little bit and get a smatch (a word used in the book for stain, which I prefer to stain) inside the pages. 

No comments:

Post a Comment