One of my book clubs is reading Henry James for September: The Wings of the Dove. We tend to read a classic every year and we read another Henry James a few years ago (Portrait of a Lady). I usually enjoy our classics: there’s a renewed sense of discovery that central human concerns don’t change over the centuries, only the outer forms.
But this time, I am having trouble getting through it. Maybe it’s just the time of the year and the fact that I am tired. I have taken forever to get through Book I. After reading a few pages, I realize that nothing has gone in. I reread them and get only the slightest sense of what’s going on. Pages are dedicated to the dissection of the characters’ subtlest change of attitude. A whole chapter advances the story only minutely.
Part of it, I suppose, is the atmosphere and the pace of life more than a century ago. Part of it is the change in language and fashions in language. Part of it is that James’ sentences, even for the time and place when he was writing, are overly complex and full of asides and qualifying clauses. They build, layer on layer. The problem is that I get lost in the layers. It took three tries to understand this sentence:
And it was just a part likewise that while plates were changed and dishes presented and periods in the banquet marked; while appearances insisted and phenomena multiplied and words reached her from here and there like plashes of a slow, thick tide; while Mrs Lowder grew somehow more stout and more instituted and Susie, at her distance and in comparison, more thinly improvised and more different—different, that is, from every one and every thing: it was just a part that while this process went forward our young lady alighted, came back, taking up her destiny again as if she had been able by a wave or two of her wings to place herself briefly in sight of an alternative to it.
By the time I get to the end of a sentence like that, I’ve forgotten the core structure and I suspect some of those sentences don’t have one. Having finally got it, I like it well enough. This one is rather lovely—atmospheric, maybe even lyrical—if I can just stop focusing on the punctuation apparently sprinkled randomly throughout:
Her welcome, her frankness, sweetness, sadness, brightness, her disconcerting poetry, as he made shift at moments to call it, helped as it was by the beauty of her whole setting and by the perception at the same time, on the observer’s part, that this element gained from her, in a manner, for effect and harmony, as much as it gave—her whole attitude had, to his imagination, meaning that hung about it, waiting upon her, hovering and quavering forth again, like vague faint snatches, mere ghosts of sound, of old-fashioned melancholy music.
It’s too bad that I’m having trouble with the density of the language, because the plot is fascinating. It hangs on a moral dilemma. Kate and Morton are in love but poor. Their friend Milly is rich and she is dying. Should Morton marry Milly and make her happy for her last few months so that he can inherit her money?
That’s making it a bit too simple, of course. There are other people and there are complicated emotions and social mores to deal with. But the central question of integrity—making difficult choices, doing the right thing—is not outdated.
Anyway, like so many other books, this one could have done with a ruthless editor. An editor, ruthless yet sensitive: aware of the times and the need to veil emotions, of all kinds, in some kind of clinging, heavy, draping material, revealing, yet concealing, the passions at work underneath: those passions that are timeless and the very stuff of human existence; aware of the pace of carefully formed, though hesitant, sentences that are as portentous in what they leave out as what they detail; aware of the need to move slowly, yet inexorably, towards a meaningful, yet ambiguous, climactic scene. (Oops: it’s catching.)