Monday, May 6, 2013

The Pain and the Pleasure of Henry James

Henry James is proof that literary style changes with the generations just like everything else. Most people today would put his book back on the shelf before giving the second paragraph a chance, myself included, until I read The Ambassadors.

As an English Lit. major, I was assigned some Henry James to read, but with long lists of books on the syllabi, he got pushed to the side and skimmed just enough to make it through class.

But this past year I thought I should give him a real chance, so I picked up this dark comedy, James's most acclaimed work, and his personal favorite. It's the story of a middle aged man from Massachusetts who is sent to Paris by his wealthy and controlling fiance to rescue her son from the wild European lifestyle. He was rumored to have taken up with an indecent woman, and his mother wanted him brought back to America to fulfill his duties in the family business. A tale of American vs. European lifestyle, of duty vs. pleasure, of presumptions and assumptions, and the lived vs. un-lived life. James's inspiration for the story came from hearing one of his friends exclaim that, after having visited his son in Paris, he wondered if his life had "passed him by."It's a fascinating study of the American abroad in the early 1900s.

If you jump into this world, you will find yourself immersed in a glamorous story with beautiful and complex characters and unpredictable endings that left his contemporary critics swirling with praise or disdain. But you will also find yourself tripping over abstract nouns, too many strings of "thats," and verbs as states of being instead of action... a grammatical traffic jam. Sometimes you can't decide if it's genius or ludicrous! (I must admit there were a few times I referenced Spark Notes to make sure I had correctly ascertained the action of the chapter I had just read. No shame!) After publishing the work, Henry James recommended reading only 5 pages a day "to let its effects properly set in." Although I find that quite priggish of him, perhaps I should try it on my second reading.

Henry James is hard to read. Some consider him a "futsy literary dictator," but this story is worth the effort. Take it on a beach vacation when you can slow down your attention span and let it absorb and move you. Although according to James's expectations, your vacation would have to be 85 days long.