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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The end of The Portrait of a Lady: How could you!

The conclusion at last of Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady," and what a horror it is! Isabel Archer leaves her husband Osmond against his direct orders (!) to go to England to visit her dying cousin Ralph. After Ralph dies she briefly sees her first suitor, Warburton, who is now engaged to an English woman he's known for 3 weeks (we never see her). Isabel's aunt is cold and distant, her best friend Henrietta about to marry Bantling. The only one left is a hapless Goodwood, who shows up and pleads with her to leave her marriage and stay with him - to turn her back on convention and propriety. He holds her, kisses her, it's the first time this cold woman has ever felt (as far as we know - this is a James novel after all) any sexual stirring. And then, finally, in the last scene, we learn that Isabel has gone back to her husband. How awful! What a terrible, empty life she will face - much like her aunt, who lived through a loveless marriage. This ending so painful that James cannot even write it directly, but in typical Jamesian manner he shows it by indirection - Henrietta informing Goodwood. I've posted on this issue before, but the end of Portrait is a distinct turning toward European trope: the hero returning toward incorporation in society and convention. An American hero(ine) would definitely have run away with Goodwood, would opt for the rebellious, the unconventional, the individual. Whether James himself is corrupted by the European style (does he really think Isabel is doing the right thing?) or whether he's showing us the ruination of a character is another topic. But I think all American readers who finish this novel must say: How could you!

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Monday, November 29, 2010

The Portrait of a Lady as a Monster

Maybe Isabel Archer is shocked, shocked to realize finally - 500 pages into the novel! - that Osmond married her for her money and that Madame Merle arranged the marriage. Every reader will has seen this from the outset, and it's not just that "The Portrait of a Lady" is a novel with an omniscient narrator, it's not just that we see thing that Isabel cannot see and know things she cannot know. It's that Isabel suffers from a terrible character defect. Charitably, I'd like to say she's too trusting and sees only the good in others. But no I don't think it's that, I think she suffers from a perverse egoism. She doesn't see Osmond (or the phony Madame Merle) as good people, she's in fact drawn to their shallowness and cruelty. Why else would she turn down and turn away from two much nicer, kinder men and marry the worst one in the group? I don't think she misreads him at all. She sees that he's a snob and a good-for-nothing, the image of the nasty American, up in his Florentine villa complaining about everything, nobody's up to his standard, nobody's good enough - and Isabel likes this? Yes - she's cut of the same cloth. Her only desire is to be be independent, free - but free to do what? She doesn't have a thought in her head about making the world better, contributing to society, or even helping a single person. We know how little Isabel knows, but how little or how much does Henry James know? Does he know he's created a monstrous protagonist? Or does he see her as some kind of innocent ideal who has been ruined by the corruption of those around her?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

How Isabel Archer becomes an object of pity : The Portrait of a Lady

As Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady" moves inexorably toward its conclusion - the characters variously and separately heading back to England, as it appears the novel will end exactly where it began - and Isabel's life a ruin, she managing to prevent her husband from marrying his daughter off to the wealthy Lord Warburton but earning her husband's enmity in return, Isabel now having nothing, her various suitors all gone or, in Ralph's case dying, you have to look back and try to understand the point of this novel. Ultimately, it seems to me, the point is: Leave well enough alone. Isabel would have been just fine has she been left to her own devices in Albany, where she would have married well and been happy. The idea that she had to be brought to Europe to see the world and to grow in experience was the first step toward her ruin, and then the second and fatal blow was her inheritance of a small fortune. That made her an object of desire to the fortune-hunting Osmond. It's a bit of a mystery as to why she couldn't see how horrible he was and why she couldn't see through that phony, Madame Merle. But it seems her money distorted her judgment and ruined her desire for independence. It's also not clear what happened to her spirit during her years of marriage. Why is she still so subservient to Osmond? Why can't she defy him outright rather than through little devious schemes? I guess in part she worries what he will do to Pansy if she (Isabel) is out of the picture, but it's also as if she's become corrupted with the European malaise, a slave to custom, worried about appearing too brash and too bold. By the end of the novel, she is a much less vivid character, all her lines are blurred. We no longer admire her; we pity her.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

An example of Henry James at his best - and worst

Chapter 42 of Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady" is a perfect example of everything that is great - and horrible - about James's style. This chapter takes place entirely within the mind of Isabel Archer, as she sits before a dying fire in her drawing room and ruminates on everything that has gone wrong in her terrible marriage to Osmond. It's as powerful, profound, sorrowful a view of a ruined marriage as you will ever read. The writing is elegant and original and plays to James's strengths in that these slight nuances of feeling and emotion are poked and prodded and turned around every which way until Isabel has a full understand of the dire nature of her condition. It's perfect James. And yet: nothing happens. We watch Isabel's mind at work, but we do not see her do anything other than sit before the fire and think. So James is the perfect exemplar of one of the "beginner's rule" of fiction: write what you know. He knows only a very narrow social milieu, one type of character in one particular setting (the idle rich, Europe) and he writes about that exclusively and at times exquisitely. James, however, violates the other cardinal rule: show, don't tell. He shows us Isabel's view of her marriage but he never gives us any of the scenes in which we can see for ourselves why the marriage is horrible (he does have some nasty dialogue between Isabel and Osmond). The horror of the marriage is mediated by Isabel's thinking and by James's narration. He gets by with this because what he does he does so well, but it also explains why so many find James unreadable. As to Isabel, by this point in the novel she is playing such a complicated game - telling Pansy that she must obey her father's will while secretly and subtly manipulating events so that Pansy will reject Warburton and leave the field clear for her beloved Rosier - that it's hard to keep up. Her machinations are as complex as one of James's sentences, and you just want to say can't anyone in this novel be straightforward and just say what they mean?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Is Isabel Archer a moral being? Is anyone in The Portrait of a Lady?

Madame Merle has been very cool to Isabel. Merle has accomplished her goal - she got Isabel to marry her friend and protege, Osmond. Now, years later, as the marriage is clearly a disaster (at least for Isabel), Merle is nowhere to be found - until she has another need - this time more difficult to fathom. For some reason Merle has become the champion of the relatively poor (relative at least to the super-rich, idle Americans who populate "The Portrait of a Lady" and almost all Henry James novels) Rosier as the suitor for Isabel's stepdaughter, Pansy. Why does Merle do this? It clearly sets her in opposition to the wealthy suitor, Lord Warburton. I can't see what's in this for Merle. I can see that it will force Isabel to make a decision - should she advocate for Rosier (a marriage of love) or for Warburton (a marriage of convenience, much like hers). Obviously there's no choice at all from a moral point of view. But is Isabel a moral being? Is anyone in this novel? Isabel may have started as a moral being when she arrived in England, but her exposure to the European class culture and, even worse, her sudden and unexpected inheritance that changed her social status (like winning the lottery today) has apparently upended her moral compass. She's as bad as any of them. But she will face this one final test. Friend Bill who has recommended Portrait to me for many years, described it to me as a novel in which the characters are faced with a huge moral and ethical decision. I don't know how high the stake are here - the decision will affect no one outside of this tiny, tight knot of privileged and self-centered characters - and we travel an awfully long way with them beore they (or Isabel) confront this decision, but there still is something compelling about James - the acuity, the high intelligence, the sense that narrow as his world is he knows it intimately.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Would, could The Portrait of a Lady actually be a good movie?

So two of the rejected suitors, Lord Warburton and Ralph Tochett, whom we'd met in the first scene of Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady," as they gathered at the afternoon tea at which Warburton was warned not to court Isabel Archer, now commisserate and lick their wounds. Ralph basically admits he has been in love with his cousin Isabel, though he's too ill to consider marriage. The two of them are supposedly off to Sicily, but as they discover neither wants to go, they each want to stay in Rome (?), Isabel has now settled in her horrible marriage. Ralph knows that he has given up any chance to be close to Isabel because he warned her that Osmond was an evil man - even though he was right, she would never accept that she should have listened to his advice. More significant, as foreseen, Warburton is in love with Osmond's daughter/Isabel's stepdaughter, Pansy. This will clearly lead to the ultimate confrontation of the novel: Osmond will want his daughter to marry the wealthy Warburton, and Isabel will stand up for her right to marry the man she loves, Rosier - even though this will further alienate her from Warburton, who may yet exact some kind of revenge. Well, we've come a long way to get to this point! Reading Portrait I occasionally think, as we all do, of who should play the parts, and I was pretty sure that a younger John Malkovitch would be a great Osmond - only to learn in poking thru a film encyclopedia that there was a 1990s Campion movie of the book with Malkovitch (assume he does play Osmond, I didn't actually check). That said, how could it be a good movie? So little happens outside of conversations and nuances of feeling. On the other hand, maybe the book needs to be distilled down to a 90-page screenplay - but then it wouldn't be James, it would be just a classy melodrama - typically Campion material/mishandling of literature, btw (see her very disappointing Bright Star, or rather don't see it)?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Why Henry James's novels are both great and minute

Can you figure out what's going to happen in Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady"? We have jumped several years forward and now Isabel and Osmond are unhappily married - and Pansy is a very attractive, shy, sheltered marriagable daughter. A seemingly nice young man, Rosier, is in love with her and wants to ask for her hand - but Osmond is cruelly sarcastic and dismissive: Rosier is not wealthy enough. Madame Merle meddles, agrees to help Rosier, but which side is she on? Enter from the wings: Lord Warburton, into a drawing-room party at one of Isabel's "at home" days. Shall we guess that he falls in love with Pansy? That in an odd twist of fate Osmond becomes his champion, in that he's suitably rich? And that Isabel, who we are told always disagrees with her husband, takes up the case of Rosier. In a more modern setting, this would break up the marriage, but I'm not sure how that happens in James's world - my guess is a complete estrangement, but like the Touchett marriage - Isabel will go off on her own after being vanquished by her husband and Warburton. And that leaves one "suitor" unaccounted for - the hapless Caspar Goodwood (I love typing out that ridiculous name). I see him trailing Isabel around Europe like a puppydog. Well, I could be completely wrong. We've come a long way with these characters by this point in the book, and I feel we should know them better - the way we know a Tolstoy character - but James characters are wound so tight that we never see how they act other than in the drawing room. It's as if the whole world can be contained in within the inflections of civil conversation and discourse. It can't. James does a very small thing very well, but there's so much he misses. His novels are both great and minute.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Isabel, can't you see Osmond's a phony! : Portrait of a Lady

Ralph Touchett comes as close as he (presumably) ever will to professing his love for Isabel Archer (Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady") now that she's engaged to another and out of reach. Sad character - s Jamesian. Isabel is clearly engaged to a horrible man - everyone knows it but her, all of her other suitors fell for her before she was wealthy and it's obvious that he's interested in her only because she's wealthy. So what happened to her? Where and how has she totally lost her judgment? I'd thought she was a sharp, perceptive, independent woman - but no, she's worse than anyone else, cruel and stupid. And yet: does her falling for Gilbert Osmond have something to do with a desire to rescue Osmond's totally ignored teenage daughter, Pansy? Isabel has not articulated this, but it clearly seems to be part of her attraction to Osmond. Bu why should Isabel throw her life away for the young girl whom she hardly knows? Why not bequeath her a legacy, get her a decent education, send her to America? These are questions James never raises, but you have to think part of the problem all of his characters have is either too much money, too much time, or too much of an absorption in all the class-status bullshit of 19th-century Europe - Osmond the worst of them all, with his precious little observations about this and that ornamental artifact or touch of light on the horizon. Isabel, can't you see this guy's a phony? If not, the rest of you guys are well rid of her, she'd only cause you trouble.

Monday, November 22, 2010

What Pansy Knew: Why there are few children in the world of Henry James

After a year of travel, Isabel Archer comes back to Florence and we learn that she is engaged to Gilbert Osmond, an insipid, fortune-hunting American. We don't know why or how this came about - typical of Henry James ("The Portrait of a Lady") to elide a crucial dramatic scene and tell his story by indirection. We do know how this announcement affects a number of characters. First we see the stolid, hapless Caspar Goodwood arrive in Florence to see Isabel face to face and plead his case, such as he can, once more. Goodwood could b played by John Hamm, a handsome and rather boring presence. Isabel dismisses him curtly, even cruelly. What has become of her? She had seemed so strong and independent and freshly American, and now that she has money she seems no better than the rest, and very much under the spell of Madame Merle (who could be played by a slightly younger Glenn Close). We have to figure that Isabel's commitment to Osmond has something to do with Osmond's daughter, Pansy, whom Isabel visited before leaving Florence for her year of travel. There are not many children in the world of Henry James, and the few that there are, such as Pansy and the eponymous Maisie, are really just little adults - small people who speak like a James character and have few or none of he recognizable feelings of children - probably because James himself was born at the age of 50 or so. How aware is James that Pansy has been essentially abandoned by her selfish father, Osmond? Or does James think it's normal behavior to leave your child in care of governesses (mother is dead) as you follow a rich young woman around the ruins of Rome for weeks at a time? Isabel may think she's doing a service to Pansy my marrying her father, but it rarely works out that way.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Is it worse to be a fake aristocrat, or the real thing? : Portrait of a Lady

The 3rd (of 4th, if you count the hapless Ralph) suitor of Isabel Archer emerges as a major, sinister character as Isabel heads into the always (in Henry James) dangerous and corrupt world of Florence/Rome. Her scheming and duplicitous friend Madame Merle has drawn her into the orbit of Osmond, who is an American of the worst sort, living in Florence of some sort of obscure family income, doing nothing except spouting opinions and acting like a lord. We know why he's drawn to Isabel - she now has plenty of money. It will be important to see how money changes her. It doesn't seem to affect her a lot - except that it makes her even more desirable to men of the worst sort, and she has no natural guile to defend herself. She actually seems attracted to Osmond. But really which is worse? To be a fake aristocrat like Osmond, living well only because he is wealthy in relation to his Florentine surroundings? Or to be a true aristocrat like Isabel's first suitor, Lord Warburton, who talks about being a liberal and wanting to serve in Parliament but really - as we see when he reappears in a chance meeting with Isabel in Rome - mostly devoted to traveling around the world and nursing his wounds (since she rejected him). Neither does much good in the world, both are entirely self-centered and live off inheritance, though in a different way. And what about Isabel herself? Great, she wants to be an independent woman - but toward what end? Purely self-betterment, it seems. You certainly grow to understand the characters in "The Portrait of a Lady," but not necessarily to admire them, or even like them.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Wish the New Yorker were more committed to the short story

Not sure just what to make of E.L. Doctorow story, Assimilation, in current New Yorker - always good to see something from Doctorow, who has been a very steady hand over so many years - most of his early fiction relied on a historical setting, and he very evocatively re-created a past era, most often in nyc - but lately his fiction is more contemporary (isn't this an unusual career pathway?), and this new story is set in ny today or near today - takes up the theme of the Eastern European green-card marriage, young (Hispanic?) guy working in a Russian(?)-owned restaurant is offered a deal: marry this girl in Europe, come back to USA, apply to bring her here, we'll pay you $3k. OK, it's not a terribly original plot and the plot developments are hardly surprising - haven't we seen this story line recently? can't remember exactly where, perhaps that collection of stories about immigrants in Toronto? certainly in a # of recent Indie movies from Europe - nevertheless the story is told quite efficiently and effectively, you really understand this young man's torn feelings, he doesn't quite fall in love with his wife but he's rather hurt that she seems unattracted to him and unappreciative. As with so many NYer stories recently, it seems pretty obvious that this one is part of a longer work, as it ends quite abruptly with the young couple about to set off on a troubled life - probably a first chapter of a novel. It's a novel I'd probably read, too, but I do with the New Yorker were more committed to the short story as a form, rather than to high-recognition writers and their book launches.

Friday, November 19, 2010

European v American: Jame's great theme, but so narrow compared with Hemingway, Fitzgerald

As anyone could predict, Madame Merle is an evil and scheming character who sensed out that Isabel was soon to become rich and therefore desirable, and as a young and unworldly American she would be an easy target for the wily Europeans. She is scheming to get an artist friend of hers in Florence to court Isabel and marry her - the 4th guy, so far, interested in Isabel (in his case, he hasn't even met her - he's interested in her prospects, unlike the faithful, hapless Caspar Goodwood who live her for who she is). These are the main Henry James themes, and though it's taken half the book to get to them we are settled now deeply into the James world: corrupt Europe v innocent America, and the mediating characters, the Americans abroad who foolishly emulate European style, are the ones most likely to be destroyed. Well, this is certainly an antiquated theme, one I imagine few younger readers would find holds any resonance today - and even then in the 1880s, for that matter - James was writing from deep observation but in some ways very narrow experience, and it's surprising how insular the literary set was at that time, it really did take the 20th century modern writers to shake everything up and - think how different Hemingway and Fitzgerald were on themes of Americans in Europe. "The Portrait of a Lady" may be a great book by some measures, but it is really quite stultifying, and as I read it I don't think, wow, I have to go back and read all of James. I feel I'm climbing a mountain.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Warning: Do not drive or operate heavy machinery when reading Henry James

Was very tired last night when reading Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady" and believe me, despite its strengths, this novel is not one to keep you awake at night. About a third of the way through (200 pages), and Mr. Touchett dies leaving Isabel a small fortune. Now, she can afford to be an independent woman, and we'll see where that gets her. Mrs. Touchett, the aunt who has more or less adopted Isabel and brought her from Albany to Europe, becomes even more of a self-centered bitch, immediately putting the London house up for sale, ignoring her very ill son, Ralph, and complaining about her late husband's largesse. She and Isabel take off for Paris. James's writing is strange here, in that he does very little with transitions - characters just go from here to there without passage between locales - and in fact, despite a few scenes of very fine and (for him) simple description, such as the evening in the small London park, he's not all that interested in exterior description - he describes characters (too much), and his novels are almost entirely interior affairs - which is why he thought he could be a great dramatist (most of his novels are built heavily on dialogue) and why he in fact was a horrible dramatist (theater-goers like to see something happen rather than listen to two hours of subtle, nuanced rumination). The focus on Portrait moving more, I think, toward the newly introduced Madame Merle, with whom Isabel is unduly fascinating and who I suspect will betray her in some devastating manner.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Jamesian character, always on the outside, devoid of purpose

Elated on turning down two proposals of marriage, Isabel Archer heads back to Gardencourt with her cousin Ralph to see her uncle Mr. Touchett who is apparently near death. Touchett tells son Ralph he ought to propose to Isabel. Ralph is full of torment; he's obviously in love with (or at least smitten by) Isabel, but he realizes that his own health is fragile and he could never sustain a marriage. He's one of those doomed and lonely Jamesian characters, always on the outside, unable to commit, neither British nor American, devoid of purpose. Isabel, however, is a lively and promising character, eager to set off for Europe and begin her life of independence - which will be easier to do once her uncle leaves her a legacy. For all her spirit, however, she seems devoid of any social conscious or sympathy for others - she has a cruel and selfish streak that may come to harm her later. And who's the Madame Marle (Merle?) who suddenly turns up and plays piano? She's got to be a phony and gold-digger - turning up just as the wealthy Touchett is about to die, seeming so continental but actually born in Brooklyn, where her father was high-ranking in the Navy, or so she says. My sense is she will pull Isabel down to the depths, but we'll see. I can't say that Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady" is sprinting along, but he continue to set out little strands of plot and character and we'll see how The Master can tie these all together by the end. Book is not for everyone, and maybe not for me, but it is monumental and impressive in its one-of-a-kind way.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Have to love those James names!: Caspar Goodwood, Lady Pensil, and The Climber sisters

Second offer of marriage to Isabel Archer in Henry James's steamy (ha!) "The Portrait of a Lady," this time from the hilariously named Caspar Goodwood, the buff, bumbling American bloke who's obviously way out of his league with the sharp and independent Archer. She's now told two men that she just plain does not want to get married - good for her! Not many could stand up to the pressure of expectations, then or now, and she sees marriage, at least as she's known it and observed it, as very stifling for the women and she wants to have a life of experience and travel. Her friend Henrietta Stackpole, a journalist and traveler (modeled on Wharton perhaps?) is a model for her, but Stackpole is too impulsive and maybe pushy - insinuating herself a bit too much in Archer's life. Have to love those James names: Stackpole runs into American friends, two chatty sisters from Wilmington, Delaware: the Climbers. (There's also a Lady Pensil.) Isabel Archer is obviously really attractive to men, as in addition to the two who have actually proposed her hapless cousin Ralph Touchett is clearly smitten - but he's kind of the Jamesian character, doomed (in his case by his ill health) to a solitary life as an observer. The scene of the two of them (Isabel and Ralph) talking through dusk in the square (one of the locked English squares - some "slum" children as James calls them peering through the bars) is very strange and poignant. There's not a lot "happening" (those quote marks intentionally Jamesian) in Portrait, but a lot of interior drama and tension slowly building.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A marriage proposal, as the narrative moves along by inches: The Portrait of a Lady

A proposal of marriage at about page 100 of Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady," and Isabel Archer rejects the proposal from Lord Warburton, but because this is James nothing comes easily or in a straightforward (American?) manner. Isabel hems and haws, it takes a few meetings and an exchange of letters before she tells Warburton no, although she tells him she really likes him! He can't fathom why any woman would reject him - and Isabel herself realizes that 19 of 20 women would say yes immediately. So what about her? Today, we'd say: She's just not that into him. But more important, she has some vague sense that she wants to lead her life, she's curious about the world and an independent spirit, about to see London and the rest of Europe, she doesn't want to be tied to a man - and good for her! Warburton kind of an interesting character - he's super-rich and believes himself to be a liberal or progressive (he's about to enter Parliament I think), but the American women - Isabel and her friend Henrietta - taunt him and ask him (and his sisters) whether he'd be willing to give up all his wealth and privileges - perhaps some foreshadowing? - and it's something they can't even comprehend. Meanwhile, Isabel is being pursued by her American suitor, Caspar Goodwood (!), an earnest, handsome dolt by all accounts, so we'll see how that plays out. Since this is James, probably very slowly. He is clearly setting up one of his American v European conflicts, but he moves his narrative by inches.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Why should we read Henry James?

Only 75 pages into Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady" and already we've had a shooting, a double-suicide, a blackmail threat, a hijacking, and two kinky sex scenes - oh, wait a minute, that must have been some other novel I was reading. No, we don't ready James for the breathtaking plot. He's not a page-turner, he's a page-starer. But there are rewards and there are reasons why we do, or should, read Henry James. First of all, he writes about character, and his characters reveal themselves through their conversation and we learn more about them from the conversation of others (and occasionally from the trenchant observations of the narrator). This technique is unusual and requires, of both author and reader, a lot of patience and diligence. We learn about character slowly and incrementally, and a character's self-knowledge may prove faulty and what other characters think and say may prove to be wrong. The characters actually do very little, but because they do so little their few actions and decisions have great consequence. In the best of his novels (and especially the novellas, in my opinion), this works very well, as characters are faced with moral decisions or with decisions that will change the course of their lives. The downside is that the lives of his characters are very insulated from others. Few of his characters have any responsibilities or sensibilities beyond their tiny social set (The Bostonians an exception). Portrait of Lady seems, so far, to be one of his best as it fully plays to his greatest strength. Why James failed as a dramatist, given his skilled use of dialogue in fiction, is another question that I'll look at in a later post.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

James's characters can never step up and say what they mean - unless they're intemperate Americans

In addition to the "lady" (Isabel Archer) in Henry James's "Portrait of a Lady," we meet several other major players in the novel in the early pages, and James crafts a beautiful and (for him) succinct portrait of each. Touchette senior, an American who moved to England and made a success in banking, settles in England, but is always identifies himself as an American (this an obvious source of tension in his marriage, as his wife seems to be one of those Jamesian characters trying to slough off their American heritage and become a European), and his son, gone from Harvard to Oxford to English banking where he wasn't apparently quite the star his father was and then he became ill, some kind of lung ailment, and seems to spend the rest of his life (he's maybe about 30?) taking care of his health. These are the characters who will orbit around Isabel (along with her British and American suitors, whom we've met, and the meddling aunt, Mrs. Touchette) and determine her fate. When we read James, or at least when I do, my blood boils at the way the characters accept their social position (largely inherited) basically do nothing to improve the lives of anyone around them much less to improve the world, and trouble themselves over the slightest nuances of feeling and sentiment - without ever being able to just step up and say what they mean. (An American could do this - and then be shunned for brashness and intemperance.) Yet this is the James world, and to read him is to accept him for what it is, what he is. In Portrait, it's interesting to me that, at least at the outset, he does more than usual to establish the socioeconomic setting of his characters and he seems to have some distance from their wealth and privilege.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Taking up Bill's challenge and reading Portait of a Lady

With old pal Bill Saunders yesterday, and Bill has always, to my puzzlement, held up Henry James's "Portrait of a Lady" as the paragon of literary excellence. Think I read it many years back when with grad-schoolish diligence I plowed through the (almost) complete works of James - of course James is always monumentally impressive, that is, impressive the way a monument can be: cold, austere, grand, uninviting. I have loved some of the novellas and stories - I think that's his best genre, the compression of the form helps him come to the point - but did also like some of the middle works (middle in regard to time of his career) but found the last works completely unreadable. Portrait is one of the middle works, so I decided to go back to it - remember trying this once before and being completely put off, or off put, by an opening scene at a British garden party. Well, the kind of novels he writes could obviously not be written, much less published, today. You need a gunshot in the first chapter, or at least a gun. But having put off, or off put, reading Portrait for many years, picked it up last night to try or retry again. And you know what I was very impressed - the middle works of James really are quite an accomplishment. In the first few chapters he very deftly sets up a tension - smart, sassy, naive American woman comes to England chaperoned or "rescued" from Albany by her aunt Mrs. Touchette, and settles in at the Touchette estate where the grumpy uncle, nearly completely estranged from his wife, warns the dapper and cynical young man not to fall for his niece. We can see what's going on here right away, but how will it play out? Obviously not a book for everyone, as the pacing is still glacial by modern standards, but so far a really smart and compelling novel beginning to unfold. Maybe Bill is right?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A novel that's far less than meets the eye: The Housekeeper and the Professor

Finished Yoko Ogawa's "The Housekeeper and the Professor" and it strikes me as a novel that's less than meets the eye. There are many promising elements but few if any are developed into anything substantial. I realize it's always a delicate balance between overplotting a novel and undercooking it, but this story is far too tepid. For example (I may be giving some stuff away here), in the last few chapters the housekeeper discovers a hidden document that reveals that the professor had some kind of romance with his sister-in-law. Finds document, puts it away, nothing comes of this. Another, son Root rushes out to bakery to get candles for his 11th b-d party and is late in returning. Professor worries. Housekeeper/mom tries to reassure him. Eventually she goes to look for Root. He's fine, bakery was closed, went to another one, end of episode. I concede that I was worried Root would be hit by a bus or something melodramatic, so I'm glad Ogawa kept her story in control - but there's too much control. Honestly, what makes this novel special other than 1. the Japanese setting (I admit to being a fiend for world lit) and 2. the professor's observations about math. If this story were transposed to suburban Connecticut or someplace like that, how would it stand up? Poorly, right? The math angle is OK, but what does it really illuminate? He might as well have been an opera fanatic or an literary scholar - tho we readers/English-major types are probably unduly impressed by his musings on prime numbers. If math provided a lesson or an insight for the other characters, that would be one thing, but it doesn't. Finally, Ogawa may know something about baseball but she knows nothing about baseball cards (or for that matter about probability) as, imagine this, when housekeeper and Root go searching through many card shops for a card of a 20-years-previous star pitcher they just happen to hear of a closed candy store whose owner happily gives them an unopened box of cards which they eagerly go through and lo and behold find the star player's card with the special insert of a piece of his leather glove - a million to one shot at best.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A novel that's all premise, no plot

Nearly finished with the short novel "The Housekeeper and the Professor," by Yoko Ogawa - strikes me that this is a novel that's all premise. The entire scope of the novel is set forth in the opening pages, and initially it's intriguing and promising: the relations between the housekeeper (single mom in her 40s), the math professor (injured in a car accident and has no longterm memory), and housekeeper's 10-year-old son, whom the professor immediately likes. After that, what? Honestly, nothing happens or changes (30 pages shy of the conclusion), other than little episodes (boy cuts his hand, visit to baseball game, professor gets sick, housekeeper fired by evil sister-in-law but later returns). In most novels, we see relationships grow or develop: for example, perhaps prof is reluctant to let young boy into his household but learns to love him, or, perhaps boy is afraid of peculiar elderly man but learns tolerance. I know those sound sappy - but they're something. So the novel is all premise, but, on the other hand: what does Ogawa do with her premise? The old man has no longterm memory, so every day it's as if he meets housekeeper and son for the first time. Right? But we never really see this happen. The novel moves along as if they're old pals. Similarly, time seems to have stopped for him at his accident (18 years previous), in that he is sure that baseball stars of the past are still playing. But how does this affect his life? He goes outside - is he overwhelmed by technology, by changes? We never know. It's almost as if the novel could be exactly the same if the professor were simply an old man with no dementia.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Novel - mathematics = ? : Making sense of The Housekeeper and Professor the

Is this a really smart and thoughtful novel, or a bit of dressed-up sentimental claptrap? I'm half-way through and holding off on judgment so far. Yoko Ogawa's "The Housekeeper and the Professor" is very simple in composition: 40ish single mom, Japan ca 1992, takes on a job as a housemaid to a math professor who's lost his long-term memory in a car accident; she brings her 10-year-old son, whom the prof dubs "Root," along with her to work and the three develop an unlikely bond over the twin subjects of math and baseball. Echoes here of the many mentor-themed books that have followed in the wake of the hugely successful Tuesdays with Morrie. Also, on the literary side, echoes of mentor novels such as The Reader and a slew of recent entries I haven't read - something about a French professor and the lessons he imparts? The relation among the 3 is sweet, but I don't see its point exactly other than as a vehicle; the professor posits various math problems to mom and son and teaches them about prime #s, perfect #s, and other mathematical oddities. Somehow, they're interested. Somehow, I'm not. If you purge this book of the mathematical quotient (novel - math = ?) what have you got? Ogawa, in the 2nd half, must make more of the relationships among the 3. One oddity (echo of Oliver Sacks?) is that the prof can retain only 80 minutes of memory, so each day it's as if he meets the housekeeper & son anew. This could be greatly developed for poignancy or even for drama, but it kind if just lies there as a given fact - the novel (the novelist?) is too polite to probe and prod it into life.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Why Jean McGarry's stories are "cool" : Ocean State

The first section of Jean McGarry's collection "Ocean State" is the broadest in scope, in that its stories cover entire family histories, almost a novel's worth of material compressed into stories of modest length. The other three sections are no less impressive, but in a different way: most (not all) of them are more traditional in that they examine a single incident or episode (Dream Date) or take place in a single span of time such as one day in the life or work out the significance of a single image (Gold Leaf, Wedding Gowns). They're all very smart, and, though they do contain humor - particularly some of wisecracks from the ever-complaining mothers and the sassy daughters - they are generally pretty dark in tone: death, especially suicide, imbues these stories, and most of the marriages either begin inauspiciously or come to no good end. What's really striking is how "cool" McGarry's fiction is, and I use that term the way McLuhan did in describing media: you really have to engage in the stories are read them carefully, she doesn't lay out the transitions for you, so you have to watch for every twist and turn in direction. For ex., the story about the day in the life of a psychiatrist begins with rather detailed account of a troubled young girl, his first patient, and it comes as a surprise (to me) that the story's not about her but about her doctor, as we shift into the next patient. My personal fave in this smart collection is Dream Date, which beautifully captures a whole range of family dynamics in just a few pages, as everyone gets involved in planning Eileen's date with a neighbor kid to a "canteen dance," all of which involves extensive spying on his household and endless gossip about whether he (and his family) are good enough for Eileen. As I finish, I'm wondering what fellow blogger Charles May, who writes exclusively about short stories, might think about Ocean State - I hope he weighs in.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The evolution of a style: Jean McGarry

About 20 years ago I reviewed Jean McGarry's first book, Airs of Providence, and was really moved by her stories and deeply impressed by her talent - and found the book obviously of particular interest to Rhode Islanders, and Jean precisely captured (skewered?) the insular world of Irish-Catholic Providence family life in the 50s. None had written about this before and Jean seemed to get it down just right. We later became friends, so I have never actually reviewed another one of her books, though I've read almost all of them. The latest is a new collection of stories, "Ocean State," from JHU press. I've read the first three, the section called aptly (and ironically?) Family Happiness. It's puzzled me for a long time why McGarry hasn't ever found the national readership she deserves, though she has published in some of the top magazines - but I guess there's no sense trying to figure out the permutations of reputation, how it's made and unmade. Those who've found her fiction, most of it published by JHU, are among the fortunate. In this latest collection, at least based on the first section, it's interesting to see how her style changes and develops since Airs of Providence - many books in between, some with R.I. settings, but this is the bookend, the only other to reference R.I. in its title. Yet setting seems far less important in Ocean State; the first three stories could take place in any of a # of cities. She's distilled her style down to focus intently on character and relationships - and these first three stories are so tight and condensed, each like a novel in miniature, with no time to fool around with extraneous detail. They're more mature than her earliest work and also more demanding, as we follow a whole life story in about a dozen pages. We'll see how the other stories work as we go along with Ocean State.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

American outsiders and the short story

Jim Shepherd, whom I don't know a lot about - hasn't he written stories on baseball, including one that was quite good but kind of a retake on a great SI story about Don Hoak facing Fidel Castro in a Cuban baseball game that any baseball nut of my age probably remembers reading as a kid? - has a story, Boys Town, in the current New Yorker - one of the best they've run this year, I think. It's in that very American genre of first person life story by a guy who's over the edge, as we become increasingly aware as the story progresses and his actions become more and more strange and antisocial. This story falls within the orbit of TC Boyle, George Saunders, Joyce Carol Oates, and a slew of others. Very well written, very disturbing, totally credible. Why are these outsiders so important to American fiction? There's the old trope, probably valid, that English fiction about getting the protagonist to join society (Fielding to Austen to Dickens to Forster ... ) and American fiction as been about breaking the protagonist free from society (Hawthorne to Melville to Twain to Hemingway to Ellison to Kerouac and so on). This American outsider tendency is even a stronger strain in the short story, in that there's a related, probably true, trope that novels are about fits and stories are about misfits - can the misfit truly be sustained over the course of a whole novel? Rarely successfully. (Confederacy of Dunces may be one instance.) The misfit usually wears out his or her welcome in a short span, and the story may be the perfect format for the true and complete social outcast. (I've found this to be true in my own writing - stories are full of losers, sad and lonely folks, whom I would not want to put through the trauma of life in a novel.)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Franzen and McCann: What we really look for in fiction

Whether or not the final section (Book 4) of Colum McCann's "Let the Great World Spin" really works is almost beside the point. In final section he takes one of the characters, whom we'd seen only as an orphaned child in the Bronx adopted by a caring mother, who is now a young, independent woman - it's 26 years later - struggling with the burden of her origin: mother and grandmother were Bronx prostitutes. Well raised by a caring mother, she's independent but lonesome, unable to make connections. We see her heading back to nyc for a deathbed meeting with her "aunt," who was the wealthy East Side mother who'd lost a son in Vietnam. Well, the connections do feel a little forced, a little too much of an authorial trick, and the plotting of this last section is sketchier than some of the earlier sections - I'm not sure, for example, that this section could stand alone, whereas some of the others are like novellas. That said, I think it's very beautiful how McCann can present the lineaments of a life story and link it by threads - much like the tightrope stretched across the sky - to the other elements in his capacious novel. Generally, I don't like long books brimming with plot, but I've found myself quite captivated by two recent long novels, this one and Freedom, so maybe I've been undernourished lately by a diet of minimalism. Readers or pseudo readers often complain that novelists today aren't writing fiction the way the used to; maybe Franzen and McCann are just two throwbacks, and you can't exactly call their novels conventional - McCann's in particular uses many devices of high Modernism - but there's a retro feel to both these books, and it's good to see that both have been quite successful with readers and with critics. They provide what we really do look for in fiction: a world, a set of characters, believable, likable even in their failings, a clear and distinct authorial style that is suitable to the material and not full of itself.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Is the aerialist a version of the novelist?: Let the Great World Spin

Colum McCann does manage to pull it off - ties up the various strands of his complex novel "Let the Great World Spin" in the last section of Book 3, and I won't give it all away but this section is the life story of the Bronx neighbor who adopts the two children left behind when Jazz dies in the car crash and Tillie goes to jail. This section is a fine brief portrait of a life - there are several in this book, and each could stand alone as a novella - though perhaps a little soft and sentimental at the end. Tying together the disparate lives is a bit of a device, a bit artificial, and requires McCann to stretch the lines of probability. There is one further short section (book 4) that takes place, I think, closer to present day. Still wondering how effective the tightrope theme is and what to make of its significance. As noted in an earlier post, movies that use this multiple-strands-intersect technique have lately used the metaphor of a car crash (Crash, Lantana), literally smashing people's lives together. And a car crash is at the center of this novel as well, and, oddly, it occurs to me that McCann could have written the whole story without the aerialist. But the aerialist does bring a dimension of strangeness and beauty to this story, a sense of the great city united by a single, mysterious event. It's uplifting and dramatic, and of course includes the symbolism of thin strands connecting across space and the one daring to walk across those strands, much like a novelist. And also: the terrible foreshadowing of a city blown apart (the last section may take on this theme).

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The metaphor of the aerialist: What does it tell us? : Let the Great World Spin

Yes, as anticipated, more the strands in Colum McCann's "Let the Great World Spin" are coming together as the novel nears completion (I've almost finished reading "book" 3 of 4). I'd thought McCann had "forgotten" one of his characters, the mother (Claire) whose son has died in Vietnam, but we pick her strand up again through the POV of her husband, whom we'd last seen on his way to criminal court (he's a judge); he will preside in the afternoon session and first hear the case of the two prostitutes from the Bronx, Tillie Henderson and her daughter, Jazz; then he will hear the case of the aerialist (never named in the novel, though obviously based on Petit). So the two major story lines converge in the courtroom. Among other character developments: in the section on Tillie in prison (she seems to be preparing herself for suicide, distressed that she cannot visit with her grandchildren), we see her meet with the artist who caused the car accident (that killed Corrigan and Jazz), and she is now having an affair with Ciaran Corrigan (Corrigan's brother, first character introduced). We see Corrigan and his Guatemalan girlfriend as they fall in love, on the day that he will die. We also begin to learn about the Bronx neighbor who has apparently adopted Jazz's two children, learning about her impoverished life in Missouri. In short: a tremendous amount of material, all very well developed, built on excellent research and observation (especially the courtroom chapter) yet the research never overwhelms the story. It's much easier to follow this plot than I can convey in these snippets of plot summary. My only concern about the novel: does the metaphor of the aerialist really carry the weight of this book? What's the guiding metaphor about? How or why is it necessary? What does it tell us about the city then - and today, now that the towers have been obliterated?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Are they sketches loosely related or are they part of a grand design? : Let the Great World Spin

Not sure exactly the direction Colum McCannn is heading as about half-way through "Let the Great World Spin" he includes a section, all in short first-person diary-like entries (set in 1974, this is well before the era of blogs) of the Bronx prostitute who was arrested on the day of the book's events (day that Petit crossed the WTC towers on a tightrope, day that Nixon resigned?). He keeps swinging back to a set of central characters - the Corrigan brothers, one of whom dies in a car accident and the other seemingly stays on in NYC, and their relation with the prostitutes in the Bronx whom both brothers befriend. Not sure really why this is so important to McCann and his story or how they tie to the man on the wire except that the days roughly (or exactly) coincide. Also McCann has for the moment lost sight of the mothers whose sons died in Vietnam, particularly the East Side mother, Clair. If the Clair chapter echoed Mrs. Dallowy, this prostitute's diary, oddly, echoes Ulysses - a bit of a Nighttown element to it. Also, McCann shows his facility at a variety of narrative styles and voices, from more reserved and elegant first-person to this section, which is rough, jottings, street talk. He's slowly assembling something with great skill, but I'm not sure yet whether I see the big picture. Are these a number of sketches loosely related or is McCann working toward a single, unifying theme? I have faith that he is. He is very skilled and each of these sections is compelling and easy to read, and I think each would stand up well in isolation - but McCann goes to such trouble to set them on a particular day against the background of the tightrope walker that I have to think there's a purpose other than simply building a link of temporal coincidence.

Monday, November 1, 2010

How the past saw the future that is now the present: Let the Great World Spin

First section/book of Colum McCann's "Let the Great World Spin" ends with interpolated section describing Petit's training for the walk across the towers of the WTC; though McCann moves the training site to the American West, the routine itself will be familiar to those who've seen Petit's documentary, Man on Wire. Not sure whether McCann had seen it when he was writing this section - does feel like familiar ground to me. Second section begins with more people whose lives intersected with the events of that day, notably a young photographer who captured a good picture of Petit crossing the wire (with ominous plane crossing overhead) - picture actually included in the book. Then a section on some computer hackers from Palo Alto who tap into a payphone circuit and are able to talk to some people on the ground watching the events. Did this happen? Very possible - it seems McCann may have culled newspapers for real events of the day and built his novel around the reimaginings of those events (this could be done for any day, I think - a R.I. writer did a novel about the day of Kennedy's assassination, and I think used some of the same techniques). The hacker section is kind of interesting because it reminds us of how primitive high-tech was back then, 35 years ago - and allows McCann to have a few of the hackers talk about their vision of the future when we would carry vast info around with us - seemed highly fantastic at the time but now we just take these capacities, ever growing, in stride. It's a look into the the past to see how the past saw the future that is now the present. Writing continues to be strong and clear, but starting to wonder about the coherence of the overall design of the novel - is McCann drawing the strands together or just laying them down side by side?