Overwhelmed and defeated by feelings of insignificance and intellectual inferiority each time I read a novel by Henry James, I once wrote a piece in bogus essayistic style, reprinted below. Yesterday, I came across a very nice WordPress site devoted to short essays on literature, run by the extremely prolific blogger and writer Dave Astor: https://daveastoronliterature.com/. In a recent post https://daveastoronliterature.com/2021/05/30/long-remembered-books-released-within-a-short-time/ Astor extolls as James’ “perhaps most impressive feat” the writing, “in three consecutive later-career years“, of The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). Astor calls them “All highly ambitious (some might say overwritten) novels.” The mildly derogatory epithet “overwritten” is exactly what my my piece was about. It is about the complicating prolixity that characterizes some of James’ novels. I am rather convinced that ‘overwriting’ was deliberate methodology…
So here is that snippet on Henry James from a few years back.
The Henry James Reader
I am very partial to the works of Henry James, the American/English 19th (and turn-of-the-) century novelist. I understand the mechanics of his art. I do not always understand what he writes. These facts (about what I understand and what I do not always understand) are related. What James strives at in the composition of his novels, or the best of them, is to keep filling up the space until his words have built and sealed off the context in which all that the novel is about, physical, philosophical, moral and psychological, is captured and interconnected.
James’ work allows interpretation, requires it. Any word, necessarily a projection, requires interpretation. But when one is dealing with the work of Henry James, interpretation must confine itself to the words that are there, at hand, in print, the words that one is actually reading. No interpretation may assume, or result in the conclusion that, anything has been left unsaid. If an interpretation adds a ‘layer’ to the words James wrote – philosophical, psychological or otherwise – or relies on a reading ‘between the lines’, then that is proof, eo ipso, that the interpretation is false. It is precisely the consistent effort of James to leave no space between the lines, or the words in a sentence or the sentences in a paragraph, which makes his work sometimes so difficult to access. In James’ work the key to unlock a sentence or a body of text is always to be found in the entirety of the written words, never in a psychological or philosophical idea beyond the words. The words one reads are everything, and everything is in the words.
I have come to be convinced that if James, in writing a single sentence, would find that not everything he intended to say in that sentence was in it, he would supplement the sentence, or add more sentences, until words had been given to what he had set out to say but was still not contained in the words he had put on paper at that point. I found that if I didn’t ‘get’ a sentence or a paragraph the thing to do was to back up and very meticulously close-read the preceding text, often on the very same page. The key to a passage I couldn’t get my head around was always, without fail, in the preceding text not read attentively enough the first time. This is what makes some of James’ works so extremely exacting on the reader. To interpret a text by relating it to an underlying philosophical or psychological concept may seem to involve the greater intellectual effort, but this is in fact not the case; it involves education. James requires his readership to bring to bear the full force of its linguistic capabilities.
I’m not saying that James’ art is unrelated to a context – metaphysical, moral or aesthetic – outside the ringfence of a novel. No doubt his art is inspired by and has adopted ideas from external context (just as it has added to it). But this is irrelevant to the interpretation of his texts. It may be relevant to enjoying them. To get the most out of James’ art, one needs to be thoroughly culturally educated as well as an extremely skilled reader. Incidentally, I’m neither.
I don’t sleep well. I am worried sick all the time about everything, and extremely unhappy and desperate. I fall asleep quickly, but I invariably wake up around 2.00 am, 3.00 if I’m lucky, 1.00 at the worst of times, my mind boiling and seething out of control. Then I read Henry James, hardly able to construe what I read, but soon to be soothed by the universe I submerge into, knowing it to be pure and truthful, complete. Then I go back to sleep. If there’s no happiness for me now, which seems to be getting more likely with the lapse of every next day, and no paradise, or anything short of it, hereafter, which sadly is a scientific fact, then at least there is the undecipherable art of Henry James.