Thursday, June 22, 2006

Young Henry, Part II

I don’t know if I’ll follow through with this plan to read all of Henry James or not -- the odds are against it -- but last week’s reading of Roderick Hudson served as something of a test case. I loved its opening chapters, where theres a fair amount of rich conversation about life and art, but as a story it seemed to thrash around a bit, as the lovelorn title character does little more than wring his hands over the girl he wants and doesn’t want.

For some reason, after it was over, I shirked far more pressing reading duties to tackle The American. Maybe it’s just those damned Library of America multi-novel volumes; finish one and the next is staring up at me as if it had been waiting in line forever. Anyway, I’m glad I did, because it marks a real advance over its predecessor. It’s a lively, smart, funny, rather droll novel of manners and murder, where American resolve clashes with French snobbery. It has an engaging protagonist in Christopher Newman, whom James seems to like more as the book goes along, as well as a charming love interest in Claire de Cintre, and a fine pair of villains in Claire’s mother and eldest brother, Madame Bellegarde and Urbain, whose family harbors the kind of dark secret you usually find in Dickens or Wilkie Collins. James writes with the brisk and authoritative air of a man who really knows where he’s going (not unlike Christopher) and the book is a page-turner from the start.

Christopher is a rather familiar sort of fish out of water: a young captain of industry who has made his fortune, retired early, and arrived in France to see what he can see. In the hands of most writers of the day, he’d be your typical crass vulgarian, and certainly he’s not a man of refined taste. When we first see him he’s touring the Louvre, watching a young woman copying the great masters, barely able to tell the difference between the two. James has more in mind for him, though, than to be a comic foil, or the butt of a lot of smug jokes. Christopher is a “powerful specimen of an American,” and he looks like America, too - brimming with possibility. His countenance, as James writes, 

had that typical vagueness which is not vacuity, that blankness which is not simplicity, that look of being committed to nothing in particular, of standing in an attitude of general hospitality to the chances of life, of being very much at one's own disposal so characteristic of many American faces. It was our friend's eye that chiefly told his story; an eye in which innocence and experience were singularly blended. It was full of contradictory suggestions, and though it was by no means the glowing orb of a hero of romance, you could find in it almost anything you looked for. Frigid and yet friendly, frank yet cautious, shrewd yet credulous, positive yet skeptical, confident yet shy, extremely intelligent and extremely good-humored, there was something vaguely defiant in its concessions, and something profoundly reassuring in its reserve.

Of course, the first thing you think is that Christopher is headed for disaster, and he is - but they’re disasters made in good faith. He invests in a painter, Madame Noemie, who not only turns out to be little more than a greedy hustler, but who will serve to destroy Christopher’s only real friend, Valentin Bellegarde. Christopher falls hard for Valentin’s sister, the beautiful young widow Claire de Cintre, whose mother and elder brother Urbain first warily accept him as a marriage prospect, then shut him down when a better (and more regal) offer comes along. (Roderick Hudson turns on a similar plot device, where the female lead finds herself faced with choosing a marriage of class over love.) Claire can’t go against her family’s wishes, and Christopher, despite every effort, can’t change their mind. His luck changes when he uncovers a family secret, giving him a chance to set matters back the way they were.

Part of the interest in watching Christopher throughout is that he’s one of those rare rich people in fiction who are not evil, and this book is probably ripe for inclusion on some National Review list of great conservative novels, but don’t tell anyone I said so. (Possibly there is some pervasive subtle critique in it about American society and consumerism - such as the fact that Christopher built his fortune on manufacturing wash-tubs - but personally I don’t see it.) Unlike most of the people he meets, he is honest and unpretentious - an innocent abroad who doesn’t stay innocent, but who ultimately doesn’t lose his moral compass, either. James, likewise, stays true to his own artistic sense by refusing to give the book a conventional happy ending. For both Christopher and Claire, loneliness becomes the price of integrity.

Michael Dirda said yesterday - and yes, that’s me doing the asking if you scroll down to the inquiry from Columbia, SC - that “Many people would choose The American as [James’] first great novel.” I think it succeeds perfectly well as a highly dramatic story - James Ivory should have filmed it by now (PBS apparently beat him to it) - but I don’t think it has the kind of uniqueness or fullness of vision or really goes far enough to be considered great.

But it’s a “powerful specimen” of good.

The Europeans is up next, but only after I review the new Updike.

This James thing could take awhile.

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