Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Young Henry

I know almost nothing about Henry James and even less about his brother William, and the fact has always been something of a black hole in my reading life. Let's see, I read Portrait of a Lady (rather happily as I recall) way back in school, a few years ago I became thoroughly entranced by the short story "Beast in the Jungle," and there have been other stories here and there. Oh, and his little book on Hawthorne. So I guess I have read something, but none of it ever really stuck. I've always had this sense though that James is someone I should know a lot about, because it seems like everyone else does, or at any rate have formed very strong, definite opinions about him, which usually boil down to the general opinion that his later work is past unreadable.
Anyway, it's with this in mind that I took up the idea of trying to read James all the way through on a casual basis, sometime between now and my death. It may not be all that good of an idea; maybe I just ought to read enough to be sick of him. Last year sometime I read his first novel, Watch and Ward, a wispy little thing of no particular interest, which James later disclaimed. It's about a young girl who is raised to maturity by an overprotective father figure who loves her and tries to save her from the clutches of a seedy suitor who is after her money. There are better descriptions of the book somewhere, but it's not the kind of book that lives long in the memory -- although it did seem to have a kind of stray little Lolita thing going for it now and then.
This morning I finished the first "real" James novel, Roderick Hudson, which is a not bad piece of apprentice work, or at least I think that's what it is. It reminded me of E.M. Forster (rich Americans farting around in Italy) and Hawthorne's The Marble Faun (Italian sculpture, woozy prose, rapturous pontifications on the clash between art and life).
The title character is a young American sculptor discovered by the wealthy Rowland Mallet, who believes Hudson has the reach of genius in his grasp, and becomes his fulltime benefactor. He takes Hudson to Italy, leaving behind Hudson's fiance, Mary Garland, with whom Mallet himself is secretly in love. Hudson falls under the spell of both Italy and Christina Light, an intoxicatingly beautiful and spoiled young girl who inspires the worship of everyone who sees her. Christina's idiot mother, who is as ensorcelled by her as anyone, has basically raised her daughter from birth to be a trophy of some kind, but no one ever seems good enough, least of all Roderick, for whom Christina is as much a source of torment as she is an inspiration, and less his muse than his muse's competition. Christina is the real thing, a beauty such as Roderick could never truly do justice to, but he can't marry her, either, because then she would possess his life completely. She marries someone else -- and presumably shows up later in James' The Princess Cassamassima -- and Roderick's life goes into a tailspin. It's the artists and models version of can't live with, can't kill.
The book is breathless, overwrought, and compelling -- the kind of James novel most preferred by people who hate James. Also, if you're heavily into scavenging an artist's work for clues to his life, prime evidence for the gay studies crowd, as Rowland's devotion to the strapping Roderick is as total as Roderick's is to Christina, and there is too something of a sense of subjagation and dominance about it, of being overwhelmed by the natural force of another. Or something. The writing never, though, seems to me very homoerotic -- at least not at the same level as the Herman Melville of Pierre or Billy Budd. Actually it seems rather asexual; removed, distant. Somewhat passionless, even, for all the talk of passion.
The next one in the series is The American, which I hope to read with more energy, and which I hope inspires a more alert reading than this one did.

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