Sunday, September 06, 2015

The Princess Casamassima (1886)

I'm really not sure what to make of this strange, overlong Henry James novel, which takes on radical 19th-century European Marxist activists in much the same way his previous novel, The Bostonians, took on radical 19th-century Massachusetts feminism. It is interesting to see James make the attempt at relevance, for lack of a better term, but ultimately they are merely Henry James novels with the topicality slathered on like frosting. The Princess Casamassima is rich with character and story but somewhat short on insight. In the end, as he must, by his own inclinations, James slip-slides into apologist for the existing order, making out the mass of activists as benighted buffoons, well-meaning but stupid, or in some cases unpleasantly cunning and a little bit psychopathic. It's interesting to see the degree to which James was aware of the world around him, even if his disdain for it is all too plain. Hopefully this is the end of such experiments and we will be returning once again shortly to interiorities. At the same time, I must say there's something very affecting about the way he chooses to resolve this one—for me it ended up being worth the slog. Much of the first half is backstory, and the thing is positively dense with characters. None of them, save the victim at its center—the humble bookbinder Hyacinth Robinson, whose story it is more than the princess, who arrives remarkably late for a title character—has any particular focus or chemistry one with another, but they are reasonably interesting studies of European types. Perhaps that is another problem with this and The Bostonians—the usual tensions between Americans and Europeans are virtually absent. Where The Bostonians takes place in America and is about Americans, in The Princess Casamassima it is all Europe—London, mainly—and Europeans. Even at this long date, my political sympathies lie to the left of James, so occasionally I grew impatient with his hard-headed "common sense" characters, who assert that focusing on poverty and human rights is a silly waste of time because shut up. And the melodramatics of the plotting here are frequently embarrassed by overly exposed joints. Still, I was impressed by the way it ends. Worth keeping around for a rainy day.

"interlocutor" count = 13 / 608 pages (includes "interlocutress")

In case it's not at the library.

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