Sunday, November 01, 2015

The Reverberator (1888)

The Reverberator is a short comic Henry James novel. It's not considered to be among his best—the tangles of sentences and monolithic paragraphs only add up to another novel of manners working the matrimonial train, with the now familiar overlay of cultural relations between the Old World and the New. Once again the scene is Europe and all of the most important characters are American. This novel has an annoying tic of making the vigorous and loutish type of Americans frequently use the word "ain't" (though I admit I'm not always sure what's intended, as sometimes some of the very best of James characters use it seemingly without irony). There's also something about Europeans draining American energy—there is sophisticated, and then there is effete. This has one of the most painfully egregious examples of effete in what appears to be our hero, one Gaston Probert, who though bearing American citizenship has never lived there. He makes a sorry, unmemorable character, but no one here is very interesting. In fact, what's most interesting about this tends also to be beside the point. "The Reverberator" is a newspaper that traffics in nascent celebrity culture, for example, such as it existed in Europe in the late 19th century. I thought that was interesting, although as a plot point it devolves into a buffoonish farce. Even more interesting was the consideration of Impressionism. The label never appears, much less any real-life artist names such as Claude Monet, but it's evident from the descriptions of the paintings (and the time period) that that is what James is talking about. Now a favorite of middlebrows on a reasonably permanent basis, with Shakespeare and Beethoven, Impressionism was still relatively new and au courant at the time James wrote this. It's hard to miss his note of dismissal—and thus perhaps, by extension, his potential dismissal of much in art that has followed for more than a century. This is not entirely surprising, as Henry James remains more or less a conservative fuddy-duddy at bottom. Yet it is interesting to see how that plays out with a style of art that has become a favorite (or certainly tolerated well) among the conservative fuddy-duddy class everywhere, who tut-tut as always about what's become of art, music, literature, politics, science, etc. In other words, Henry James in this day and age could well likely appreciate a Monet calendar as a Christmas gift. But we'll never know that for certain. It's only a thought experiment, and has nothing to do with anything in The Reverberator. It's not for James's views on art that we read him, but more for the way he catalogs and arranges modes of perceived conduct, and can do so with a kind of bewitching wordy charm. But even that's not happening so much here. It's short but only for the hardcore.

"interlocutor" count = 2 / 210 pages

In case it's not at the library.

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