Sunday, June 12, 2016

"Madame de Mauves" (1874)

This long story by Henry James finds key beginnings of many of James's most familiar themes, starting with relations between New World and Old. Madame de Mauves is an American woman of wealth who has married a dissolute, fortune-hunting Frenchman. She has been married to him awhile when Longmore enters her life. Longmore, by the way, is easily found in the dictionary of painfully obvious names. He is also an American, soon falls in love with the madame, and spends the rest of the story longing more for her than her husband or anyone else. The Americans are all Calvinists hemmed in by moral imperatives, so a simple affair is not the answer, even though Mme. de Mauves's French husband has indulged a series of them over the course of their marriage. She is trapped in an impossible situation, arguably over her own moral making. Longmore loves her, and though less troubled by the morals of Madame, understands and respects her right to the decision. This felt to me like an early dry-run version of The Portrait of  a Lady. It's not the same story—the marriage is already an accomplished fact here, and fully half of the novel—but the pieces are similar: the corrupt and knowing European husband, the principled and unhappy American wife, and the dithering American fifth wheel. By this point in his career James was in his early 40s and the grooves of his writing are established. "Interlocutor" is now in the house, signaling that the maddening aspects of his writing are there too, such as pronoun imprecision and the convenient slippery ability of the omniscient third-person narrator to dart in and around the points of view of different characters at will. But I also enjoyed reading it a lot too. There's enough lucidity, and James is often plainly engaged by these characters and their worlds, which is infectious. As always (in fact, I seem to be noticing it more and more), his plots are built around coincidences and unbelievable chance encounters. That's a little annoying, but you just roll your eyes and keep reading for the sake of getting on with it. If people happen to keep bumping into one another in places like the metropolis of Paris, well, there's not much I can do about it. With the marriage issues already settled, all the focus is on the interior lives and motivations of these characters. It's what James can be very good at, so I have no problem—even if ultimately the resolutions are preposterous. Fixing that is something he gets to later in his career.

"interlocutor" count = 1 / 40 pages

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

1 comment:

  1. The focus on "interior lives and motivations" being another aspect that makes the writing "modern." I read his brother's book ab religious experience a few years back. Same preoccupation.