Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Awkward Age (1899)

Henry James's whirl at writing plays earlier in the decade has full hold in this novel and the previous one, What Maisie Knew. Both are full of scenes, with dialogue and some stage direction but very little that helps us below the surface. It is all surfaces here, and James feels almost giddy with them. We are plunged into each scene with little to help us except what the characters say, and they are often hiding things from one another, or speaking subtly. It can be maddening—who and what are these people talking about? What are the things they say supposed to mean? These questions arise continually. Gradually a story is discerned, about a young woman, Nanda, who has reached the marrying age, and so must be married. She has two eligible suitors—one she loves but he cannot make a commitment and the other who loves her. Also there's a strange old guy hanging around who once loved Nanda's grandmother, detests her mother, and now has a thing for Nanda, though no one misses the age difference problem. Anyway, there are some clues for you. Good luck. As usual, I enjoyed reading it despite my confusions and misgivings. James's duty to his craft pays off well in many ways. Most surprising was how funny he can be, casually mocking certain figures of society. The title doesn't just refer to Nanda's post-adolescent time of life, you see, but also to the broader times in general, as the 19th century was turning into the 20th. Particularly some of the sideline women characters are funny in ways that sneak up on you. Their desperate ploys to maintain poise and dignity actually warranted giggling fits hours later as they floated back to mind. There is also something of the feel of a generational stamp to The Awkward Age—the "Fin de siècle" Generation, or some such. Van, the one who can't make a commitment, even when he loves, and Mitchy, the one who goes off and marries a harridan because Nanda told him she thought they'd make a good match, are lost soul frat brothers, comfortable in tails and keeping a bright face to the painful realities. At the finish the novel attempts to strike a note of pathos, which I think might be asking too much, given the generally wicked and gossipy narrative that holds sway. At the same time it's all wound up pretty well. I liked it on balance but you have to be prepared for a certain amount of confusion—"ambiguity" is the operating conceit, and James is often laying it on with a trowel. You're going to have to live with that to get through this. No doubt all the subtle dialogue accounts for the unusually high usage of "interlocutor" in this one.

"interlocutor" count = 25 / 402 pages (includes "interlocutress")

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

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