Sunday, July 23, 2017

"Paste" (1899)

In case you ever start to worry about Henry James's humanity—which you shouldn't, but it's understandable if you do—this story may provide a tonic. A young man with an interesting name, Arthur Prime, has recently lost his father, and then, only a few months later, his stepmother. His cousin Charlotte is with him to help with things—she grieves her aunt too. Arthur asks Charlotte to help him sort a last box he found wedged into a corner of a closet, out of sight and nearly inaccessible. In it are paste jewelry (as in title) and other souvenirs of her past as an actress. As the second wife of a (widowed, of course) clergyman, Arthur's stepmother forever left and disavowed her theatrical past, an occupation that is scandalous enough even in her past. Charlotte expects the pearls she finds there, at least, are real. But Arthur furiously denies it. He appears to hate even the idea of this part of his stepmother's life. He felt closer to her even than to his own mother, lost to him young. He's so adamant about it that Charlotte accepts its truth without question, but asks if she can keep them and the rest of the contents of the box as a keepsake of her aunt's. Arthur obviously thinks that's crazy, but assents, glad to be rid of it all. You can maybe guess where this is going, especially if you know a story by Guy de Maupassant called "The Necklace." A friend of Charlotte's clues her in later and swears the pearls are real. It's the story's resolution that's surprisingly warm and insightful, turning the whole thing into a sharply observed character portrait. It frankly surprised me, given all the artificialities of the last I'd read by him (The Awkward Age) still ringing in my ears. "Paste" is anything but artificial. The title is just an interesting play on the themes. Of course, this has its sources in James's interest in the theater and theater life (not to mention Guy de Maupassant). But I'm struck even more here by his interest in character studies and portrait painting. He dismissed Impressionism as a fraud, and at least two of his characters extol the virtues of portraiture as the one true art. I have some sympathy for the view, though I think it holds more interest in photography than painting (at least until the selfie era). "Paste" is a character study illustrated in words, and a really nice story too.

"interlocutor" count = 0 / 17 pages

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

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