Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Wings of the Dove (1902)

After the miserable experience I had with The Sacred Fount, I was prepared for the worst with the last three (and generally most acclaimed) of Henry James's novels. But I should have remembered things are acclaimed for a reason, because I enjoyed The Wings of the Dove quite a bit. Yes, the sentences are long and the abstractions, not to mention the vague pronouns, piled high. It requires some patience. The most interesting character in the whole thing, and arguably the main character, Kate Croy, is also one of his best, even though she is kept mostly on the sidelines and out of sight. But she is responsible for the main plot, a complicated scheme about (what else?) marriage and money. There are points to groan over. As often with James, neither the characters nor the motivations seem quite recognizable as human, but more like fevered figments of James's hot stove brain. Yet the monstrousness of what he imagines them doing is hard to deny. It sets you back. I saw the 1997 film version when it was new, but it's little help. This is not a novel easily filmed. The dithering, smeary, precisely imprecise language is ultimately what makes it. Our narrator—clearly possessed of a sensibility, and perhaps an agenda, hiding some things from us as he reveals others—is perpetually forestalled in explicating concrete action, constantly checking himself and adjusting for nuance. James returns here, in sideways fashion, to his earliest themes, as Europeans are once again trifling with the naivete of Americans. What's maddening is how elusive the action seems, constantly raising the question of whether James has really settled on the single and best way to tell this story. It's quite arguable that he has not. So much happens offstage, for example, that could be emphasized differently or more strongly. That applies equally to the action we do see. It feels like an implicit declaration that reality is impossible to know. We have the facts of this story, a sense of intrigue among fewer than a dozen people, and a sense of how we might feel about them, but very little is certain. Almost nothing, in fact. There is so much more we could know. Yet the ending also feels satisfactory—there's a certain symmetry to the actions and all the ambiguity. James seems to be operating on a whole new level here. Is it perhaps some perspicacious new editor and/or publisher? I couldn't help noticing that the "interlocutor" level in these major novels drops off dramatically (the preferred tic for the usage largely become "companion," which I didn't count). If there is something clumsy in the insights, descriptions, and most obviously in the language, it also feels measured and careful. James seems to be doing exactly what he intends here, and there is a strong sense of clarity to the confident way it moves. In some ways, it feels like you could spend a lifetime reading it, or did.

"interlocutor" count = 4 / 608 pages (includes "interlocutress")

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

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