Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Golden Bowl (1904)

Henry James's last novel is one of those books I suspect many people read (or don't but say they did) for the sake of saying they have. I know I might have! It is an often overwhelming thicket of delicate nuance, most often dwelling inside its characters and their complex relations. Maggie Verver has married the Prince, a charming Italian fellow. She is the only daughter of her widowed father, the industrial baron and art collector Adam Verver (not to be confused with Adam West). Something about the family that verves together—swerves together? Lerves together? Adam and Maggie (now the Princess) are close, but she knows her marriage threatens their intimacy, and she fears he will be sad and alone now, like the father at the end of Late Spring. So she works with a woman improbably named Fanny Assingham to find him someone. That turns out to be an American woman of about the Princess's age named Charlotte Stang. By amazing coincidence, or not, Charlotte has a history with the Prince, which is rekindled after Charlotte's marriage to Adam. It's quite a predicament when the Princess figures out what is going on. But stop for a second to consider the situation in terms of James's familiar themes. Here, starkly, are European elites preying on American naifs. But it's not quite so simple. The Ververs are not that naif. They hold the cards of wealth and know it, and the Prince knows it too, and they know he does. Within these interior machinations, it's often a matter of what each one thinks or believes, which of course James keeps ambiguous (now a valued corporate trait). There's also the matter of the cloudy areas of who knows what and when do they know it. But it's all so cunningly conceived for balance you almost feel like you could put The Golden Bowl on top of a garden stake and it would just sit there spinning. If the Prince and Charlotte behave licentiously—and they do, think about it—I'm not sure the Ververs end up that much ahead of them morally. No one is talking about incest, only a kind of American clannishness that is not hard to recognize. For all the difficulty of James's language, and it often requires patience, it seems in the service of something subtle but real. The best scenes are when combinations of the four interact. The title conceit, a real object in a pawnshop, is obtuse, and as a plot device jarring, a blaring circus in the middle of all these restrained beiges and grays. But he had to call the book something. For the dedicated only, as you may have suspected.

"interlocutor" count = 6 / 518 pages (includes "interlocutress")

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

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