Henry James: The American

It is Henry James’ birthday today. Although I didn’t know that at the time, I spent most of last week reading one of his early novels The American, so it seems appropriate to review it now. I read the original version of the book, published in one volume in 1879 in England, but James was a compulsive tinkerer with his work and he edited this novel considerably to be more in keeping with his later style and to make it slightly more ‘plausible’, for the New York edition of 1907.

I was a bit of a Henry James groupie in my early teens, because I shared his fascination with cultural differences between Europe and America. My entry point to his work was Daisy Miller, which I would recommend to anyone who wants to dip their toes into his oeuvre. Overall, I probably enjoyed the works of his early and middle period more than the novels written in the early 20th century, but I did feel a certain satisfaction in working my way through the opacity and loquaciousness of The Golden Bowl or The Wings of the Dove, while The Ambassadors was possibly my favourite of his novels (perhaps because it is the most purely anthropological of his works). I would have to reread it now to see if that is still the case.

The American, however, never made it on my TBR list during my teens, but now that I read it I would say it is yet another good introduction to Henry James. It sometimes reads like a lighter-hearted prototype for The Ambassadors – although take light-hearted with a pinch of salt, since it includes heartbreak, revenge, solitude and death. It is far more plot-driven than his later works, and veers into melodrama, but it is also much easier to read and quite good fun.

Newman is a rather naive, easy-going American businessman, who’s made a great fortune in his country and is now curious to sample the delights of Europe. He is also not averse to finding himself a suitable wife, settle down and start a family. With a little prompting from his fellow Americans, the Tristrams, who are well ensconced in Parisian society, his eyes fall upon the beautiful young widow Claire. He soon befriends Claire’s younger brother Valentin, but the rest of the aristocratic Bellegarde family are very haughty and unwilling to ally themselves to someone in ‘commerce’ despite his fortune. At first he seems to gain their grudging approval for him to court Claire, but later on everything goes a little crazy with family secrets, betrayals, a duel and other such over-the-top scenes. What a contrast to his later work, where a raised eyebrow or a carefully constructed sentence contains all the drama required.

Newman is most definitely not a social climber – he does not seek acceptance in the aristocratic Parisian milieu. On the contrary, he would like to help Claire escape from her suffocating family and social circle. Yet I found it surprising that someone who is portrayed as essentially a kind-hearted person, dismayed by the snobbishness and coldness of the Bellegardes, would then display equal snobbishness and a judgemental attitude towards the young would-be painter (and most decidedly a social climber) Noémie Nioche and her anxious father.

But perhaps we are not meant to see Newman as quite such a positive character after all. There is a lack of reflection and depth in him, and one passage early on in the book sounds a little alarm (although this is Newman seen through the eyes of another character):

Newman was an excellent, generous fellow… certainly it was impossible not to like him… He liked everything, he accepted everything, he found amusement in everything; he was not discriminating , he had not a high tone. The young man from Dorchester accused Newman of a fault which he considered very grave… a want of ‘moral reaction’… The brevity of Newman’s judgements very often shocked and discomposed him. He had a way of damning people without farther appeal, or of pronouncing them capital company in the face of uncomfortable symptoms, which seemed unworthy of a man whose conscience had been properly cultivated.

As usual with James, what I enjoyed most were the observations and occasionally facile generalisations about European cultures and how they contrast with the American ‘soul’. This is how Newman describes Valentin, who soon becomes a good friend of his, despite their very different upbringings:

His talk was an odd mixture of almost boyish garrulity and of the reserve and discretion of the man of the world, and he seemed to Newman, as afterwards young members of the Latin races often seemed to him, now amusingly juvenile and now appallingly mature. In America, Newman reflected, lads of twenty-five and thirty have old heads and young hearts, or at least young morals; here they have young heads and very aged hearts, morals the most grizzled and wrinkled.

Bellegarde was the ideal Frenchman, the Frenchman of tradition and romance… Gallant, expansive, amusing, more pleased himself with the effect he produced than those for whom he produced it, a master of all the distinctively social virtues and a votary of all agreeable sensations… Bellegarde did not in the least cause him to modify his needful premise that all Frenchmen are of a frothy and imponderable substance; he simply reminded him that light materials may be beaten up into a most agreeable compound.

 

 

The Expat Experience: Hausfrau

HausfrauThere is a quote that does the rounds of expat circles: a man once said that when he dies, he wants to come back as an expat wife. It’s an understandable (if tactless) remark. There is a perception of an expat life of privilege in exotic locations, on a generous salary and benefits package, sitting around sipping cocktails and with nothing else to do except hatch intrigues.

While there may still be some such ‘expat bubbles’ out there, in most cases the reality is quite different. In many cases the so-called trailing spouse (most of them still remain women in this day and age, although there are some men too following the careers of their wives) has had to give up her own career, is lonely, frustrated, resentful and isolated. The expat packages have been reduced, they do not speak the language and they have to adapt to a completely alien culture, where even doing the supermarket shopping or installing a telephone line becomes an epic battle.

This is the case with Anna, the self-destructive protagonist of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel Hausfrau, set in a suburb of Zürich. Anna is an American woman who thought she had chosen order and reliability when she followed her Swiss husband back to his home country. Instead, she feels dead inside. Whether we can empathise with her or not, Essbaum describes Anna’s circumscribed lifestyle, her feeling of entrapment, very clearly. Anna is only just learning the language. She doesn’t have many friends, certainly not among the Swiss, and her banker husband is cold and distant. She doesn’t drive, so she is dependent on trains or on her husband’s or mother-in-law’s willingness to give her a lift.

Anna was a good wife, mostly… It’s not just an adage, it’s an absolute fact: Swiss trains run on time… From Pfäffikon, the train made sixteen stops before it reached Dietlikon, the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led… the ordinary fact of a train schedule modulated Anna’s daily plans… Boredom, like the trains, carried Anna through her days…

From Fodors.com
From Fodors.com

Visitors to Switzerland revel in the quaint, chocolate-box prettiness, tidiness and order, but, just as there is a malaise beneath the politeness and well-functioning machinery of Japanese society, there is something sinister about the myriad of rules and regulations in this Alpine country. Outwardly, Anna follows her rules: goes to German language classes, picks her children up from school, dutifully goes to see a psychoanalyst to deal with her depression. She is infuriatingly passive and accepting, a passenger in her own life.

Allowing Bruno to make decisions on her behalf absolved her of responsibility. She didn’t need to think. She followed along. She rode a bus that someone else drove. And Bruno liked driving it. Order upon order. Rule upon Rule. Where the wind blew, she went… it grew even easier with practice.

But of course one will suffocate under all those rules at times. Swiss youths rebel through drug-taking and suicide; Anna rebels by having reckless flings. The book has been compared (even by myself) with those other novels about adulterous women Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, but Anna is much less guided by passion and idealism. If anything, she is far too self-aware, self-critical and analytical. Every phrase she learns in German class, every discussion with her analyst is dissected and applied to her life.

Love’s a sentence. A death sentence… The body would become ravaged. And the heart will become broken… ‘To become’ implies motion. A paradoxical move toward limp surrender. Whatever it is, you do not do it. It is done to you. Passivity and passion begin alike. It’s only how they end that’s different.

From bookpeople.com
Jill Alexander Essbaum, from bookpeople.com

Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, her risk-taking reaches endemic proportions… and then tragedy strikes. I won’t say more, except that Essbaum is a poet and her fragmented prose style may not be to everyone’s taste, while the descriptions of sex are anything but poetic. I was initially sceptical of just how relevant the German class or psychoanalyst discussions were to the main story, but they provide surprising analogies to the banality of marital breakdown and adultery. I personally loved the mix of barbed observational wit, philosophical ruminations and poetic despair. In some ways, it reminded me of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, but I liked this one more, even though it’s longer. It has a well-defined story arc, it’s raw and emotional and very, very honest, with none of the cold detachment of Offill’s book.

I’ve mentioned previously how excited I was to receive this book for review from Penguin Random House. A great addition to my collection of novels about expats – and a timely one, given that I am currently writing a novel about expats. Below is a list of my personal favourites among this type of novels, and the countries in which they are set. The protagonists may feel at first like fish out of water but end up being forever changed by the countries they live in. Word of caution: none of them seem to end well!

Glamorous expat life? From The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Glamorous expat life? From The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Chris Pavone: The Expats (Luxembourg)

Hilary Mantel: Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (Saudia Arabia)

Somerset Maugham: The Painted Vale (China)

Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr. Ripley (Italy)

Christopher Isherwood: The Berlin Stories (Germany)

Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano (Mexico)

Lawrence Durrell: The Alexandria Quartet (Egypt)

Graham Greene: The Quiet American (Vietnam)

Joseph Conrad: The Heart of Darkness (Congo)

Henry James: The Ambassadors (France)

Elsa Marpeau: L’Expatriée (Singapore)