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.

 

 

#6Degrees of Separation: From Sanditon…

Time for one of my favourite monthly memes: Six Degrees of Separation is hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. You start with the book suggested by Kate and create a chain of six books linked by whatever means to the one before. I couldn’t resist a Jane Austen book and her last, unfinished novel Sanditon is our starting point this month.

Most of the covers of Sanditon are abysmal, so I chose this more or less contemporary illustration.

Sadly, there’s not much left of Sanditon, but given that Austen’s previous novel Persuasion is my favourite, and shows signs of a maturing, ever more sensitive and subtle writer, it could potentially have been a satirical masterpiece. The recent TV series based on it was most definitely not!

Another novel that had a very disappointing TV adaptation recently was H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. I gave up about half-way through, as they managed to make Wells’ exciting story as dull as ditchwater. Quite unlike the infamous radio adaptation of it by Orson Welles in 1938, which is supposed to have started a mass panic in New York City. (Turns out, this is a bit of a myth.)

A book about a real mass hysteria phenomenon is Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518 by John Waller. In the summer of 1518 hundreds of men and women started dancing compulsively in the city of Strasbourg, until they died of heat stroke and exhaustion. Waller tries to find an explanation for this random and crazy phenomenon, but there is a distinct lack of real historical sources, so it will leave readers somewhat disappointed.

Speaking of mass hysteria and quasi-religious movements, how can I not mention the Jonestown massacre? I’ve read a lot about it in the course of my own studies of cults, but there’s a debut novel out entitled Beautiful Revolutionary by Australian author Laura Elizabeth Woollett that has caught my eye. Based upon interviews with the survivors of the 1978 mass ‘suicide’ in the Guyana jungle, the fictionalised account suggests (perhaps somewhat naively) that the victims of Jim Jones were also a victim of the times and society they lived in.

My next book shares ‘revolutionary’ in the title and perhaps also the feeling of discontent with society, but is very different. One of my all-time favourite novels, although I found it very difficult to read at the time (for personal reasons): Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road.

Another woeful story about marital breakdown is German author’s Jakob Wassermann’s My Marriage (translated by Michael Hofmann), published posthumously and based on the author’s own unhappy marriage in Vienna.

My final link is another posthumous book – and probably just as well that it was posthumous, as it would probably have led to the death of the author in any case. The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov is one of my favourite books of all time (I’ve even done a special Friday Fun edition of its cover art): surreal, impossible to describe, infuriating and very, very funny. It’s about the madness of trying to make sense of an absurd world. And it comes back full circle to the equally posthumous Sanditon

Too Close for Comfort: Three Quick Reviews

All three of these recently read books were a little too close to home for me: on a personal, social or political level. Absolutely compelling reading, although each one required some coffee and cake or deep breathing breaks.

Rodrigo de Souza Leao: All Dogs are Blue (transl. Zoe Perry and Stefan Tobler)

This was part of my Brazilians in August personal challenge, the only man who sneaked onto my list of Brazilian authors in translation. Much like Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, it gives you an insight into what it must feel like to be deeply depressed, paranoid and schizophrenic. Regardless of diagnostic, the morbidly obese narrator finds himself in an asylum in Rio. He believes he has swallowed a chip that makes him behave out of character and do things he doesn’t want to do. His descriptions of life both inside and outside the asylum, in all its madcap noise and grossness, are hilarious. Knowing that the author himself suffered from mental health problems and died at a young age, soon after the publication of this book, gives a bitter edge to the comedy. It is the black humour of despair, and it’s not surprising that his chosen fantasy chums are Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

To read this book is to abandon yourself to its rhythm and let its waves overpower you. It’s not a pleasant experience, it tosses you about and can feel like drowning at times.

I swallowed a chip. I swallowed a cricket. What else is left to devour in this world? Carnival only wears the colours of short-lived happiness. Dealing with lunatics or with normal people: what’s the difference? What is reality? How many pieces of wood do you need to make that canoe? How many mortars do you need to sink that boat?

But Souza Leao is very clever and also has a poet’s felicity of expression: he tosses a throwaway line into the mix that you simply have to stop and wonder over.

I left the hotel and went to the bus station. I was possessed by a fertile spirit of modern madness, one that had helped twentieth-century poetry many times and had put contemporary literature in its rightful place. My persecution complex had reached the pinnacle of its glory.

Deborah Levy: The Cost of Living

At the age of fifty, Levy leaves her marriage and makes a new life for herself and her children. This slim volume is the story of her reinvention, a sort of ‘swimming home’, finding herself and her purpose, while also dealing with the irritating, intractable, unforgiving day to day. As a woman, mother and writer who is struggling with many of the same things, it has simply meant so much to me. It’s a book I’ve filled up with post-its and shall be returning to again and again. It is also very insightful into gender relations and often feels like she has been inhabiting my head and heart. Here are just a few favourite quotes:

At first I wasn’t sure I’d make it back to the boat and then I realized I didn’t want to make it back to the boat. Chaos is supposed to be what we most fear but I have come to believe it might be what we most want. If we don’t believe in the future we are planning, the house we are mortgaged to, the person who sleeps by our side, it is possible that a tempest (long lurking in the clouds) might bring us closer to how we want to be in the world.

I will never stop grieving for my long-held wish for enduring love that does not reduce its major players to something less than they are. I am not sure I have often witnessed love that achieves all of these things, so perhaps this ideal is fated to be phantom.

To strip the wallpaper off the fairy tale of The Family House in which the comfort and happiness of men and children have been the priority is to find behind it an unthanked, unloved, neglected, exhausted woman.

Did I mock the dreamer in my mother and then mock her for having no dreams? As the vintage story goes, it is the father who is the hero and the dreamer. He detaches himself from the pitiful needs of his women and children and strides out into the world to do his thing. He is expected to be himself. When he returns to the home that our mothers have made for us… he tells us some of what he has seen in his world. We give him an edited version of the living we do every day. Our mothers live with us in this living and we blame her for everything because she is near by.

Sinclair Lewis: It Can’t Happen Here

A late entry to my Americans in June challenge. Moving from the personal and gendered to the more purely political, this book is just as painful as the other two. It was written in 1935 as a satire and a warning against the rise of populists and tyrants like Hitler and Stalin in what must have seemed very frightening end of world times. (Hence the rise of dystopian fiction during that period, so similar to our own.)

A narcissistic, rude, almost illiterate, anti-immigrant, fear-mongering demagogue Buzz Windrip promises to make America proud and prosperous once more and wins the presidential election. The results are predictable but even more dire than the peace-loving newspaper editor Doremus Jessup had feared. His original ‘wait and see’ policy, the complacency of the ‘it can’t happen here’ type of those around him soon leads to the regime slipping ever more deeply into disturbing authoritarianism.

At first, Doremus and his family seem comfortable and protected, nobody seems to share his discomfort at the election of Buzz as president, and he has a bit of tantrum-ridden stomping off ‘fine then, don’t listen to me’ attitude that I can understand all too well.

All right. Hell with this country, if it’s like that. All these years I’ve worked – and I never did want to be on all these committees and boards and charity drives! – and don’t they look silly now! What I always wanted to do was to sneak off to an ivory tower – or anyway, celluloid, imitation ivory – and read everything I’ve been too busy to read.

But soon things go beyond a joke and beyond mere discomfort. There is no more sitting on the fence or ignoring the way the country is heading. It’s no longer about compromise and self-censorship, very soon it turns into attempting to escape, being tortured and even killed.

Interestingly enough, Buzz is a Democrat and originally runs on a socialist platform, showing that any ideology can be taken to extremes and abused. An absolutely chilling novel, sadly possibly more topical now than at any other time since the Second World War.

Alexa, What Is One Plus One?

Alexa, What Is One Plus One?

‘I think you know the answer to that one.’

 

Because I would not, could not stay calm

or reasonable, full of fact-based evidence…

Because instead of all the answers

I had questions of my own…

Because I stamped my feet at injustice

and cried noisily at films

(quietly into my pillow at night)…

Because he asked questions he already knew the answer to,

just to test and tease and lecture on

till touch has gone, unless it’s right swipe…

Because who wouldn’t rather be a hammer than a nail?

 

…he bought Alexa as a Christmas present for himself.

amazonecho

It’s Open Link Night over at dVerse Poets Pub and any form of poetry is welcome, so please do join in and have fun.

Dead Darling (Fragment of WIP)

Yes, I am being a bit lazy here. Too much corporate work, worries about administrative matters and physical exhaustion to write anything new. Instead, I am offering you a ‘reject’: something I prepared earlier, but which didn’t quite make the grade.

You know the expression: kill your darlings (when it comes to writing). Here are some bits and pieces which have been trimmed away from the WIP. Melinda is the main protagonist; Graham is her husband. Below are pictures of how I imagine them in my head.

Graham got home at around nine every evening. He didn’t want any supper; he was careful to keep his figure trim, aware of his beer belly getting ready to pounce.  So she would eat the remains of the children’s meal herself, while he set up his laptop on the dining table. Still some work to catch up on, a few emails to send, a call or two to make. It was all she could to do get a ‘Hmmm, really, I see…’ out of him when she told him about her day.

Sometimes they wouldn’t talk for days. She’d droop off well before ten and go to bed. She was fast asleep when he slipped in beside her. She always fell asleep before she could read 2-3 pages, no matter how exciting the novel might be. Meanwhile, he needed time to decompress, he said, so he watched some satellite TV. In English of course, so everything was an hour behind.

When she woke up at 4 a.m., as she often did, and started worrying about the forms, the To Do lists, her own inadequacies, he was always lying on his back, his arms up beside him with fists clenched, like a baby. A clear conscience, obviously. Sometimes a little snore or occupying more than his half of the bed. She would sigh and creep to the very edge. Or get up and go to the children’s rooms, listen to their soft, sweet breathing and tell herself it was all worth it for them.

In the morning, she struggled to come out of that brief tangle of sleep to which she had finally succumbed. The early start was always far too early, getting the children ready for school, while Graham slept on. And so, with no fuss or awkward rejection on either side, their sex life had dwindled to nothing. Melinda suspected it wasn’t just her who was secretly relieved.

Other things too began to slip. The lazy Sundays in bed, with the children piling in with them. Graham was too tired now, needed to sleep longer, so she would be forever shushing them when they got too excited in their games of make-believe or else take them downstairs and plonk them in front of the TV. Their weekly ritual of ‘lunch at Daddy’s office’ also disappeared, because Daddy had more and more meetings on a Wednesday, the only day when they didn’t have school and had sufficient time to go to the centre of Geneva. After a while, it was no longer much of a day out for them anyway, the food was always bland and they had seen all of the museums that were suitable for children.

Even the family days out that had been the highlight of their week tailed off to nothing. Graham said he was too exhausted from his constant travels. He just wanted to stay at home and relax at the weekend, and she could understand that, she really could.

In the end, Melinda reflected, very little communication is required to keep a household running smoothly. Appointments were made and kept, bills paid with few delays, children picked up and dropped off with the right equipment in the right place at the right time. Food was prepared and ingurgitated, or not. The house was cleaned with the help of a Brazilian woman who came for two hours every week, spoke neither English nor French, and ignored Melinda’s sign language instructions, cleaning whatever she most felt like, rather than what needed doing. Melinda had to pick her up from the bus stop at the Val Thoiry shopping centre, but at least she didn’t demand the exorbitant rates of more professional, car-driving, trilingual cleaners who paid their taxes.

So it went on. Melinda clung to each thread of a routine, grateful that it gave her a reason to get up in the morning. Often, after dropping the children off, she would return to the house with a sinking heart, knowing that Graham would still be around. With shower and breakfast to negotiate, and perhaps an email or two to check, he was never very chatty in the morning.
When he finally left the house, after issuing her with a pile of instructions on what he needed done that day or later that week, she could breathe a huge sigh of relief and make herself a cup of coffee. But it was downhill from there.

No matter how sunny the day, no matter how magnificent the view of Mont Blanc and its Alpine sisters, Melinda felt a dull despondency settling on her. She might crawl back into bed, sobbing for no reason, and find herself at school pick-up time with not much to show at all for her day. At other times she would be lickety-split quick about cooking, wiping kitchen surfaces, doing the laundry in the morning, only to collapse in the afternoon and find herself staring into nothingness, repeating: ‘I can’t take it anymore! I can’t take it anymore!’

But she had to.Melinda

Graham

Flash Fiction: Understatement

A fun little Sunday read for you. I’m thinking of starting a once-a-month Lazy Sunday read series with flash fiction. Just for the sake of writing something different.

A great crime writer had once shared tips for the perfect murder at a conference.  All Camille had done was tweak a few details. There were no coastal walks in her area, so she had to improvise with glaciers. He was too vain to use hardcore winter gear, not vain enough to never go out on winter walks. She had carefully drained the batteries of both his mobile phones.  He never checked. No hardship disabling the avalanche tracker on his ski-jacket – he had never given her sufficient credit for a scientific mind.

It was not science she detested, only his relentless droning about it.

‘With his height and weight, you were very lucky not to get pulled in after him, Madame.’ The Salvamont rescue team told her.

Luck had nothing to do with it, but Camille nodded, gulping the hot, sweet liquid gratefully.

‘He always told me I was hopeless at knots… little did I think…’

Glacier crevice, from camping.de
Glacier crevice, from camping.de

 

A lifetime condensed in a novel?

WearenotourselvesI recently read the ambitious debut novel ‘We Are Not Ourselves’ by Matthew Thomas. Ostensibly the story of a marriage and how it changes when the husband starts suffering from dementia, it is in fact nothing less than a portrayal of the American Dream after World War Two. So it’s the story of second-generation immigrants in the latter half of the twentieth century in the United States, but also a family story, seen largely through the eyes of Eileen Tumulty, who marries scientist Ed Leary. But it’s about the whole context as well: the need to believe in the perfect family and home, the birth of consumer society and economic prosperity, the wish to rise above one’s station. It’s also about mortality, frailty, parents and children, dreams and how we don’t quite make them work for us, about everything under the sun. So, while I admire the author’s ambition, this is perhaps the flaw of the novel: it tries to tell too much, but is nevertheless beautifully written and with some truly touching moments.

I’m not normally a fan of sweeping family sagas, but this one is so tightly bound to a single point of view (Eileen’s), that there is no sense here of too many characters insufficiently connected, some of which you couldn’t care less about. The second point of view, that of Connell their son, comes to the forefront only in the last quarter or so of the book. There is a lot of summarising and skipping of years, a lot of trivia and minutiae, which were fine until I realised that after reading pretty solidly for several days, I had only reached the 30% or so mark of the book. It is a long book, and could perhaps have benefitted from some editing –  it does drag on a bit. There are perhaps a few too many instances and examples, and they get more and more gruelling as the husband’s condition deteriorates. But there are also moments of such insight and beauty, such sharp observation, where the characters really come alive with all their pain and hopes and disappointments laid bare. It’s worth wading through all the rest for these moments (and they are by no means rare). It doesn’t surprise me to discover that the author spent ten years writing, rewriting, refining this novel, and it is remarkably mature for a debut novel.

PrivatelifeIt got me wondering, however, what other books are of similar epic proportion, and have the ambition of ‘telling the story of a nation or a generation via the story of an individual’. And what came to mind was ‘Private Life’ by Jane Smiley. Margaret Mayfield is practically an old maid at the age of 27 in the last decade of the 19th century, so she considers herself lucky to make the ‘catch’ of Captain Andrew Early, naval officer and astronomer, the most famous man in their small Missouri town. They marry and she follows him to his observatory on the naval base just outside San Francisco. But her life turns out to be one long disappointment.

Interestingly enough, this book is not just about the ‘private’ life: it refers consistently to external events – the great earthquake in San Francisco, the First World War, Pearl Harbour, internment of Japanese Americans in camps during the Second World War etc. It also talks about a scientist husband with very strong opinions and a lack of empathy. However, the resilience of the couple in ‘We Are Not Ourselves’ stems from love and respect (however different it may be from the ideal of romantic love), while in ‘Private Life’ it seems to be more about a sense of duty and having no other choices. Of course, it’s a different time period: Margaret could be Eileen’s grandmother. Divorce initiated by women was highly unusual in those days (and we have the cautionary tale of a member of their knitting circle who does get a divorce and ‘disappears from view’).

From archives.gov.on.ca
From archives.gov.on.ca

What struck me in both books is just how tedious the minutiae of daily life is to all but those living it. I don’t think I have a particularly short attention span, and sure enough there are moments of universality (perhaps the contrast is all the sharper because of the endless piling on of small details), but is it really necessary? Could we have some judicious editing, please? Strangely enough, I love reading diaries (Pepys, Evelyn, Virginia Woolf), but diaries are not novels. Any pattern or shape emerges accidentally in diaries, but I like my novels to have form and coherence. I don’t want them to depict the trivia of everyday life, but rise above that.