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Wednesday, 17 July 2013


Reading Henry James from a twenty-first century perspective is a very strange experience. Written in 1904 The Golden Bowl is Henry James' last novel, and was included in a list of the one hundred greatest American novels that I read recently.

People certainly do not write like Henry James anymore, and if they did they wouldn't get published. For one thing, almost nothing happens in this 450 page novel. The plot can be safely summarised in a two paragraphs.

Adam Verver, millionaire, collector and widower, has a daughter, Maggie, who falls in love with and marries an Italian prince, Amerigo. It is clear that Amerigo has married for money, as he is impoverished. He had a relationship with another American woman, Charlotte Stant, but as she was poor they couldn't marry.

Later, Adam, Maggie's father, marries Charlotte. Charlotte and the Prince resume their relationship, this time adulterously. Maggie finds out and is unsure how to react.

And that's really it. James' style though, is so dense, so obsessive about examining and poring over every implication of every sentence of every conversation, and every detail of every action, that scenes and conversations take ten, twenty, thirty pages to describe.

His style is very opaque too, sometimes it is necessary to read lines and paragraphs two, three, four times to find out what they are saying. At times it is not even English, as we would recognise it - "Only see me through now......and I leave you a hand the freedom of which isn't to be said!" There are many sentences like this, that use strange constructions and unusual combinations of words that are either particular to the early twentieth century or more likely, of James' own making.

And at times he is not a very clear writer. He will write a paragraph talking about "she" and "her", and it will be unclear if he is talking about Charlotte or Maggie. References are seemingly deliberately ambiguous, conversations are vague and cryptic, and he hardly describes anyone or anything physically so it is difficult to get an image of the characters. It is at times like reading through a fog.

In fact Henry James does exactly what you are told not to do in writing courses, he doesn't "show" he "tells". Everything is intellectualised, over explained, pulled one way and the other, he doesn't give the reader any real leeway to make up his own mind. James is in charge, and he tells you what to think.

Also, the world that the characters live in is very claustrophobic, the action takes place in two or three grand houses in London, and one mansion in the country. And the five or six main characters are all turned inward, in towards their own thoughts and obsessions and betrayals, in to their own little privileged world. It is difficult to identify with them.

They are people with immense amounts of money, and moreover people who do no work whatsoever. They spend their time going for luncheon (it is never lunch) and talking in drawing rooms and telling each other that they are "beautiful", "splendid", "extraordinary".

The other thing they do best is not talk about what is really happening. Everything about the affair between Charlotte and Amerigo is unspoken, Maggie finds out but does her best to make sure that no-one knows that she knows, and in fact never at any stage confronts anyone with her knowledge. They are a small society devoted to covering up, to not talking about what is really happening, to maintaining what James himself calls "the silver tissue of decorum."

It is a bizarre world, and an intriguing novel, for all of the opaque writing, the incomprehensible paragraphs, the endless sentences. Our view of events is so dense, black-hole dense, with layer after layer of detail and thought and analysis, one on top of another, that it is like going deep and deeper still into the characters' motivations and beliefs and emotions.

Their relationships are much more complex than they appear on the surface. Maggie and her father, Adam, have a definite Oedipal thing going on. There is a hint from Charlotte near the end when we finally get to some honesty, that the father-daughter bond has made her own marriage to Adam difficult, as if she were always in competition with Maggie.

Though of course we never hear about sex. We are left in the dark - just as Maggie herself is, as she hints at later - as to whether Charlotte and Amerigo's affair is a sexual one. We assume so, but it is never made explicit.

It is a hypnotic, at times irritating, slice of fiction, brought together by the golden bowl of the title. This is an artefact that Maggie buys on a whim, until she discovers the crack in its perfection, a symbol of the flaw at the heart of their seemingly perfect lives.

The Golden Bowl requires patience, though does pull the reader along relentlessly, sucking you in to their airless world. It may be just too much for a lot of people, too dense, too slow, too claustrophobic, too incomprehensible at times, but it is also a strange, unsettling, intriguing experience. Frustrating but with its own fascination.

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