Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The American: Henry James Lite

A scene from Exxon Masterpiece Theatre production in 2000.

(reflection on THE AMERICAN by Henry James, re-read on a Kindle. Page references are meaningless.)

Thirty-two years ago, Henry James's novel THE AMERICAN was about 100 years old, and I devoured it as an appetizer. The main course was to be one of the fictions from Henry James's late period, because I'd been bowled over by the intensity, not to mention the density, of "The Beast in the Jungle" and the novel THE WINGS OF THE DOVE. But Professor Edwin Cady, who directed my independent study, drew up a list of some thirty books to read first. Re-reading early James, I find the same themes and situations that animate the later works, without the same richly layered texture. I have to admit that Henry James Lite has little more to recommend it than skim creme fraiche, or a zero-proof martini.

That's not entirely fair to James. The story is a sturdy one: self-confident and successful Christopher Newman comes to Europe to see the best of everything, women included. He wants a wife. Not two chapters later, he has found a woman not only attractive but worthy of worship, a young widow named Claire de Cintre, nee Bellegarde. The courtship unfolds as comedy of manners, as good-hearted American patiently negotiates European social customs to win her love. More difficult to attain is the approval of her family, the Bellegardes. With the friendship and guidance of Claire's younger brother Valentin, Newman comes close to succeeding. But always, from the very beginning, there are warnings to Newman that he should not trust to appearances.

James' tells the story through the eyes of a friendly narrator who refers to Newman as "our hero" and "our friend," and who occasionally suggests that "our friend" has missed something. The dialogue is always amusing, as we perceive that Newman's interlocutors are usually holding back something. On the other hand, once we grasp that, the reiteration of such dialogue becomes tedious.

Not that the book needs more "action" : When the "action" really starts, involving gunfire, murder most foul, and blackmail, the fun stops. We learn of the Bellegarde's family secret in page after page of narration by Mrs. Bread, every bit as humble and bland as her name suggests. I almost put the book down then.

I'm glad I persevered. Though high comedy ended and melodrama took over, James's real interest lies in Newman's moral choice where all the "action" ends. Here, the resolutely secular James, son of a famous theologian and brother of the philosopher who wrote THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE, presents his "Christ - New - Man" as a venerable moral hero. Newman's epiphany occurs in a vast cathedral where, in despair, he rests his arm and head on the back of a chair. (Personal aside: I've had the same experience, same setting!)

Re-reading my notes on a Kindle is an annoying thing, because it's such a pain in the neck to browse, it's impossible to cluster the notes, and it's hard to view the marked passages in larger context. But I did find a reminder that Newman's epiphany is a bookend: He tells early in the book of a sickness that overcame him when he was about to get revenge on a client who cheated him. It was that sickness about his business life that sent him to Europe, and a deeper version of that sends him back home.

Years later, James would write THE AMBASSADORS, which also concerns a self-confident and morally solid American man whose sojourn in Paris shakes his world. In THE AMERICAN, James sets scenes as if we were in a theatre, telling us of the pauses and gestures that accompany scintillating dialogues. In the later works, we perceive the scenes through one actor's uncertain perceptions, and physical objects often melt into metaphor as James's "central consciousness" finds inner significance in them. In those late works, it's almost a law that "always" will be followed lines later by "never," as James consistently undercuts certainty, creating a space in which to explore ambivalent feelings and ambiguous signs.   In the AMERICAN, this time, I noticed instances of both techniques. For example, early on, a gossipy American expat named Mrs. Tristram says, "Ugly, my dear sir? It is magnificent." The response? "That is the same thing."

Now, that's the James I love!

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