Joined: 21 Nov 2008
Location: Flanders, Belgium
|Posted: Thu Mar 18, 2010 10:51 am Post subject:
|This was a discussion on Henry James on the previous incarnation of the board. Not much on Portrait of a Lady though. This includes SPOILERS on other writing by Henry James
Message 1 of 19 in Discussion
From: MikeHarvey1935 (Original Message) Sent: 12/23/2007 1:43 PM
Yesterday I read, in two sittings, and totally absorbed, Henry James' "The Aspern Papers" (1888) For those who haven't read it - this long short story/novella (approx 100 pages) is told in the first-person by a literary sleuth trying to obtain access to documents belonging to the late poet, Jeffrey Aspern. They are believed to be in the possession of Juliana Bordereau, an elderly recluse living in a rambling palazzo in Venice, with her not-so-young niece. Many years before Juliana had been the lover of Aspern, and the subject of his poetry. How the protagonist worms his way into the house as a paying guest and into the confidence of the niece in order to gain access to the papers is totally enthralling, full of marvellous moments, not least the scene when the old lady discovers our hero rummaging for the papers in her bureau at night. Unlike some of James' later stories and novels, which can be hard work, this one is clarity itself. It's full of moral ambiguities, fascinating and involved relationships, and delicately posed dilemmas. Has posterity any right to to ransack the private lives of famous literary figures? And to what lengths might one go to gain such a prize? According to Leon Edel in his splendid concise reworking of his 5 volume Life of Henry James, James got the idea from hearing that Byron's lover, Claire Clairmont, in possession of Byron and Shelley papers, had been the victim of just such a subterfuge. One, Silsbee, had gained access to her house in Florence, where she lived with an elderly niece. This niece had agreed to give him the papers if he married her. James wrote this story while living with Fenimore Woolson (relative of James Fenimore Cooper) in Venice, and he describes the place marvellously. I enjoyed this book absolutely. A deeply satisfying read
Message 2 of 19 in Discussion
From: MikeHarvey1935 Sent: 12/24/2007 12:49 PM
Read Henry James ghost story "Sir Edmund Orme". I didn't find it especially spine-tingling, but the manifestation, and the reasons for its appearance, are very Jamesian and original. As one might expect the writing is superb
Message 3 of 19 in Discussion
From: Evie_forever Sent: 12/24/2007 4:50 PM
Hello Mike. Having recently been to Venice, I was thinking I should read The Aspern Papers. I am a late convert to Henry James - I used to find him too much like hard work, apart from enjoying Portrait of a Lady very much in my late teens/early twenties, but then on the old board we read Turn of the Screw and then both The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl as group reads. I struggled with The Ambassadors, but loved The Turn of the Screw, and then with The Golden Bowl I finally cracked Henry's style, and fell in love. Now the prose I used to find inaccessible seems magical - there were times when I still felt I was reading through a veil, but by giving it enough time and allowing myself to become absorbed in it, I found it exhilarating. I must read more - thanks very much for your review of The Aspern Papers.
Message 4 of 19 in Discussion
From: county_lady2 Sent: 12/24/2007 5:07 PM
Evie me too, I definitely want to read The Aspern Papers after Mike's review and find a biography, plus I want to re-read David Lodge's 'Author, Author' which made me feel really close to Henry James.
Message 5 of 19 in Discussion
From: LatinaMagistra Sent: 12/25/2007 3:54 AM
Mike Harvey, yes thanks for that post. I have wanted to read this novella, too. I have only read James's travel diaries in Italy and Turn of the Screw, but I do like his style. I need a reading journal in which I list all the things I intend to read, rather than what I have read. Maybe that way I can remember the titles of all these wonderful suggestions!
Message 6 of 19 in Discussion
From: bookfreak0 Sent: 12/25/2007 9:17 AM
A Reading Journal is a good idea, Latina, I think I'll start one too. I have The Aspern Papers on my TBR shelf, along with Daisy Miller. A journal would not only remind me of books well-reviewed on this board, but would also help me to prioritise contents of the ever-swelling TBRs
Message 7 of 19 in Discussion
From: MikeHarvey1935 Sent: 12/25/2007 12:39 PM
I started a Book Journal in March 2004. It's now about two hundred pages of script. At first it was mainly comments on books I'd read, but as it developed I started to put in poems I liked, extracts from books and pictures of writers etc.from the internet. I also vary the font style and colour. I print it off from Microsoft Word about every ten pages or so on varying colours of paper.I originally started it because I tended to forget what I'd read. It's now quite an impressive folder and it's fascinating to browse through. It's important to keep it up to date and to add new stuff as soon as you've finished something otherwise it can become a burdensome chore instead of a pleasure. I always put the book I've just read next to my keyboard as soon as I've finished it, as a reminder to enter it in the journal next time I switch on my PC.
Message 8 of 19 in Discussion
From: LatinaMagistra Sent: 12/26/2007 6:21 AM
Mike Harvey, cool, very cool. Is that 200 pages in one journal or several? Because I have stacks of notebooks and I can just see that getting way out of hand, but I like the idea very much.
Message 9 of 19 in Discussion
From: MikeHarvey1935 Sent: 12/31/2007 12:07 PM
So far it's one A4 folder, but I'm ready to start a new one, it being a New Year and all that.
Message 10 of 19 in Discussion
From: HeHireDramaticJet Sent: 1/2/2008 9:04 PM
Isn't it curious how certain themes keep re-appearing in different guises in a writer's work? One motif I find in virtually recurring in James is this idea of two people fighting for possession of a third. We get it very explicitly in something like The Bostonians, say; and in The Golden Bowl, we have complete symmetry: there are four characters, any two of whom are fighting for possession of the third. In The Turn of the Screw, the governess is fighting the ghosts (real or imagined) for possession of the children; and in The Aspern papers, the narrator and Juliana are fighting for the possession of a man who is dead.
Thanks for that review, Mike. The Aspern Papers is among the finest of all short novels. I especially love that final chapter, where the moral depths to which the narrator is prepared to sink are revealed.
Message 11 of 19 in Discussion
From: MikeHarvey1935 Sent: 1/17/2008 1:22 PM
I read Henry James story "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes" written when he was in his twenties and not what one might call very Jamesian. It's about the rivalry of two sisters for the same man. But it bears such a resemblance to aspects of Elizabeth Bowen's "Hand in Glove" that I'm convinced she must have read James' story, and was either paying homage, or unconsciously plagiarising certain elements, especially the climax. Anyone read both these tales and could comment?
Message 12 of 19 in Discussion
From: HeHireDramaticJet Sent: 1/17/2008 9:31 PM
I have read the Elizabeth Bowen's story, but not the Henry James. I am sure Bowen would have had the James story in mind. In the introduction to Bowen's Collected Stories, Angus Wilson compares her to Henry James, and finds strong parallels. I'll try to dig up the James story this weekend.
Message 13 of 19 in Discussion
From: DoggoneScousedog Sent: 1/24/2008 2:40 PM
Hi Mike. I enjoyed The Aspern Papers nearly as much as Turn of the Screw. The psychological sparring between the characters was enthralling. From what I've read of James it amazes me how interesting his characters are without them really doing very much.
Message 14 of 19 in Discussion
From: MikeHarvey1935 Sent: 5/11/2008 12:52 PM
Just read Henry James' "What Maisie Knew" (1897) from his so-called middle-period, before he started dictating and became perhaps rather prolix. It's about Maisie, the young daughter of Beale and Ida Farange, who get divorced in the first chapter. The book tells us how Maisie copes with this event and its ramifications. At first she spends six months with each and with various governesses, notably Mrs Wix, with whom, although not a very good governess, she gets on very well and who is a rock in all the turmoil. Quite soon her parents find new partners which makes things more complicated. Then James turns the screw and has the father's new wife and the mother's new husband begin a relationship. How Maisie reacts to, and copes with, these changing relationships is the meat of the novel. The book is highly sophisticated, witty and knowing. James lets us experience the cavortings of the adult world through the eyes and thoughts of innocent Maisie, who is constantly surprised and puzzled by the changes of perspective and attitude she is compelled to make. However, her moral sense, (at one point she is accused by Mrs Wix of not having one) is relatively unsullied by the world. It guides her through what happens, up to the brilliant last chapter, when she makes her final choice about whom she wants to live with. It's a difficult book to summarise, much of it is in conversation, and a great deal in Maisie's mind, filtered through the mind of HJ. I enjoyed this book very much, although sometimes James' style makes it harder work than perhaps it ought to be. But the journey's worth it. You trace your way through several elaborate clauses which eventually reveal sharp, diamond-like observations. Maisie is a fascinating character, but you ask yourself was there ever such a knowing and perceptive child in literature? She reminded me of Alice in Wonderland - or a seven-year old HJ in a frock. I loved the character of the rather dowdy governess, Mrs Wix, who grows in stature throughout the book, and becomes a moral yardstick. I suspect James fell in love with her character. I'd love to see a film or TV adaptation with say, Miriam Margolies as Mrs Wix. Now who could play Sir Claude, Maisie's stepfather, with whom everyone including Mrs Wix and the reader falls in love.
Message 15 of 19 in Discussion
From: HeHireDramaticJet Sent: 5/11/2008 2:20 PM
James, in the mid-90s, had wanted to be a dramatist, but he came back to writing fiction after his play flopped on opening night. What Maisie Knew is one of the books he wrote after his failed attempt to become a dramatist, so it is perhaps not too surprising to see dialogue playing such a major part here. I have not seen the play by James that flopped (Guy Domville) and am not even sure whether it's still in print, but judging by his fiction, I get the impression that Jamesian dialogue, marvellous though it is, needs that authorial voice to allow the reader to appreciate its various complexitites and intricacies: Jamesian dialogue cannot, as it were, "speak for itself".
What Maisie Knew seems to display all of James' particular preoccupations - the extent of human perceptions, how these perceptions develop; the power characters seek to exercise over each other; the desire to exercise this power, the various subtle motives behind these desires, and the ambiguities underpinning these motives; and so on. Nothing is ever quite what it appears on the surface. Even Mrs Wix, I think, is not quite so straight-forward as she may appear: her desire to "possess" Maisie is not, perhaps, entirely altruistic either - she needs, I think, to demonstrate her self-perceived moral superiority over Maisie's parents. (There are similar ambiguities about the Governess' desire to "save" the children in The Turn of the Screw.)
James is a fascinating author, but I must admit that I do often find his late writing somewhat wearying. For all its many qualities, I can't say I have any overwhelming desire to revisit What Maisie Knew.
Message 16 of 19 in Discussion
From: LatinaMagistra Sent: 5/11/2008 4:49 PM
The Irish Times of April 12th (we are a little bit behind here) had a great review of James's Washington Square. I can't remember if you mentioned it or not. The heroine of the novel is Catherine, the 2nd child and homely daughter of a perfectionist doctor whose wife dies very shortly after the baby of the wrong sex is born (he had had a perfect little son who died as a toddler). It sounds fascinating and the reviewer was impressed. Have you read it, Mike?
Message 17 of 19 in Discussion
From: MikeHarvey1935 Sent: 5/17/2008 12:07 PM
Yes, I have read "Washington Square" but so long ago it's a dim and distant memory. It's about time I re-read it. However, I have seen the very good stage adaptation called "The Heiress" twice. There's also a very good film with the same title. It's ironic that James, who so longed for success as a playwright and never made it as one, has generally been succesfully adapted into other mediums (media?). There have been several stage adaptations of "The Turn of the Screw". The first "The Innocents" which I saw years ago with Flora Robson was outstanding, and one of the scariest things I ever saw on the stage. The film with Deborah Kerr was also excellent. I also remember a fine stage version of "The Aspern Papers" with Michael Redgrave (who had adapted it), Flora Robson (again) and Beatrix Lehmann. I have also collected one of James' own plays "The High Bid" at the old Mermaid Theatre with Fenella Fielding. There have been film versions of "The Wings of the Dove", "The Golden Bowl" and "The Bostonians". Probably others. I have even seen a musical based on "The Ambassadors" which starred Howard Keel and Danielle Darrieux. There have been TV adaptations of "The Portrait of a Lady" and "The Wings of the Dove". But I have never managed to collect James' "Guy Domville" which has gone down in theatrical history as one of the worst First Nights ever. I have a copy of James collected plays in a one-volume collected edition, now out-of-print, but probably available second-hand. The Library of America keep in print an exhaustive, and exhausting, list of James including practically everything he ever wrote including the complete short stories, criticism, travel writing - but not the plays. Even posterity hates James the playwright. There are two excellent novels about James. "Author Author!" by David Lodge and "The Master" by Colm Toibin
Message 18 of 19 in Discussion
From: LatinaMagistra Sent: 5/17/2008 2:59 PM
Perhaps he is just an example of a man who was before his time. If we could live long enough, we might all see our ideas come to fruition and validation!
Message 19 of 19 in Discussion
From: HeHireDramaticJet Sent: 5/17/2008 6:27 PM
Hello Mike, Henry James certainly had very good dramatic instincts, but there's a world of difference between creating good drama in a prose narrative (where the author can describe the internal workings of the characters' minds) and creating prose drama on the stage, where the author is restricted only to what the characters say. James was clearly a master with the former, but not, I think, with the latter. I don't know if you tried The Awkward Age: there, many scenes are depicted as if they were scenes in a play, and I don't think they work at all. James created far finer drama when he wrote novels as novels, i.e. with authorial comment.
I felt the same way when I recently read Conrad's short story "Tomorrow". The latter part of the story is presented as if it were a scene in a play, and while Conrad's dramatic instincts are generally good, here the drama seemed creaky. It's curious that two such accomplished writers, both of whom had sound dramatic instincts when it came to prose fiction, should fail so badly with stage drama.
However, as you say, James' works can be very effective when adapted well. I though WIlliam Wyler's film version of Washington Square (The Heiress, with Olivia de Haviland, Ralph Richardson and Montgomery Clift) was a fine piece of drama, and The Innocents (Jack Clayton's film version of The Turn of the Screw) is among my favourite films.