Wednesday, December 22, 2010

in a manner inconsequent and unfounded; the visitor felt

There's no public transport out here in the Arizona countryside, but every now and then I manage to hitch a ride with someone going near a secondhand bookshop. This state has an abundance of Melville, plenty of Twain, multiple copies (at the Mesa Bookmans store) of Zora Neale Hursten's Harlem Renaissance novel, And Their Eyes Were Watching God (all similar too; a nearby school must have it on a reading list), and a good amount of Henry James. I've picked up two-dollar copies of the Sacred Fount and the Ambassadors.

By the third chapter, Ambassadors has already delivered an apogee of fastidious Jamesian sentence-making, a sentence that seems to be trying to, on one hand, look prim, armoured, and fastened in place, and, on the other hand, writhe away off the page or dissolve into mist. It says everything very properly and at the same time you get the feeling that it would prefer not to say anything at all, or somehow avoid having a meaning -- because it takes so long to reach a conclusion, and then, when it arrives, it pulls back. 'Agreeable' becomes a loaded word because it seems to be avoiding something, more vehement perhaps -- or perhaps the character doesn't know, exactly, the word that would describe his feelings just there, so he picks 'agreeable' because it seems to work well enough; he might find out more about those feelings later maybe, after he has spent some time working out whether prepared is the word he needs to use, or if already confirmed would be the right phrase -- in this way he fusses around to distract himself, as if he's trying to get out of the responsibility of finishing his thought.

The discomfort was in a manner contagious, as well as also in a manner inconsequent and unfounded; the visitor felt that unless he should get used to it -- or unless Weymarsh himself should -- it would constitute a menace to his own prepared, his own already confirmed, consciousness of the agreeable.

The nature of the menace is vague. James' menaces are typically vague and potentially endless. (Speaking of: I was lying awake at three a.m. a few nights ago when the Turn of the Screw came into my head, that face pressed against the window, "the hideous author of our woe--the white face of damnation" and that was that for at least half an hour of imagined floating Quints.) Meanwhile the Sacred Fount is the story of a man who decides that he is better than anyone else at detecting secret vampires and spends the rest of the book watching peoples' eyeballs twitch.

There's something of Jane Austen's exactness in James -- the weight he puts on agreeable is the weight that she can set on top of a little word like nice. Those words become mostly punchline or post-preface, like icebergs hiding their keels. "There is nothing that commends a story to memory more effectively than that chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis," wrote Walter Benjamin, and James, decompacting, diffusing himself across the ether (or, as this is his universe, creating the ether across which he diffuses himself, so that the medium and the matter floating through it are one and the same, the verb and the noun simultaneous, united, indivisible), is elaborately so chaste that his virginity curdles. Psychological analysis might, at any moment during one of his books, begin, but never does. The story is always taking place away to the side somewhere.

(In the Wings of the Dove a woman's doctor tells her that she is deathly, incurably ill, but this takes place on some plane of existance outside the actual book -- we, the readers, only witness a conversation about the weather. This conversation about the weather is the same as the conversation that tells the woman she is going to die; that is, she understands, from this conversation about the weather, that she is going to die, but the information about her deathly illness was conveyed at a pitch too high for the readers' ears, as if spoken in the language of bats or angels. The woman understood it, and her weird saintliness is confirmed).

I've seen a few Australian authors for sale here, and the sight of those names on the spines surprises me every time, except in the case of Peter Carey and Stead's Man Who Loved Children. Both have been spruiked in the US pretty well, so no need for astonishment. Bookmans had all three of Eliot Pearlmans' books, as well as Les Murray's Subhuman Redneck Poems (and a book in the travel section called Around Australia in 22 Days or similar). In a tiny one-room bookshop at the end of a right-angled arcade in Prescott, north of Phoenix, I found anthologised Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson. Carey turned up in both places, and also in a cellar of books underneath a charity shop across the street from the Coolidge post office. You know where this place is because there is an A-frame board on the pavement outside with Cellar of Books written across it next to an arrow. Everything in the town around it looks defunct, but, behold, below, there is a man with a beard and his Cellar of Books, concrete-walled and cold after the warmth outside.


  1. So much to comment on here, I don't quite know where to start - so let's start with the weather. How is it over there?!

    The ambassadors was the first ever Henry James I attempted and I never did finish it. I gave it a second half-hearted attempt a few years ago and gave up then too. I have read some other, earlier I admit, James and liked them but this one?

    I like your reference to Austen, her exactness and the example of "nice". I find myself using "nice" more often lately and using it (in my mind) with some of its lesser used meanings - as in neat, precise, to the point - but I have a feeling that I've fallen on deaf ears and think I should give it up.

  2. The weather in Arizona is fine, fine, and more fine. Last night we had the first significant rain I've seen since we arrived here -- about three-quarters of an inch, and this morning there is almost nothing left but a smell of damp and two flower pot stands filled with water.

    To the west California is under water and to the north the roads are coated with snow, ice, and frozen cars but we only hear about these things secondhand. Arizona is all sunshine and beautiful sunsets. The state weather report every night consists of a man in a WE RULE t-shirt saying "Heh heh heh," to the camera and dancing offscreen shaking a pair of maracas.

    About 'nice': it's a tone thing, the forceful use of 'nice', nowadays, anyway, away from the old meaning of Exact. There are some authors, typically British and usually women, who can pull it off, and 'very' as well, but it seems to be indigenous to the person. I wonder if it could taught, or if it's like that American judge's definition of porn: "I know it when I see it"(in other words, it needs to be produced before it can identified).

    About the Ambassadors: I gave up too, the first time I tried one of James Last Big Three. Mine was the Golden Bowl and I was in the bath. By page eighty I realised that I had no memory of anything I'd just read, so I ditched it for a few years, read Dove, and came back to it again. The older he got, the more seems to have moved into the stage-wings of his own stories and peeped at them, which puzzled me, because I was waiting for something to happen -- and everything was, but not in front of me.

  3. I spent the night in Prescott once - it described itself, puzzlingly, as 'Christmas capital of America' at the time. My husband tells me the launderette there was very good. I am assuming Around Australia in 22 Days wasn't also written by Les Murray? If it was, I'm going on Abebooks to find a copy - wandering the country for 22 days in the great man's company sounds appealing. Have a very happy Christmas and new year.

  4. Yes, it is a tone thing and I don't think really that it comes across in some of the places I've been using it but I like to persevere because "nice" has been so maligned and I like to think we can still use it usefully!

    That sounds like Arizona - particularly the area you are in. I loved living in the southwest - the only thing I missed, really, was autumn. It's a lovely season here ...

    Anyhow, I'll just ditto zmkc and say I hope you have a good one.

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  6. Thanks, and to both of you too. (Travelling around Australia with Les Murray is easy. You dangle a 1960s university academic from a fishing pole and the big man will roar at your heels all the way from Broome to Yunck.)

    Jane Gardam can whip out a good Very. I don't remember how she is with Nice, or if she uses it at all. But I've seen her pull of Very a couple of times. Good at dialect. Good at voices.

    I caught the news again last night and it turns out I was lying about the weather. The extreme north-west of the state is suffering from rain (cue footage of house being swept away, cue footage of the house's former owner saying, "Well we thought the worst was over, and then we got a phone call saying, "You'd better get down here ..."") and it's snowing in Prescott. Prescott was still billing itself as the Christmas Capital when we went through. I'm not sure how it got its hands on this designation (sheer force of will?) but they had two columns of festive activities listed on a billboard downtown -- elf celebrations, a walk-through Bethlehem, the nightly illumination of the courthouse, and so on.

  7. I cannot understand why Jane Gardam is not more widely admired. There is a short story of hers called something like Blue Poppies that I especially love.

  8. From Going Into a Dark House? Dang, I wish I had my Gardams with me. She can do amazing things with tone. She can turn a story around on a coin. I discovered her Bilgewater when I was a teenager, and Bilgie was the only teen protagonist, in any book, ever, who seemed to be speaking. The rest were speaking through an author, but she seemed to speak. Recent Gardam has flattened out, but in her early work she has the gift of sounding like no one else.

    Sue: you might like her short story The Sidmouth Letters. Austen makes a guest appearance.