Wednesday, March 2, 2011

he remembered now to have heard afterwards

My abstinence continues; last week I finished only books by Henry James.

At the moment I am dealing with one of his shorts, The Siege of London, and he is being dry about Nancy Headway. "He remembered now to have heard afterwards that she was getting a divorce. She got divorces very easily, she was so taking in court … She had gone in mainly for editors -- she esteemed the journalistic profession." The setting is a theatre foyer, and one man has asked another for news of the "indescribable" woman he saw in the audience during the first half of the play. That woman is Nancy. The second man begins to give information hesitantly, thoughtfully, not telling the eager first man everything he knows, and so, like this, James is inviting the reader (ignorant, like the first man, and therefore in his position if in anyone's) to become a gossip, a person who wants scandals and specifics (gossip thrives on context and detail) and then he rewards them with vagueness, evasive and with that glittering Jamesian priss, dodging, always dodging. James' dryness is never really dry. It sparkles too much. There is no life in his books, said Borges, but it's not true, there is life, of a crystalline kind, peeping out constantly from under the rocks it sets there for itself to crawl under -- the books moving so quickly between constant repression and constant violation of that repression that the prose sends up a camouflage shimmer.

James is teasing about his character's divorces, and for his time and for his adopted society* it is possible that he was being perversely cheerful, and almost French, but I don't know for sure, I am ignorant, and everywhere I turn my ignorance irritates me, in all directions and on the topic of everything, although I have opinions (and when did ignorance ever stop anyone having an opinion) about the Renaissance Faire we went to last weekend -- my first -- and all of the entertainers, aside from the Bird Man, who juggled flaming torches on top of a giant rubber ball, were telling fuck jokes, which disheartened me.

Their technique was sometimes direct and sometimes innuendo, and, in the case of Zilch the Torysteller, Spoonerisms. The husband in his Rapunzel didn't pick the witch's plants, he licked her pants. Away, around, on a different stage, a ventriloquist's doll in a plumed aristocratic hat pointed to a man standing near a woman and told everyone that the man had a stack of quarters in the crotch of his trousers, then, later, a pirate pretended that he was pressing his face between a pair of invisible breasts and went wbb wbb wbb. Was it only the proximity of Gargoyles that made me think of Bernhard? The Elizabethan dresses in the shops were pricey, good garb isn't cheap, and the entertainers had spent years on their acts (eleven years, said one of the Sisters in Hey Nunnie Nunnie, they'd been performing at this particular Faire for eleven years), and various audience members were dressed in velvet and capes, artful peasant tunics, there was a monk, a number of brigands, some Lord of the Rings-looking individuals, swords, helms, beautiful masks, and so on -- so here we were in our satins and silks and other extravagances to listen to people talk about cock.

And a generalised mist of Bernhard went through my head: those characters of his reading books, becoming cultured, raising children, and all of it being useless, empty, hollow, and ending in nothing but madness, illness, and death, which are at the bottom of all things in the Bernhard universe. And here was the Renaissance Faire like a crude and lumpy version of that, saying, you can wear all the courtier velvet you like, and carry a knightish shield, but in the end you'll be sitting in front of something like a live version of Funniest Home Videos as surely as if you'd stayed at home in your undies. All your long struggle in search of a specialness for yourself, and a unique style of dress, will be undone by a landscape of lumpen punchlines and nudity, which is your fate.

You've come looking for fun, said the Renaissance Faire, and here is the fun you can have, this is what is provided, in a single flavour -- but then there was our single outlier, the Bird Man, who squawked rather than spoke, covered his face and body in tatty Skeksis leather, seemed sinister, and preserved a kind of mystery, a visitor from another world, at a festival where the rest of the entertainment was dedicated to simplicity and the erasure of mystery: an erection is a single thing, a joke, and a pair of breasts is a single thing too, it is a joke, and all of this is easy to understand, this parade of single things, which anyone can grasp and then dismiss, and go on to the next joke, which will be one of the Tortuga Twins promising to show you his own intimate parts, and the other Twins recoiling with imitations of horror, because it would not be funny if we were not disgusted by it, or at least capable of pretending that we were.

The identification of a literary precedent made me, not happier exactly, but more content with it, as if we had reached a settled place, and the tension between the two states had been not abolished but resolved -- through a team effort, myself and the book, both interior, working together silently -- or me working on it -- in the darkness, invisible -- and vague feelings toward Proust too, and ideas about art informing life, or framing it, and providing a kind of rejuvenating connective tissue -- which was perhaps the nature of the joke as well, the single joke, for someone else: a connective tissue, and, look, here is the joke again, and told again, and so life appears to make sense, a continuity, a symmetrical beauty, a measure, a comfort.

* The Siege of London was published in 1883 and James was in England.

"Indescribable" comes in this passage:

Waterville was still in the stage of surprise; he suddenly expressed the emotion. "By Jove!" exclaimed; "I beg your pardon -- I beg her pardon -- there is, after all, a woman that may be called" -- he paused a little, inspecting her -- "a kind of beauty!"

"What kind?" Littlemore asked vaguely.

"An unusual kind -- an indescribable kind."

At this point the two men are still inside the auditorium, and Waterville, an American new to Paris, is scanning the audience with "a dainty but remarkably powerful glass." Littlemore, to whom Paris is a familiar city, is unexcited, but Waterville is still willing to be astonished by whatever the city can give him. This is why he is "still in the stage of surprise." He scans -- and you can compare this scanning to the action of the reader, who is searching through this mat of prose for an interesting moment, the point at which the story will catch the attention -- he scans, and then Nancy appears, and focusses all of his astonishment (and for the reader too. What gossip doesn't want to hear more about an indescribable person, so arresting that she stands out in a crowded audience? Beauty is one thing, but beauty that cannot be described is more than Beauty, it is Mystery.)

"A dainty but remarkably powerful glass" is typical James, circuitous, noting a quality and then noting a quality buried beneath the first quality, the second quality unguessable without closer acquaintance -- any onlooker can see that the glass is dainty, but no one who has not handled it would know that it is powerful -- also the judgment and remote arch tone of "remarkably," all culminating in the impression that the last thing this author would ever do is describe an object with its brand name -- as Stephen King does, for instance, being a writer who will root, say, a packet of cigarettes, in a certain time and place, and offer you the class status of the character carrying the packet, by telling you the brand. James is an unrooter. (In The Ambassadors he becomes so superbly fastidious that he won't even tell you what a specific object is, only that it is small and vulgar.)


  1. So, am I to understand you didn't like the Renaissance Faire ... where's your sense of adventure? Perhaps it's just that you're "still in the stage of surprise" and you'll get into the flow eventually. I mean to say, what's wrong with f*** jokes.

    Meanwhile, back with James ... I really had trouble with The ambassadors when I first tried it and haven't gone back .. it has an object in it you say??

    But, really, the reason I came here was to say that on this week's The First Tuesday Bookclub they said that next month they'll be doing The man who loved children AND the edition they showed on screen - clearly a new one - said that the introduction was by Jonathan Franzen. Surely that version will be available over there?

  2. The object is an "article" and a "thing."


    "It's a little thing they make ... But above all, it's a thing. The article produced."

    "But what is the article produced?"

    Strether looked about him as in slight reluctance to say; then the curtain, which he saw about to rise, came to his aid. "I'll tell you next time."


    Then he never does and The Article-Thing turns into the LitMotif version of a running gag. James was a bit of a star when it came to exploiting the unillustrated nature of prose, the reader's blindness. He's a reminder that the reader is totally dependent on the writer if they want to see anything. If the author doesn't tell you what a thing is, then what is it? Where is it? Is it? You can't picture it, you can't imagine it directly, so how do you cope? And so on. I should think about this a bit more.

    Thanks for the heads-up on The Man Who Loved. I'll go over and check out the site after I've posted this. If it's got a new cover -- a teacup? -- and a Franzen introduction then it's probably the new one coming out from MUP. I'm guessing that means it's going to be Australia-only. The Americans had a re-release back in 2001 with a cover like a carnival tent, so they can rest on the laurels for a bit, Loved-wise. What they really need to do it put out a paperback House of All Nations and supersede the dour-brown hardback that came out years ago.

    I peered around the Faire with a dainty but remarkably powerful glass and saw almost nothing of an indescribable kind. That was my problem.

  3. Did Borges really say that? Do you think he was jealous?

  4. According to the James Wikipedia article he did, in a 1971 book called An Introduction to American Literature. "Despite the scruples and delicate complexities of James his work suffers from a major defect: the absence of life," is the quote. I don't know a lot about Borges, but I've never thought he was jealous of James, or at least if he was, it was mixed with so many other feelings that 'jealous' might seem too straightforward. He knew James' work well, he was influenced by him; I think he was just giving a judicious opinion. And in spite of what I said in that post (above) I know there are good arguments anyone could make for calling James lifeless.