Monday, June 24, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“RODERICK HUDSON” by Henry James (first published 1875)

One day I know I will have to stand before the recording angel and explain why I never got wholeheartedly into the novels of Henry James.

Yes, I will say, I did read with delight and attention many of his short-stories and novellas and I marvelled at how compressed and meaningful he could make his prose – The Aspern Papers, The Beast in the Jungle, The Turn of the Screw. Yes, I enjoyed the brash confidence of earlier books like The American and I climbed happily into shorter novels like The Europeans, Washington Square and What Masie Knew; then into mature and full-bodied psychological studies like The Bostonians and The Portrait of a Lady. All of these I regard as great pieces of writing. But I was never able to crack the later novels like Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl or The Awkward Age, which sit unread (except for the first few pages) on my shelves. Like, I suspect, many literati, I know The Golden Bowl only because I once watched the 1972 BBC TV adaptation of it, in which Cyril Cusack spent long periods looking at the camera and reciting James’ words, as the story’s impotent narrator. I recall that when The Ambassadors was one of the set texts in the Honours course I did as a student, I struggled to get even halfway through it, and then gave up.

For the life of me, I can’t improve on that old wisecrack about Henry James’ writing career falling into three periods – James the First, James the Second and James the Old Pretender. James the First and Second I quite liked. It was the Old Pretender who stumped me and who just could not express himself clearly and concisely. His sentences waffled on, often missing their ostensible subject in elaborate and redundant subordinate clauses. (I recall one lecturer saying that James in later career took to dictating his works to a secretary. It shows.) He ruminated at far too great a length over trivialities. As one of my fellow students curtly remarked, James “took about three pages for somebody to cough.”

I hope I do not appear a complete philistine in making these remarks, as I know there are dedicated Jamesians who regard him as the master stylist, the master psychologist, the man whose penetrating gaze looked deeper into the human soul than any other writer’s did. But, apart from his later prose style, there were two other things that alienated me from the man’s later works.

The first was the social classes with which he mainly dealt. Some stories of wealthy Americans and titled Europeans are interesting up to a point; but when that point comes, you start asking why you are reading about these privileged people and their domestic dilemmas in the first place. So wealthy Mr X from Boston may or may not marry sensitive Princess Y from Florence, and their coupling may or may not affect the feelings of Mrs Z with her discreetly scandalous past, and of the naïve young Mr J, also from Boston. Very well. I am giving a crude caricature here, but there is in James’ later novels that oppressive sense of a wealthy in-group with enough time on their hands to stroke and stroke their feelings until they are refined beyond reason. And I was never fully convinced that America was always as wide-eyed, and Europe as sophisticated and corrupt, as James depicted them.

My second problem had to do with the matter of what I can only call “evasion”. So often in James’ novels you get the sense that something is not being mentioned – that much which is thought or said or described is really beside the point of what really animated James. I have read both (the heterosexual English novelist) David Lodge’s novel about James, Author! Author! and (the homosexual Irish novelist) Colm Toibin’s novel about James, The Master, both coincidentally published in 2004. In their own different ways (Lodge far more wittily) they both tell me that James was a non-active homosexual, sexually attracted to men but apparently living and dying a virgin. I also know that, thanks in large part to the American critic Leon Edel, it is now considered unforgivable to discuss James’ work without mentioning this fact. Among activists, he’s now supposed to sit in the pantheon of Great Gays. Except that you would have to be very ingenious indeed to detect clear indicators of male homosexual activity in his writings. (The lesbian desire of one character is heavily implied in The Bostonians). After all, the subject was verboten when James was writing. So maybe this is the unnameable, which leads to what I have called “evasion”. Are all these agonisings over whether one should or should not get married in fact coded tales of frustrated homosexual status? I think not, but I do think James’ condition could have contributed to James’ habit of talking about and about things without ever directly addressing them.

This is all by way of prelude to discussing one of James’ very earliest novels, written before the really oppressive stylistic mannerisms kicked in. Roderick Hudson, published in 1875, was only James’ second novel, written when Henry James was 31, with over forty years of literary production still ahead of him. True Jamesians regard it as an immature piece, an early Bildungsroman about a young man’s development. But to me it already appears to have most of the Jamesian preoccupations.

Rather than giving you one of my notoriously overlong plot-summaries, I will attempt to describe the plot of this one as pithily as I can.

Wealthy New Englander Rowland Mallet is impressed with the work of the young sculptor Roderick Hudson, becomes his mentor, takes him under his wing and takes him to Europe to learn his craft fully. The emotional complication is that both Rowland Mallet and Roderick Hudson are in love with the same intellectual American woman, Mary Garland, to whom Roderick is engaged.

Over in Rome, Roderick’s sculptures impress the small American expatriate artistic community. Could he possibly be the great hope for American art? At which point, Roderick becomes obsessed with the American beauty Christina Light, who seems about to make a wealthy marriage to an Italian aristocrat, Prince Casamassima. Roderick is both inspired and distracted from his art by Christina. For a while she returns his feelings. But Rowland fears that Christina is having too much influence over Roderick.

To rein Roderick in, Rowland Mallet invites Roderick Hudson’s mother and Mary Garland to come and join the group in Rome. Rowland has conflicting feelings – if Roderick married Christina, then he (Rowland) would have Mary Garland to himself. But inexplicably (perhaps because she has been discreetly told that as an illegitimate child she would have no other chance of entering high society) Christine Light does marry the Prince Casamassima.

Roderick’s inspiration dries up. He idles. He does not work. We are not told directly how he is wasting his time (James here pioneers his habit of alluding without stating), but there are some indications of possible loose living.

The novel ends in Switzerland, when Rowland tells Roderick that he loves Mary and that Roderick is selfish, immature and wasting the talent that could produce real art. Roderick walks off into the mountains. There is a tremendous snowstorm. Roderick does not return. The following day his frozen body is found at the bottom of a ravine. Whether he committed suicide or died by misadventure is left unclear. (Of course. This is an allusive novel by Henry James.) At any rate, he lost in love and his art never flourished and there is the tragedy of a young, unfulfilled American artist.

A brief ironical epilogue tells us that Rowland Mallet never did win Mary Garland, but at best became an occasional visitor to her.

Years before I read this young man’s novel, a stray remark from somebody led me to expect something far more melodramatic than James’ more mature novels. In fact, save for its conveniently final and melodramatic ending, Roderick Hudson strikes me as typical of James’ lifelong preoccupations – fine emotional perceptions among the moneyed classes, the clash of American and European cultures and the status of art. It springs as fully-formed from young James as Minerva from the brow of Jove.

And, to do the author credit, he does at least prepare for the ending with some foreshadowing symbolism. Long before Roderick’s death, there is a scene where Rowland observes Roderick in the Roman Coliseum, perched perilously over a precipice as he is about to pluck a flower for Christina. She tells him not to risk his neck. Later, in Switzerland, Roderick reaches out to pluck a flower for Mary Garland, who lets him take the risk. The contrast between the two women is symbolically established – but so is the image of Roderick hanging over the abyss into which he will eventually crash to his death.

Inasmuch as the novel focuses on Roderick, it is the tale of an American artist in Europe, both feeding off, and stultified by, the past. The novel does not exactly set up the dichotomy of innocent American and worldly European, but the potential for such a dichotomy is there. There is also a theme of the difficulties an artist faces when he needs both the emotional stimulus that gives inspiration and also the mental detachment to work methodically. Roderick achieves no such balance.

Here, however, is the rub. The novel does not really centre on Roderick. Despite its title, it centres on Rowland Mallet. Although it is written in the third-person (with the odd first-person authorial aside), Rowland is the centre of consciousness and events are seen through his eyes. Essentially he is the looker-on rather than the partaker-in – Nick Carroway to Roderick Hudson’s Gatsby. Often he is the puppet-master – financing Roderick’s journey to Europe; and calling over Mrs Hudson and Mary Garland when Roderick is afire with Christina. We end up seeing passionate events (especially between Roderick and Christina) only at a distance, as seen by a concerned observer.

I’m sure the names are significant – Garland (=safe posy of flowers); Light (=inspiration); Mallet (=one shaping others to his will). In this post-Edel age, it is impossible to read it without at least considering a homosexual subtext. Personally I do not believe in Rowland’s (swiftly-established and only occasionally-mentioned) love for Mary Garland and I do note that he ends up as an unattached male, as so many of James’ narrators are. His attitude towards Roderick is more that of one who wishes to possess rather than to encourage. If you are so inclined, you could interpret Rowland’s and Roderick’s final quarrel as being like a lovers’ spat; you could note that at one point Roderick calls Rowland “unnatural”; and you could observe that the mainspring of the plot is a male patron trying to get his male protégé out of the clutches of a woman. Except that, if you are going to join the dots this way, you would also have to note that there is no suggestion that Roderick has any strong feelings for Rowland and also that, if homosexuality is implicit, it is certainly never spelled out and would presumably not have been evident to the novel’s first readers. And remember, it is a young and beautiful woman who distracts and inspires Roderick.

Very well, this is not one of James’ mature novels, but it does have some nice strokes of irony and at least a couple are worth quoting.

When Roderick first reaches Europe, James remarks “Wherever he went, he made not exactly what is called a favourable impression, but what, from a practical point of view is better – a puzzling one.” (Chapter 5)  This is a neat account of the appeal of novelty.

Then there is this little piece of class and cultural feeling. Mrs Hudson and her wealthy friends are at one of Rome’s better-known sites. James observes:

During this little discussion our four friends were standing near the venerable image of Saint Peter, and a squalid, savage looking peasant, a tattered ruffian of the most orthodox Italian aspect, had been performing his devotions before it. He turned away crossing himself, and Mrs Hudson gave a little shudder of horror. ‘After that’, she murmured, ‘I suppose he thinks he’s as good as anyone.” (Chapter 17)

Goodness! A praying Italian peasant imagining he is as good as wealthy Americans! Fancy that.

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