Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Figure, Called on the Carpet

I keep reading reviews of the new Novick volume of Henry James biography. All damn and praise Novick in equal measure, and make me want to read him. David Leavitt blasts Novick for his ambiguities and for failing to include James's friendship with Constance Fenimore Cooper, and then:

Still, this biography has its distinct virtues. Novick superbly parses James’s sometimes contradictory political views and his acquaintance with the politicians of the day. He is also very good on James’s approach-avoidance relationship to the world of the theater and on his highly ambivalent attitude toward his own Americanness. And when Novick discusses the late novels — which he clearly loves — the genius of James sometimes inhabits and energizes his prose. Describing the notoriously difficult syntax of “The Ambassadors,” he writes: “Shadows are not black but infused with color: double negatives take the place of bare assertions — each quality that is denied adds a dimension to one that is affirmed.” This is an eloquent and extremely helpful observation, as well as one worth keeping in mind when trying to bring the elusive James into focus. It’s also a comment that left me eager to reread James’s novels.

I haven't read old Henry in quite some time, and last time I did so I was unamused (The Princess Casamassima can bite me). But when I read The Ambassadors the first time it killed me. That scene where Lambert Strether sees Chad in the boat with Mme de Vionnet? Strether suffers first the realization that he was been duped and used and mislead by virtually everyone he's met in Europe, and secondly realizes that his own life is cold, bare, and devoid of passion or experience when compared to that of his young quarry. A theme which, of course, recurs a great deal in the short fiction. And a scene and a novel which rank among my very favorites.

But why read James again? I'm not getting a PhD--I'm teaching 8th grade.

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