Friday, July 18, 2008

Literature Means... Saying What You Mean By Other Means

I've been reading The Europeans. After Musil, quite a wonderful contrast. Not for better or worse, but for how language works. This is early-middle James. More early than middle. 1878. Same year as Daisy Miller--which points in a whole different direction. Or maybe not so different. James just hasn't made the integration yet between what he could do in Daisy Miller, and what he will be able to do on a much higher level when he's learned to perfect the language he needs to do it.

Daisy Miller is, in some ways, a concession to the market--and he did very well by it on that score... but in The Europeans, he's resisting the temptation to please the audience. No happy marriage for Eugenia. I feel Robert Acton standing in for those expectations. He doesn't meet the test. Better to be disappointed in love and true to what you are, what you are meant to do.

But this post was to be about language... how wonderfully repression enriches the possibilities of style! And by contrast, how difficult, how resistant to aesthetic manipulation, is so-called "plain speech." Saying (ahem) "just what you mean."

Of course, no one ever says quite what they mean. Not all of it. And the challenge in a time that pretends to believe that all things are permissible--is to find a way to include what isn't being said in that anti-puritanical (which is only the mirror image and imitation of what it would appear to reject), "directness."

James shows what can be done with indirection--and in this novel, and in The Americans--just where he's learned it. The Europeans are up on these Emersonian New Englanders, not by being more direct, but by knowing what's left out, by being more conscious of it, and knowing how to use indirection to their great advantage. He was going to do this book over and over... The Americans, The Bostonians... until What Maisie Knew. There's where James found his voice.

By far my favorite. Like the difference between the early impressionists Barnes collected and the later workings and reworkings you find in the Annenberg collection--after they'd become quite, (um... profitably) "collectible." James found himself in Maisie. A bold stylistic experiment (he's had to have learned something here from Flaubert)--a narrative that spins itself out, not on what happens, but on this child's ever maturing discoveries of stuff that's mostly already happened. And he pulls it off. And in doing so, gets himself out of the "Americans/Europeans etc rut, back on track with what he'd found in Portrait of a Lady--but now he's got the voice, the language... that will turn out the late masterpieces, The Golden Bowl, Wings of a Dove. Those long, ever digressing imbricated (Cynthia Ozick's word for them) periodic sentences.. that shimmer like fish scales in changing light.

There's a lesson to be learned here, though I may not be the one to know how to formulate it. A knife that cuts two ways. Against those who believe too naively in the power of mimesis--of the realists--literature as imitation of "life," and those who would give up what has always been the greatest strength of the so-called "realists:" their way of avoiding too direct an expression of what they wanted to represent, and so finding, in that necessary indirection, a way back into the power of language.


  1. I don't why it always surprises me to stumble across a fan of both Musil and Mann, but it does. Count me in. "The Man Without Qualities" and "Magic Mountain" are two of my top ten favorite books, and I have managed to read both of them twice, and will certainly (at least try) to read Musil once more before I can no longer read. Somewhere long enough ago that I've completely forgotten the source, I read that Robert Musil is "the" novelist's novelist. I can see that.

    I presume you have also read Joseph Roth, particularly "The Radetzky March" and "The Emperor's Tomb," but if not, I can heartily recommend them as an accompaniment to Musil.


  2. No, I've not read Joseph Roth, but I'll put these books on my 'to read' list. Thanks!

  3. I really leaned forward and paid attention to this post because of it's focus on Henry James. I just read Alan Hollinghurst's "The Line of Beauty" -- have you read anything by him, btw? -- which I know is filled with discerned and undetected references to James and his fiction. I did not take to it as much as I did to Hollinghurst's first and wondered if it's because I had yet to read any James...while at the same time wondering if a book can really be read any good if it's perceived quality can only be ascertained in complement to another...

    It's made me reconsider my plan to pick up James at around retirement age, anyway. ;)

  4. Imani,

    It helps to educate your ear to his rhythms as they develop, read a few of the earlier novels before The Golden Bowl and Wings of a Dove. Some readers miss the humor and irony in those elaborate syntactical knots he ties.

    I saw on CosmicVariance that even particle physicists and cosmologists find him tough to parse.

    A sentence from Wings of a Dove left there as a challenge. I wrote a comment--too much of a hurry, I guess: from the following comments, they didn't get it.

    The idea is: "the legs might give the impression of idleness, but the head, never. This is amusing. You should check it out. These are people who can decipher formulas complex enough to cover the sides of large buildings (I'm a BIG fan of Cosmic Variance--not making fun of them... but, like I is amusing.

    Of course, I could be wrong. What's your impression?

  5. ... and no, I've not read or heard of Hollinghurst.

  6. Donigan,

    I enjoyed your cafe piece on Metaxu. Tried to check out your blog from your comment, but evidently I'm not authentic...

    ... something I suspected for a long time.

  7. I hope you will have a look at the whole thing on cafes, and the other stuff I've been messing around with during the few weeks since I started that webblog. I don't understand why the link for my name goes to a "blogger" site I do not have. Instead, try this:

    I'll look for you there.