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Critic of little faith

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After repeatedly reminding myself that sentences striking my ear as long-winded resonated differently for audiences of a hundred or two hundred years ago, and that patient openness to the antiquated language will yield insights about the mindsets and psychologies that predominated in days past - in short, that even long-windedness has much to teach me - I found my jaw flapping after reading the following sentence in Edmund Wilson's essay, "The Ambiguity of Henry James," written less than twenty years after the great writer's death:

Henry James never seems aware of the amount of space he is wasting through the long abstract formulations that do duty for concrete details, the unnecessary circumlocutions and the gratuitous meaningless verbiage - the as it were's and the as we may say's and all the rest - all the words with which he pads out his sentences and which themselves are probably symptomatic of a tendency to stave off his main problems, since they are a part of the swathing process with which he makes his embarrassing subjects always seem to present smooth contours.
(p. 122.)

Well call me Earnest Ernestine and Naive Nana all rolled into one.  Here I've been, slogging through James' sentences, castigating myself for each eye roll, dutifully reviewing sentences the incessant meandering of which led me to seek escapist refuge in the bliss of contemplating inane YouTube videos, when all the while no lesser an authority that Edmund Wilson has been dismissing the Master as an unaware sentence padder.

My only consolation, of course, is that Edmund Wilson is wrong.  The space is not "wasted."  The "long abstract formulations," the absence of "concrete details," the "circumlocutions" - none would get Henry James hired by his local newspaper, but he's not wasting space.  He's creating room for the reader's engagement of his or her imagination. 

Edmund Wilson, a critic, might not be able fully to understand, appreciate or celebrate this aspect of James' skill, but writers get it.  Henry James has ignited the creative fires of writers from Colm Toíbín to Cynthia Ozick to Alan Hollinghurst.  Indeed, I became attracted to Henry James only because he exerted so obvious and powerful an influence on so many contemporary writers.  James' status as a writers' writer derives from this quality in his writing: its spaciousness, its invitation to the reader to move into the rooms created by the sentences, to walk around, lounge on the cushions, and make themselves at home.

Or, in my case, to go to sleep.

I'm still striving.  But in the absence of receiving the passed-on creative fire, I have the tiny flame of faith that persistence in reading James will pay off.

(Image of Edmund Wilson from The New York Times)

Note to Self

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Having become excited about Henry James by Alan Hollinghurst's infectious enthusiasm for James in The Line of Beauty, I for some reason decided, instead of reading Henry James, to read Colm Toíbín's The Master, a biography of Henry James in novel form.

I cannot explain why this course of action seemed the logical expression of my interest in James' novels.  

I was disappointed by The Master, finding James the man less than his work.

Unfair, of course, to James; I cannot think of a single artist who isn't less than his or her work.

Unfair, as well, to Toíbín, whose achievement in The Master cannot credibly be criticized for not being one by Henry James.

No option, I'm afraid, but to pick up a novel by James.  I just wish Portrait of a Lady hadn't been so long and, I can't help thinking, contrived . . . .
I take from literature what I need at a particular time in my life - a reread at a different moment reveals another necessary - so I was impressed by the resonance of Nick's final gift in Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty.  Nick's openness to seeing beauty in the world at the instant of his most foul excommunication recalled the last lines of Mary Oliver's poem, "Wild Geese":

. . . .
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
In his aesthetic sensitivity, an expression of Nick's ability to love the world with "shocking" unconditionality, Nick has found his place in the family of things - whatever the verdict of the families - the Guests, the Feddens, the Charleses, the Ouradis - he has tried to join previously.

Alan Hollinghurst and Mary Oliver are not the only authors who have comforted me thus recently.  Kathleen Jamie's joyous poem, "The way we live," makes the same point as she celebrates (among others):

. . . .
Final Demands and dead men, the skeletal grip
of government.  To misery and elation; mixed,
the sod and caprice of landlords.
To the way it fits, the way it is, the way it seems
to be: let me bash out praises - pass the tambourine.
Indeed, the power imparted by an unconditional love of the world - with its embrace of mortality as much as vivacity, hardship as much as luxury - also captured Karen Blixen's attention.  In "The Dreaming Child," she describes the helplessness an adoptive mother feels when her dying adopted son displays this very trait:

All her life she had endeavoured to separate good from bad, right from wrong, happiness from unhappiness.  Here she was, she reflected with dismay, in the hands of a being, much smaller and weaker than herself, to whom these were all one, who welcomed light and darkness, pleasure and pain, in the same spirit of gallant, debonair approval and fellowship.  The fact, she told herself, did away with all need of her comfort and consolation here at her child's sick-bed; it often seemed to abolish her very existence.
"The Dreaming Child," Winter's Tales, p. 178.  

This lesson was one Karen Blixen appears to have grasped, not by innate inclination, but through repeated suffering at the hands of men - Bror, Denys - who didn't see debt, alcoholism, war, illness, loneliness, or her own misery as conditions to be avoided - who swallowed life knife-edge first and wondered why Karen seemed to cut her throat on it - whose phenomenal fortresses of apparent independence "did away with all need" of her and "seemed to abolish her very existence."  No wonder she looked on this unconditional love of the world with awe.  Bror and Denys may have found their places in the family of things, but Karen seems to have gone to her death still looking.

Perhaps what Karen Blixen needed was, not better men, but better literature.  The last poem Denys read to her, standing with one foot in his idling car, from a book of poems by Iris Tree that burned with his body in the plane crash at Voi, is also about geese:

I saw grey geese flying over the flatlands
Wild geese vibrant in the high air -
Unswerving from horizon to horizon
With their soul stiffened out in their throats-
And the grey whiteness of them ribboning the enormous skies
And the spokes of the sun over the crumples hills.
Compared with the use Mary Oliver makes of wild geese, Iris Tree's effort is crap.  Were it that Karen Blixen could have nonetheless taken the tambourine she so badly needed from it.

Plot lines of beauty

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P.G.Wodehouse.jpgI am a plot woman.  Characterization, tone, style, word-smithing, clever turns of phrase, psychological acuity - I appreciate them, but with me plot is king.  If the plot falters, so does my enjoyment.  

Not so with the reverse.  I recall Russell Roberts opining that the plots of all P.G. Wodehouse's books were "the same."  To the contrary - Bertie Wooster's and Jeeve's characters may be frozen; the tone, style and amusing word play may never evolve; the overall story lines may remain predictable; but the plots - the plots are always magnificent.  P.G.W. was an absolute genius of the plot (as must be all masters of the long-form comedy, which may explain why they are so few in number).

For this reason, I remain amazed at my own ardor for Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty.  The novel is, in fact, spectacularly plotted . . . but the pace of the plotting is so slow as to be imperceptible until the last forty pages.  At that point, the entire world of the book shatters with such speed and reverberation that the closest analogy to reading the book's last two chapters is living through a head-on car-truck collision.

But why did I keep reading through the first 460 pages?  I know people who didn't - "Same old, same old" from chapter to chapter, they complained.  They put it down 100 pages into it and never picked it up again.

In my case, I kept reading because I marveled at Hollinghurst's astonishing skill at evoking moods that leapt from the page and manifested in a physical experience.  From the scene - on page 10 - when Nick returns to the Feddens' Notting Hill house and intuits a burglary, I was in awe.  I read that scene several times, trying to understand how he'd done it.  "Just words on the page," I hmphed to myself, but they'd cast a spell of pulse-racing, quick-breathing terror and suspense over me.

This suspense - of waiting to see what a magician will do next - kept me reading, and I was not disappointed, from the surprisingly (to a heterosexual) arousing sex scene between Nick and Leo in the park, right through to its bookend, the revolting sex scene between Wani and Tristão at the party with Maggie Thatcher.  The pull of this suspense was plot-like, just as the audience's anticipation in a Cirque du Soleil performance is.

The real magic, though, is that The Line of Beauty was not as plotless as a circus.  Hollinghurst's immaculate mood-conjuring passages distracted from the machinery of the plot, and while I was dazzled by the beauty of his realism - so perfect that I experienced the physical reactions of an eye-witness - Hollinghurst was laying a merciless plot-trap.

His accomplishment suggests a nickname for him, in the tradition of his mentor-of-sorts, Henry James - known as "The Master": Hollinghurst could be known as "The Magician."

(Photo of P.G. Wodehouse courtesy of The Telegraph)  

Following The Line of Beauty to the shape of truth

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Alan_Hollinghurst.jpgReading Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty for a second time, I was more impressed even than I'd been the first time - and I'd been smitten on my initial go-round.  Hollinghurst is so well-rounded as a writer that it's a wonder his book is still bound in the conventional manner and not shaped like a globe, so near is he to what's meant by "universal" in his scope.

Of course, my neighbors in Beijing might be lost in all the references to classical Western music, art, architecture and literature (though not in the refuge sought in "high culture").  My colleagues in Pune might not relate to the Feddens' permissive attitude towards their daughter Catherine's misbehavior (but they'd understand the Feddens' general denial of her mental illness).  My friends in Nairobi might be turned off by the explicit descriptions of Nick's homosexual sex (but they'd recognize the moralistic and hypocritical condemnation of it as "vulgar and unsafe").

Still, the receptive reader from any culture will respond to the novel's surprising hopefulness.  Despite his rejection and betrayal by every member of the Feddens' household and circle, despite his absolute solitude and vulnerability in his anguish, despite his conviction that his latest HIV test will return a positive result and the hallucinatory patina his fear throws over his vision, Nick's final impression in the book is one of beauty, provoked by the unexpected discovery within himself that his "love of the world . . . was shockingly unconditional."  (p. 501.) 

Nick's apprenticeship to the masters of aesthetics has imbued him with resiliency beyond his years, his experience and, possibly, his innate capacities.  His appreciation of the line of beauty is a treasure more valuable than all the money of the Feddens, the Kesslers, and the Ouradis combined because, in the end, all must die, and money - if anything - weakens one's capacity for recognizing in mortality a beauty that's of a piece with the finest objets d'art.  

At the risk of damning the book with faint praise, I'll hazard that The Line of Beauty is the finest argument ever penned in favor of aesthetics as capacity building.  That his argument has not been more universally accepted - in developed but mediocre cultures like America, as much as in the developing world - is a loss that money-chasers are apt to discover too late.  

(Photo of Alan Hollinghurst courtesy of The Guardian

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Hollinghurst, Alan category.

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