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Birds of a feather

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Among the pleasures of reading a good book is reliving the pleasures of other wonderful texts it evokes.  Among the pleasures of reading The Age of Innocence was the breadth of references it summoned.  More than a hundred years -- and a gulf of sensibilities, aesthetics and styles of humor -- separate the two that resonate most deeply for me: Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, and Stephen Dobyns' "Spiritual Chickens." 

Wharton's novel owes so much (including its protagonist's last name) to James' Portrait that mentioning the debt borders on pedantry.  Wharton would likely be so appalled by Dobyns that the connection risks absurdity.  And yet the two references serve to reinforce the same idea: that our choices about how to engage with the multi-layered nature of reality (to perceive, to deny) define us.

In Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer takes the measure of unyielding reality in a scene when she sits thinking long into the night.  She has deluded herself into marrying the wrong man.  She sees through her illusions to the unpleasant substance of her husband Osmond's personality.  She realizes also an intimacy between Osmond and a family friend, Madame Merle, who introduced them.  The sleep-deprived and hermetic intensity of her thought succeeds in disturbing the surface of her reality and rearranges the relations between herself, Osmond and Merle.  Although Isabel is not ready to articulate her newfound understanding to herself, she comprehends that Merle and Osmond are collaborators in some manipulation against her.

The scene finds its parallel in The Age of Innocence when Newland Archer hosts the first formal dinner of his marriage to mark the occasion of the departure of the love his life, Madame Ellen Olenska.  Newland has been blindsided by Ellen's announcement of her return to Europe, and he is barely functional:

Archer, who seemed to be assisting at the scene in a state of odd imponderability, as if he floated where between chandelier and ceiling, wondered at nothing so much as his own share in the proceedings.  As his glance travelled from one placid well-fed face to another he saw all the harmless looking [dinner guests] . . . as a band of dumb conspirators, and himself and the pale woman on his right [Ellen] as the centre of their conspiracy.  And then it came over him, in a vast flash made up of many broken gleams, that to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers . . . . He guessed himself to have been, for months, the centre of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything . . . .
Like Isabel Archer, Newland Archer arrives at this moment of revelation after a process of delusion.  Unable to possess Ellen Olenska physically and share his intellectual and emotional intimacies with her in the course of quotidian living,

he had built up within himself a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret thoughts and longings.  Little by little it became the scene of his real life, of his only rational activities; thither he brought the books he read, the ideas and feelings which nourished him, his judgments and his visions.  Outside it, in the scene of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absentminded man goes on bumping into the furniture of his own room.  Absent -- that was what he was: so absent from everything most densely real and near to those about him that it sometimes startled him to find they still imagined he was there.
This habit of absenteeism reaches its apotheosis at book's end, when Newland Archer opts not to meet Ellen Olenska again, after 27 years.  "'It's more real to me here [on a bench outside her flat] than if I went up [to meet her]', he suddenly heard himself say."

In this behaviour, Newland Archer anticipates the unnamed protagonist of Stephen Dobyns' brilliant poem, "Spiritual Chickens."  Confronted by a chicken he has eaten seven years ago, a chicken returned to the earthly plain because of overcrowding on the spiritual one, a man "runs out of his house / flapping his arms and making peculiar hops."

Faced with the choice between something odd
in the world or something broken in his head,
he opts for the broken head.  Certainly,
this is safer than putting his opinions
in jeopardy.
. . . .
As it is he is constantly being squeezed
between the world and his idea of the world.
Better to have a broken head -- why surrender
his corner on truth? -- better to just go crazy.
Sadly for Newland Archer, he's not as interesting as Dobyns' protagonist.  He has opted to go AWOL instead of crazy, abandoned his life instead of cracking it.  But the fault runs along the same line: cowardice.

A little more than a hundred and thirty years ago, Henry James set out to tell the story of a woman colliding with her destiny; today we might describe her less grandiosely, as a woman "constantly being squeezed / between the world and [her] idea of the world."  Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose: however worded, the situation remains the crucible of our character, and the measure of our worth.  Embrace of the depths of reality yields the only guaranteed rewards of this existence ("the flower of life" in Wharton's words); avoidance reaps failure.      

And The Age of Innocence?  By providing the opportunity to draw a line between Isabel Archer's gloomy insomnia and Stephen Dobyns' delightful ghost chicken, the harvest has been sheer pleasure. 

Image of Edith Wharton from The New York Times website; image of Henry James from New York University website.

Happy endings, horror-style

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The Haunting of Hill House casts a pleasant pall, inducing in the reader a physical state of mild anxiety that seasons, as much as it quickens, the page-turning.  And the book contains one truly dreadful scene that left me revolted: in the middle of the night, Nell and Theodora sit up in their beds, holding hands in the dark and cold -- holding so tightly they can feel the bones in each others' hands -- listening to ghostly babbling from the next room.  Then the sound of a child being hurt and crying interrupts the babbling, and Nell summons the courage to shout, "Stop it!"  At which point, the dark dissipates, the light is on, and Theodora wakes, asking Nell why she is shouting.  Nell (and I!) are overcome by the question:  "whose hand was I holding?"  (p. 120.)

But for all the marvelous frightfulness of The Haunting of Hill House, the scary aspect of the story is not the supernatural manifestations of evil.  To the contrary, the terror arises from the profound -- ordinary, realistic -- isolation that Nell suffers.  Although Nell tells herself that she is a "human, . . . a walking reasoning humorous human being," (p. 120), humans are social animals, and Nell consistently endures deprivation of normal social contact.  Instead of being mothered, Nell must nurse her mother through illness.  Friendless and jobless, Nell lives on the despised periphery of her sister's family.  Nell is so without succor that when she needs support, she thinks back to an encounter with a stranger, an old lady who promised in passing to pray for Nell.

Nell's exile from the terrain of familial, communal and social human interaction -- from the web of human connections against which our identities emerge -- from the context humans need to be human -- evokes another heroine of another iconic ghost story: the governess in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.  The governess also appears without recourse to necessary human support: her boss has instructed her never to contact him, and she seems to lack intimates (parents, siblings, friends) who can provide her with guidance.  That neither woman has a paramour or husband goes without saying; indeed, the implicit assumption is that both women are virgins -- unloved, unwanted, adult innocents.

The significance of these protagonists' ambiguous social standing is not, as Edmund Wilson would have it, that socially neglected women are likely to be sexual hysterics prone to hallucinations, but that the liminal space both women inhabit is the horror in these stories.  Nell and the governess belong nowhere -- no lover, people or home claims them (with the caveat that evil Hill House does exert claim over Nell, which explains part of her attraction to it) -- but they have done nothing to warrant such exile: they lack even the definition of the banished.  The mechanics of their bodies function, and their physical existence confirms "life," but human life has only theoretical existence outside the context of human society.  As social animals denied the "social," Nell and the governess live in earthly purgatory; like the category-transgressing "dead restored" (p. 64) -- Quint and Miss Jessel -- in The Turn of the Screw, Nell and the governess are, in a sense, themselves ghosts.         

In both stories, our horror derives from the plausibility of such a fate.  The supernatural manifestations and the deaths they precipitate in both books are a relief -- a venting of the tension arising from the unavoidable risk we all bear of occupying in our life times a purgatory, of finding ourselves in the borderlands between the living and the dead.  By this measure, death, with its unambiguous finality, is a kind of happy ending.

That thought brought me lingering sadness as I closed The Haunting of Hill House: what a miserable person Nell was, and what a pathetic life she led.  The total absence of redemption -- neither cruel nor sentimental, but simply fact -- is the scariest aspect of this book, and the way Jackson guides the reader to this culminating truth and supports our absorption of it is a triumph.

Image of Shirley Jackson from www.shirleyjackson.org.

Recommending Henry

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A friend recently wrote to me asking for recommendations of classic books he could read over Spring Break.  (Plainly, he's not one of my friends who believes that nothing in the classics can rival Girls Gone Wild: Endless Spring Break; and for those of my friends who do hold such beliefs, what about the "lioness on the cheese grater" position referred to in Lysistrata?)

So back to my friend: I replied with a list of books that included Henry James' The Aspern Papers, possibly my fave of the James oeuvre.  Short, shocking and chock full of nasty conflicts of interest and sexual tensions, The Aspern Papers is my idea of reading satisfaction.

Not so much my friend: "I tried reading the Aspern Papers, but didn't really enjoy the writing style."

Poor Henry!  All those long sentences with tangential, intermediary clauses; all that punctuation - those dashes, those commas; all those asides, all that effort, all that style: all beyond the ready appreciation of today's reader.

And poor friend!  Henry James is not called "The Master" for nothing.  All his learning, his intimate knowledge of the human viscera, his understanding of emotional contortion and manipulative behavior, of the corrupting power of money and the dangers of life on society's periphery: all inaccessible under the lock of his impenetrable prose.

The situation brought to mind the scene in E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, when Aziz spontaneously recites a poem by Ghalib to an assortment of well-wishers who have come to his bedside when he's sick:

[The poem] had no connection with anything that had gone before, but it came from his heart and spoke to theirs.  They were overwhelmed by its pathos; pathos, they agreed, is the highest quality in art; a poem should touch the hearer with a sense of his own weakness, and should institute some comparison between mankind and flowers.
. . . .
Of the company, only Hamidullah had any comprehension of poetry.  The minds of the others were inferior and rough.  Yet they listened with pleasure, because literature had not been divorced from their civilization.  The police inspector, for instance, did not feel that Aziz had degraded himself by reciting, nor break into the cheery guffaw with which an Englishman averts the infection of beauty.  He just sat with his mind empty, and when his thoughts, which were mainly ignoble, flowed back into it they had a pleasant freshness.
(p. 99-100.)  With humor and a deft description, Forster captured - almost 90 years ago - what we have lost and, still today, haven't been able to replace.  The "infection of beauty" imbues even the ignoble thought with a "pleasant freshness."

Translation: Girls Gone Wild is even better after reading The Aspern Papers!

(Image of John Singer Sargent's portrait of Henry James from State College of Florida website)
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I had to laugh when, in Henry James' Daisy Miller, Frederick Winterbourne urges Daisy to avoid baiting her Italian friend with the following admonition:  "Flirting is a purely American custom; it doesn't exist here [in Rome]."

My laughter was prompted by the familiarity of the conversation.  Several months ago, when I was editing my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband, in Denmark, I noticed that I wasn't a hot commodity with the Danish men.  Night after night, I sipped coffee, had a drink, ate dinner - all by myself - in public places, and no one ever spoke with me. 

Finally, I asked my friend Gillion Grantsaan for his interpretation.  "Am I just not cute here?  Danish men don't flirt with me - do they not like brunettes?  They're sticking with the local blondes?"

Gillion explained that, no, the issue wasn't cuteness or hair color, but flirting.  "Men here don't flirt," he said, "because the women don't flirt.  The women are socially cold until they get drunk, at which point they go home with a guy.  Flirting doesn't enter into it."

Well then.  I won't take it personally.

Somehow I don't think the Danish women's approach would've been much assistance to Daisy Miller.

(Image of Danish photographer Kurt Rodahl Hoppe talking, not flirting, with Maya Alexandri taken by Solomon Lyttle)

This celluloid doesn't lie

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To my surprise, I found Peter Bogdanovich's film adaptation of Henry James' Daisy Miller an excellent augment to the novella.

The faithfulness of the adaptation is commendable and shows both Bogdanovich's confidence and his understanding of the story.  (The vast majority of the dialogue, for example, seems to have been transposed directly from James.)  As a result, the movie highlighted shades in the book that I'd perceived, but which I'd questioned out of concern that I was missing something, or that I was too ignorant of the historic period and Victorian writing generally to interpret them correctly.

For instance, based on the text, I didn't find Daisy sympathetic.  In fact, I thought her annoying, and Frederick Winterbourne's enduring infatuation with her struck me as difficult to fathom.  I was curious to see how the movie would handle Daisy's characterization, since an unsympathetic female protagonist is a hard sell in Hollywood.  (And, indeed, the critics seemed not to buy it, although they tended [unfairly in my view] to blame Cybill Shepherd.)  But Daisy was every bit as tiresome on the page as she is in the movie.

Reflecting on the film, I think part of the problem is that immature females can quite easily be intrinsically annoying and tiresome.  In my own writing, depicting women moving from states of relative immaturity to relative maturation, I've found myself becoming fed up with my own creations (my fault as the author - I own it - but a fault easily indulged given the reality).

But I also think Henry James missed an opportunity.  His Daisy Miller bears more than passing resemblance to Marianne Dashwood in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.  Like Daisy, Marianne is also impulsive and emotional; she also cultivates an unwise attachment to an unsuitable man; and Marianne also suffers illness as the fallout of the relationship. 

But unlike Daisy, Marianne has depths that she reveals in the text.  Marianne is passionate, hard-working and unspoiled.  I got the impression that James expected us to like Daisy because she is beautiful and American, but those qualities are too superficial to inspire the reader's empathy.  (In this respect, Bogdanovich added a lovely touch when he had Daisy sing for Frederick, an episode that doesn't appear in the book, but which allows us to see Daisy's talent, as well as her beauty.)

And, unlike Daisy, Marianne doesn't die.  She marries a mature man, making a sensible choice that assures her a future both less romantic and more complicated than any situation in James' story.  Indeed, by comparison to Marianne's fate, Daisy's death looks mawkish and sentimental - another cheap, easy way of pushing the audience's sympathy buttons.

Bogdanovich handles the ending extremely well and, with Barry Brown's exceptional performance, manages to wring genuine regret from Daisy's death.  All the same, if the film seems like an over-expenditure on a slight tale, the cause seems to lie (and I say this with apologies to the Master) in the source material. 

(Image of Cybill Shepherd and Barry Brown in Peter Bogdanovich's film version of Daisy Miller from BAM)

Breaking the dove's wings

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Wings_of_the_Dove.jpgTaking a delightful dig at a certain type of imaginatively-constrained reader or critic, Henry James included the following passage at the opening of The Turn of the Screw:

"Who was it she was in love with?"
"The story will tell," I took upon myself to reply.
. . .
"The story WON'T tell," said Douglas; "not in any literal, vulgar way."
"More's the pity, then.  That's the only way I ever understand."
(pp. 3-4.)

Apparently, that's the only way Iain Softley thought his audience would understand his 1997 film adaptation of The Wings of the Dove.   And more's the pity.

The movie, not to put too fine a point on it, stinks.  Where Henry James drips the poisonous motivations into the plot, Softley floods the story with them.  Where James is indirect, Softley charges like a blundering drunk.  Where James refers to sex, Softley stages street corner couplings and full-frontal nudity.  To say that much is lost in the story's translation from novel to screen is an understatement.

I will not here deny that I had issues with the pacing of the novel, The Wings of the Dove.  The gambit to seduce Milly in order to inherit when she dies was apparent well before the characters speak unflinchingly of it.  But in the strategic creep of the deception, the reader - as much as the characters - acclimates to it, gets drawn in and is ultimately seduced by the plan.  In the film, however, rapidity causes shock and revulsion at the deception; the viewer recoils.  (Sample comments from my companion in watching the film, my mother: "That woman is evil"; "What a devious bitch.") 

Nor will I deny that a certain frustration attends to James' "blanks."  For example, Kate Croy's father's badness remains unspecified in the novel.  The reason everyone finds him despicable is simply not named, nor even hungered after: 

What was it, to speak plainly, that Mr. Croy had originally done?
"I don't know - and I don't want to . . . ." Kate explained.
(p. 75.)

I have written before of how James leaves these lacunae to be filled by the readers' imagination, but the film cannot tolerate such ambiguity, even at the expense of the viewer's engagement.  In the film, Kate Croy's father is an addict: mystery concluded.

As for the sex, I was frankly bowled over by the explicitness of James' reference to an act of lovemaking ("Come to me").  Nonetheless, James keeps the "who did what to whom" out of sight, so as to heighten its sensual power.  After Merton persuades Kate to make love with him before she departs with her aunt for London, Kate's presence is constant in his rooms in Venice, a goad and a talisman, proof of her love and a guarantee (to himself) of the justification of his actions.  In the film, on the other hand, the kissing, groping, entangling and disrobing is so cavalier that it can't signify anything.  It's mere prurience.

To proceed on the supposition that the film's approach to storytelling is the only way an audience will "understand" is a profound error and a terrible disservice.  Far from fostering understanding, this "literal, vulgar way" of telling a story undercuts comprehension.  Having slashed mercilessly at the progressive development of the novel's plot, the film of The Wings of the Dove descends into inscrutability.  (Why Kate takes off her clothes in the film's penultimate scene is an unanswerable question of a magnitude second only to why Merton follows suit.)   

More importantly, from the film, no one could possibly see why the novel, The Wings of the Dove, is great.  More's the pity indeed.     

(Image of Helena Bonham Carter and Alison Elliott playing Kate Croy and Milly Theale in the 1997 film production of The Wings of the Dove from Film Reference)
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