Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Up with which I will not put

Current book: The Wings of the Dove
Pages read: 217 (1) - 274 (57)

This book, as you can see from the weird pagination above, is actually sandwiched together with another James novel in the edition that I got from the library. So, my page numbers will continue to be weird, although when I quote I will simply put the page number of the correct page in the edition I've got, rather than converting. You're fascinated by this information, right? Good. I could tell.

So, I forgot how I hate Henry James. Oh, how I hate him. (I think The Bostonians was only tolerable because I'd read it before, although I'm not really clear on how that makes any kind of sense, but there you are.) I mean, credit where it's due, he's not actually a talentless hack or anything, but the pacing of his novels makes me want to gouge out my eyes. Begin with the fact that every sentence has about twelve clauses in it, and you have to struggle to understand what in the name of God he's actually saying, and then follow it with the fact that hardly anything happens in the present because most of the major events of the plot are told in retrospective format, and finally, finish with the fact that every new person you meet gets about five pages of description of his or her character, and let's just say that "page-turner" is not a term we'd readily apply. Look at this sentence, for instance:
"Merton Densher, who passed the best hours of each night at the office of his newspaper, had at times, during the day, to make up for it, a sense, or at least an appearance, of leisure, in accordance with which he was not infrequently to be met in different parts of the town at moments when men of business are hidden from the public eye." (247)
Putting aside, for the moment, that I can't remember this guy's name and keep wanting to call him Martin or Morton (because those are actual names) it must have taken me a good 15 seconds to parse this sentence for actual meaning. And I read quickly. (No, really. It's kind of freakish.) There are six intervening clauses in this sentence. Six! Why would you do that? (Ok, I'll admit, I had to take a bit of delight in the post-Victorian ridiculousness of the diction, but still. This sort of thing just isn't sustainable.)

Anyway, to come to the actual plot, Kate Croy, our protagonist, is the child of dead mother and a deadbeat father. She and her sister have very little money, and Kate has recently begun living with her maternal aunt, Maud, who is quite rich. Said aunt has forbidden her from seeing her deadbeat father and is very keen on Kate's marrying well. Kate's sister, Marian, is also keen on her marrying well, since she's pretty much dependent on Kate for an income, due to the fact that she's the impoverished widow of a good-for-nothing Irishman and mother of several good-for-nothing half-Irish children. Kate, of course, is smitten with an inappropriate young bachelor - Merton Densher - who is a journalist about to embark on a trip to the United States. That's all. In 57 pages. Plot, Mr. James. It's a thing we do.

Well, all right, to be fair, Merton does go to talk to Aunt Maud to try to convince her to let him marry Kate, but Aunt Maud, who actually seems rather a decent lady, tells him that she thinks Kate has amazing potential, and that it is her due in life to marry a great man. (Why she can't be great on her own, rather than just marrying a great man, is not a subject we'll get into here, but we'll say, for now, that it was Another Time.) That's where we are. Romantic tragedy, coming right up.

James gets 10 points for using the word "penetralia." No, I did not make that up. I'm not sure a word can possible sound more filthy, though, in fact, it just means the most secret places, either of one's soul or a sacred building. But come on! It's like genitalia and penetration put together. Tell me I'm not the only one with my mind in the gutter.


  1. Thank you for refreshing my memory of how whole-mindedly I despise Henry. As I was reading the sentence you chose to illustrate your exceedingly well-made point, I became distracted by conversation from the TV. A conversation which I had found so boring right before I read your sentence that I fired up the computer to see if you had posted today. Henry James' sentence was so stultifyingly MUCH more boring than the TV conversation that I went right back to it in my mind. THAT'S why I abhor HJ!

  2. Also: Not the only one with your mind in the gutter.

  3. Aren't "the most secret places" a little dirty too? Just sayin'.

  4. Kate - so much of religion! so much of taboo! /tiny fist shake! I will say my study of religion would have been much improved by the use of the word 'penetralia.'

    Is there some kind of subtext in the quote that says, "Dude went to whorehouses"? Or is it just to convey that though he was a workaholic he did get out some?



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