I’ve read a fair amount of Henry James in my life: The American, Washington Square, Portrait of a Lady,and a few of the novellas. But I’ve always bounced off of his later books–Wings of the Dove; The Ambassador; and The Golden Bowl–because the writing is so dense and so involved that I lose track of sentences before I get to the end. Take, for instance, the first setence of Wings of the Dove:
“She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.”
Within that one sentence, there’s both description, movement, and (both figurative and literal) self-reflection. That’s a lot to parse!
Recently, though, I’ve discovered that it’s much easier to read densely-written prose if I just switch the line-spacing on my Kindle to double-spaced. The difference is, honestly, pretty immense. It’s almost to the point where it feels like I’ve gained a superpower–within the course of a few days, I’ve suddenly become able to comprehend and enjoy much more difficult texts. I have no idea whether this would work for everyone, or if it’s just a function of my brain and my eyesight. There’s also the possibility that it’s a short-term thing: maybe the unfamiliar view causes my eyes to slow down and pay more attention, but eventually I’ll get used to it and the improvement will go away (similar to how car crashes in Finland–or was it Norway?–went down in the months after they switched from driving on the left to driving on the right, but eventually went up again after people got used to the change and started driving carelessly again.
So, long story short, I’m reading Wings of the Dove. I like it a lot! What I’d never realized about James (until recently) was that he has MUCH more psychological insight than most authors. For instance, in the very first scene of the book, a young woman, Kate Croy, goes to her dissipate father and offers to take care of him. She doesn’t like or respect him, but she’s looking for an excuse to abandon the aunt who wants to take her in and marry her to a wealthy, eligible man. It’s a very subtle action. You can see, from the way she talks and thinks, that she’s not capable of just abandoning her aunt. She needs, in some way, to be able to martyr herself. And even though she dislikes her father, she needs to be able to use him as a pretext.
The book isn’t exactly slow going (in fact I’m racing through it), but it can be awfully distant at times. It’s very different both from modern novels, which are so embedded in the voice of the protagonist, and from Victorian novels, where you can always hear the warm voice of the narrator. In this book, the narrative voice is very cold and very distant. Anyway, more on this later!