THE BOSTONIANS is a very upsetting novel

{4B50CF5F-8FA6-498C-B04F-E71C602F0409}Img400I’ve read some really gory and awful books (The Naked Lunch and I Was Dora Suarez being amongst the worst), but I’ve rarely read a book as upsetting as this Henry James book I just finished: The Bostonians. Nor have I read a character who I hated as much as its male lead: Basil Ransom. He’s unbelievably awful! Like a Mr. Darcy but with no sense of integrity. The thing that made Pride and Prejudice so wonderful was that Darcy’s love for Elizabeth vitiated his bad qualities and allowed the good in him to win out. But The Bostonians presents a truer and less romantic picture of a man whose love–and he is, unquestionably, in love–does not redeem him.

The book centers around three characters: Olive Chanceller, a fierce young Bostonian who is really into feminist causes; Verrena Tarrant, an ingenue who falls into Olive’s orbit; and Basil Ransom, Olive’s cousin from Mississippi. Verrena is more open-hearted and vibrant and innocent than Olive, but she’s also blessed with tremendous skill as an orator: she’s able to make people feel the rightness of her cause in a way that Olive can’t. And Olive, overawed, more or less falls in love with her (the book demands a queer reading) and pays off Verrena’s father so that he sends his daughter to live with Olive as her mentee.

Basil, meanwhile, is an unrepentent chauvinist. He believes that a woman’s greatest joy is to make men happy. But he’s also in love with Verrena. But rather than bend an inch in his beliefs, he spends the entire book trying to convince her to give up her beliefs in order to be with him and (SPOILER ALERT)…………..

…………he succeeds!

At the end of the book, Verrena leaves behind a crowded concert hall, packed with Bostonians who want to her, and goes with Ransom. It’s awful.

But it’s also very true. Even in 2016, the prevailing attitude of the day, amongst women, is that their aims in life should be subordinate to their husband’s. It might not be phrased that way–they might not even consciously think about it that way–but whenever there is a compromise in a relationship that must be made, it’s more often the woman who makes it. And that’s in a time when the equality of the sexes is an accepted truth. So how much more true must it have been in 1884? Henry James portrays it vividly: the relief at not having to be a hero; the relief of going with the conventional wisdom. It’s a relief that’s made all the more powerful when love enters the picture, and when everything in your heart starts to tell you that this person is the most important human being on the planet.

What makes the novel more uncomfortable is that you’re never sure how Henry James views these proceedings. This novel is more dry and distant than any other of his that I’ve read. And all the characters come in for mockery. In the beginning, the feminists seem to take the worst part of it. They’re portrayed as shrewish, loud, self-obsessed, and ineffectual, while Basil has the cynic’s usual advantage: you can’t successfully mock him, because he’s the first to mock himself.

As the book goes on, the feminists are portrayed in a kinder light. There’s one, Ms. Birdsall, in particular–an aged former Abolitionist–who shines out as a particularly gentle and courageous soul. Not a saint, exactly, since she at times seems ridiculous–particularly when it comes to the shine she’s taken to Basil–but she also seems good. And there’s Dr. Prance, a female medical doctor who is not a feminist–she cares too much for her work to be swayed too much by causes–but whose life is a testament to the power that women have.

And yet still…you’re never quite sure where Henry James stands. The book would be an easier thing to take if it was one hundred percent a satire: if Henry James was saying, look at this thing that happens–a woman abandoning her beliefs for the sake of a man–and look at how terrible a thing it is. But he never comes out and says anything like that. So instead all we’re left with is, “Look at this thing that happens…”

Henry James can really spin a yarn

51P1X4ZoY+LFinished reading the first volumes of Knausgaard’s epic and of Elena Ferrante’s tetralogy, which were both great. Both are mannered novels and are concerned, in my opinion, with delicate social relationships as they take place within a very tight-knit society (in Knausgaard’s case, his family, and in Ferrante’s, the few city blocks that constitute her narrator’s entire world). And for some reason after finishing these books I had a strong desire to read some Henry James. So I picked up Daisy Miller, which is a novella of his I’ve been meaning to read for years.

James and I have a complicated relationship. I’ve always wanted to love him more than I actually have. He’s so very much the kind of thing that I love: a writer concerned primarily with people and social relationships, and a careful observer of human psychology (two things that don’t necessarily go together, strange as it may seem, in a novelist–Evelyn Waugh for instance, at least in most of his novels, seems more concerned with describing the nature of relationships than with examining the causes and effects behind human actions).

And I’ve enjoyed a number of Henry James novels, but the only one I’ve loved was Washington Square, and that is, famously, the least Jamesian of all his books. I have all the usual complaints about James. His characters and his settings are so bloodless. His world is too small. The novels have no room for the passions. And I find his sentences to be tediously long. I don’t think he needs to be edited down. I think he’s a great writer and that he writes long for a reason, but that doesn’t mean that I enjoy reading them.

Anyway all of the above is basically an aside, since Daisy Miller is early James and, as such, is about as readable as any other 19th century novelist. And it contains so much of what makes him a great writer. The novella is about a young American man, Mr. Winterbourne, who lives off inherited wealth in Switzerland. And he encounters a girl, Daisy Miller, who is the daughter of some businessman in Schenectady, and who, with her mother, is whiling her life away in Europe.

From the beginning, Mr. Winterbourne is struck by Daisy Miller’s lack of concern for social propriety. She doesn’t seem fast. She doesn’t drink or smoke or have affairs or do anything else that would place her firmly outside the pale, but she’s also not careful of her reputation. She speaks freely, and she goes around unchaperoned with men.

And that’s the novella. The people around Daisy are like, err, maybe you should be careful, and she’s like, Nope, I’m gonna do what I want!

Which is a pretty small story, but you’re hooked, because James sells it. Even in 1878, most women weren’t hothouse flowers. They went out in public. They walked around alone. They spoke to strange men. This is exactly the time in history when the old mores were breaking down; when people were moving to the city; when women were finding work. But he still sells you on the idea that amongst these people, in this place, what Daisy was doing was unthinkable. And he makes you frightened for her. What’s going to happen to her? And even more, he keeps you right on the edge in terms of your sympathies. Is she vibrant and free? Or merely frivolous? Should we be outraged on her behalf?

And now I want to read more James! Definitely not late James though. My last foray into James was Wings of the Dove, which is an immensely long book that bored me so tremendously I gave up halfway through (actually it was about this time last year). So not that. But something! I’m thinking The Bostonians.

Just began my first-ever foray into late Henry James

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!1294819

A story doesn’t really need more than atmosphere and detail

productimage-picture-the-human-comedy-352Now that I’ve gone through Edith Wharton and Henry James, I decided to venture into the Continent, so I started reading this Balzac short story collection. What I appreciate about Balzac is that he’s one of the first authors to really pay attention to the specifics of things. For instance, in the very first short story, the narrator gets invited to the wedding of the cousin of the woman who cleans his apartment, and he notes that the wedding was on the second floor of a wine distributor’s warehouse, and that it consisted of about 80 people, and then he noted the decorations and the entertainment. That is really interesting stuff, but most authors of that period wouldn’t tell you about it. They’d just be like…it was a wedding.

Balzac, famously, thought it was his mission to capture the entirety of contemporary society, so there are entire stories here whose purpose is just to capture some sort of phenomena. For instance, the second story is just an account of an evening at a Paris salon during the Restoration era. One attendee tells a story about how he became disillusioned when his first love cheated on him. Another goes into an extended inquisition on the nature of modern womanhood. A third riffs about the character of Napoleon. And a fourth tells a dark, Gothic tale. And I loved it! For the first time I felt like I really understood what the appeal of a salon was. It was to be daring, and to shock your contemporaries, but not by arguing with them–the point is to be both elevated and light at the same time.

And I was impressed. There was story, of course. And there was theme and character. But more than anything there was atmosphere and detail. And I feel like that by itself is a pretty worthwhile reason to write a story.

Three Books, Six Paragraphs: Drop City, Framley Parsonage, and The American

Drop City by T.C. Boyle – A novel about a fictionalized 1960’s utopian community that starts off somewhere in Sonoma county and ends up in backcountry Alaska. Ever since I read Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, I’ve been meaning to read another commune novel. I’m still fascinated by communes and am on occasion somewhat disappointed that I never went that route in life. I know, my Synergy friends will probably be shocked by that, given how dismissive I was of 1960s utopian visions. But you know what? Peace and love and vegetarianism and kombucha and home-brewed beer and tie-dye and oneness with the universal spirit are not the real draw of the communal lifestyle; the draw is a lifestyle that involves a lot of day-to-day freedom and very little work.

Of course, the ‘very little work’ part is what brought many communes down, and I think that Drop City does a good job of showing the conflicting impulses that are at work here. But Boyle sort of shies away from condemning the whole affair. It’s a very interesting book. It’s also one of the most ostentatiously well-written and dense books that I’ve read in awhile. Boyle is clearly very interested in the stuffness of life: he cares about how people do things and what they’re wearing and where they live and a hundred and one other tiny little details. If I’d written this book, it would’ve been only half as long. But in Boyle’s hands, I kind of enjoyed it.

Framley Parsonage ­by Anthony Trollope – I’ve never read a Trollope book that was as good as The Warden (which has rapidly become, in hindsight, one of my favorite novels). But his other novels are at least good enough to keep me reading. All Trollope novels have, at their center, some really stupid love plot. In this case, it’s the fact that the mother of the local lord doesn’t want him to marry the parson’s sister. On a sidenote,  this was the exact same plot as Doctor Thorne, except that the parson was a doctor and the sister was his adopted daughter. But at least in Doctor Thorne, the whole thing more sense because the lord’s family was penurious and needed him to marry into wealth. Here, the mother’s prejudice against the daughter is fairly blind.

But if you can look past the stupid love plots, then, in my opinion, Trollope’s got everything that a person could want in a novel. All his characters are hilarious, well-drawn, and somewhat realistic. And, best of all, Trollope always shows you where the money is! For him, pretty much everything in the world is driven by money (and idiotic love). For instance, one clergyman is prideful and intensely resentful of the other clergy because his living is so tiny. Another clergyman has gotten all puffed-up and reckless because he’s come into a fairly rich living (800 pounds) at a very young age (26 or so). And there’s this member of Parliament who’s lived for thirty years by accumulating more and more and more debt. And there’s his sister, a well-connected politician’s wife, who schemes in order to try to get him. The best scene in the book is the one where the MP’s sister goes out and proposes marriage, on his behalf (because he’s such a chickenshit) to a wealthy heiress. I can’t actually recommend this book to you though, because it’s the fourth in the series. Seriously, though, guys…just go out and read The Warden. It’s like 70,000 words long and it contains everything that is good and right with the world.

The American by Henry James – For the past two months, I’ve been making a stealthy sidewise assault on Henry James. On paper, he seems perfect for me. Like my other faves, Edith Wharton and Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope and Emile Zola, he writes novels that are intensely concerned with money and social position. However, his writing style is known for being a bit baroque and I know that my reading taste is heavily reliant on first impressions. If I have a bad first experience with an author, I often forgo them entirely. Thus, I had to be sneaky. I started with his most accessible novel, Washington Square, which was fantastic (it’s about a father who plays cruel psychological games on his somewhat plain daughter when a man tries to marry her). Then I dipped into the novellas, reading The Beast in the Jungle and The Aspern Paper. I was going to move on to Daisy Miller and Turn of the Screw, but I decided to make a bold advance back into novel territory.

Nor am I unhappy that I did so. The American was excellent. It’s about an American industrialist who moves to France and tries to woo a Countess. The love object is a bit insipid, but I loved the industrialists’ bromantic friendship with the countess’ brother. And I thought that the industrialist was portrayed in a surprisingly sympathetic manner. He is kind of a rough-hewn Benjamin Franklin who wows French society with his strength and sense of purpose. It’s not what you expect to see. Normally, in novels, I expect industrialists (even when sympathetically portrayed) to be Huckleberry Finns: people who are reflexively allergic to the finer things in life. For instance, in Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady and Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth (which bears many similarities to The American), the industrialist figures are definitely crippled by their encounters with civilization.