I’m Henry James, Bitch!

[If the title of this post leaves you stratching your head, and you have Windows Media Player, watch this.]

I had a terrible introduction to Henry James. I had to work with him on an undergrad short-story assignment. Each student in the class, after calling out a few random numbers, got a sentence from the prof’s pile of books. Everyone was to take the sentence and use it as the start of his or her short story. I had the misfortune of getting an anaconda exceeding 250 words taken right from somewhere in the middle of The Ambassadors.

I tried to find a way out of the tangle of subordinate clauses (and sub-subordinate clauses) and semicolons. The sentence was clear, but who, other than James himself, could keep up that heavy, stately style. I entertained the idea of throwing the Jamesian behemoth between two quotes and starting the following paragraph with “And with that Jane closed her copy of The Ambassadors and went on to something more interesting than reading Henry James.” Cheek, though, wouldn’t help my grade. Instead, I did another kind of violence to the CN train of a sentence; I put periods where the semi-colon were. Not quite instant Hemmingway, but definitely more manageable. I then proceed to write a terribly mediocre story.

Of late, I have had to learn about the novella form. The reason why will remain a closely guarded secret for now; however, the studies can go public. A few writers, including John Gardner, have cited James’ “The Turn of the Screw” as one of the premier examples of the novella. For Gardner, the story’s focus on a single stream of action is exactly how a novella should be written. Fine. Seven years have passed since I had to write like Henry James. Maybe I was ready to at least read him.

The “single stream of action” is impressive. James focuses, almost microscopically, on a governess and her new job taking care of a pair of the most angelic children ever. Into this story, James mixes in ghosts and hysteria. Everything moves along with well managed suspense. Yet even with all these features I wasn’t carried away by the story. I blame those massive and lumbering sentences. Often, like with verse, the meaning of James’ sentences aren’t clear until the very end. Other times, they aren’t clear at all, which struck me as a bit of a rip off. On the surface, James’ long lines seem to be of the same ilk as, say, Jonathan Swift’s—English filtered through Latin to produce well-balanced chains of words and clauses. However, James’ constructions are murky numbers that lack the satirist’s precision. The only defence I can come up with for James’ style is that it is meant to heighten the mystery surrounding the events and demonstrate the questionable state of the governess’ mind. So, fine, I’ll tolerate the cloyingly rich prose as it serves some higher purpose. I might even read some more Henry James, in another seven years.

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