Thursday, March 27, 2008

Wings of the Dove

I finally finished the evil Wings of the Dove this morning. In fact, I got up early just to read the last ten pages before work, so I wouldn’t have to drag the book around another day. It went immediately onto the Abandoned Books pile…along with three other Henry James books that I had acquired before realizing that I dislike him more than any other author.

The Wings of the Dove is the story of Kate Croy and Merton Densher. Kate and Merton want to get married, but Merton is penniless, and Kate’s family want to see her marry someone with a little money. Along comes American Milly Theale, who met Merton when he visited New York on a business trip. Milly is rich…and she is dying. Kate also discovers that Milly has a thing for Merton. So, Kate hatches an idea: Merton is to pretend that he’s interested in Milly so that she will hopefully leave him at least part of her fortune when she croaks. Then, Merton will be rich and he can marry Kate.

This plan both does and does not work out the way that Kate anticipated. Milly finds out that Kate and Merton are engaged, and Merton refuses to deny it outright because he feels that to do so would be to betray Kate. This causes Milly to give up on life and accept death. Around the time of her death, Merton receives a letter from Milly. He wants Kate to open it. They are sure that it will state that Milly has left Merton some an inheritance despite their deception. Kate flings the letter into the fire. A few months later, Merton receives an envelope full of money from America, which he forwards to Kate. It's a test of sorts, and the fact that she opened it disappoints Merton. He wants to be free of the deception, as he was never really comfortable with it and only participated to please Kate. He gives Kate an ultimatum: marry him without the money, or take the money and be free of him. In other words: Merton wants Kate to marry him because of who he is, not because he has money - to go back to the way it was before Milly. But Kate asserts that it will never be that way again.

I will admit that this novel wasn't as bad as The Ambassadors. But as I said in a previous post, that's not really saying much. For the most part, I was able to discern the plot of Wings of the Dove, which is more than I can say for The Ambassadors. I have come to the conclusion that reading Henry James is like watching a movie through a very thick fog. I cannot really articulate it any better than that. It's like watching a movie through some mist which clouds everything, so that you can see movement, and you can hear dialog, but somehow it just isn't clear.

This book draws parallels with other pieces of literature, the most striking being Vanity Fair and Sister Carrie. The ending of WotD was very Sister Carrie-esque: the characters spend an entire novel trying to get to a certain goal only to find that reaching the goal wasn't what they thought it would be...the grass isn't always greener. Kate Croy reminded me very much of Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair. But while Becky Sharp is a character that is clear and pointed, Kate Croy is nebulous. I had written in response to Sister Carrie that one could tell the difference between a good novel with despicable characters and a mediocre one based on one's response to the character, and WotD definately fits into the mediocre category.

Henry James apparently went through three phases of writing, which are lovingly (I'm sure) called James the First, James the Second, and the Old Pretender. James the First culminated with The Portrait of a Lady (1881), meaning that The Americans, The Europeans, Daisy Miller and Washington Square are part of his apprentice years characterized as simple and direct (obviously the antithesis of his later period). James the Second runs until approximately 1897 during which he focused on short stories and plays. The Turn of the Screw fits into this period, as does What Maisie Knew and The Bostonians. The rest of literary career is as the Old Pretender, which is of course the period that includes the three novels on the Modern Library list: The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl. This period is characterized by "frequent double negatives and complex descriptive imagery. Single for page after page, in which an initial noun [is] succeeded by pronouns surrounded by clouds of adjectives and prepositional clauses, far from their original referents, and verbs [are] deferred and then preceded by a series of adverbs. The overall effect could be a vivid evocation of a scene as perceived by a sensitive observer." Note that the overall effect "could be" a vivid evocation... it could be, I suppose - but it isn't. Or maybe I'm just not a sensitive observer. If one must be a sensitive observer to enjoy, or at least understand, James's Old Pretender phase, I proudly proclaim that I am not a sensistive observer.

This phasing of James's writing career could explain why I, at one point in time, enjoyed The Turn of the Screw. Yes, I admitted it - I did at one point in time enjoy that particular story. Perhaps all is not lost for Daisy Miller, Washington Square, or The Portrait of a Lady. Or maybe I should give up.

The Telegraph quotes H.G. Wells on Henry James: "His vast paragraphs sweat and struggle; they could not sweat and elbow and struggle more if God himself was the processional meaning to which they sought to come. And all for tales of nothingness It is leviathan retrieving pebbles. It is a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, upon picking up a pea which has got into a corner of its den. Most things, it insists, are beyond it, but it can, at any rate, modestly, and with an artistic singleness of mind, pick up that pea." The article also says that Thomas Hardy once referred to James as Polonius of English Prose. "...surely the Polonius jibe was a very palpable hit? "More matter and less art" is exactly what any honest reader must sometimes wish to scream at the Old Pretender." EXACTLY!

The Telegraph also describes The Golden Bowl as a "dense" novel. Great...something to look forward to! Two down, one to go.

One last note: I had problems finding websites about WotD (the novel at least...there is a plethora of them about the movie, which seems to have taken some liberties with the novel). The only one I could find is here.

In summary, WotD wasn’t as painful as The Ambassadors, and that’s about its only redeeming quality. I got a call yesterday from the library that my interlibrary loan is in – Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man. It must be the universe’s reward for finishing WotD.

1 comment:

Payson Howard said...

I have about 100 pages left to read in this book - could not agree more. I love it that you are reading the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. I have also been doing that...since 2000! I still have 30 left to read. Just finished "The Death of the Heart" - not bad - especially compared to Henry James. So sorry to hear that you hated "The Ambassadors" more - that was supposed to be my next book. The thought of two Henry James in a row overwhelming. Think I'll read "Go Tell It on the Mountain" instead.