Lost Girl

I read a lot of genre fiction, but I’ve never quite had the patience to read literature. Read half of The Great Gatsby, lost interest. Read maybe a third of Tristram Shandy, lost interest. Tried Ulysses, didn’t get far. Liked Dickens, but Dickens was popular fiction, in his own day, in his own way.

Deciding to up my game, I sat down this week and actually read an entire novel by Henry James from start to finish. This is rather an accomplishment; even people who admire James will admit, if pressed, that at times his prose is nearly impenetrable. His sentences are long, laden with detours in the form of embedded clauses, and studded with abstract nouns whose point of reference is likely to be less than clear. If your eye skips past the word “as” early in the sentence, the grammar will fall apart on you. You’ll have to go back and read it again, more carefully this time. Also, there’s the pronoun problem. Two women and a girl are sitting at a table having lunch, and James is likely to use “she” or “her” quite casually, without troubling about the antecedent of the pronoun. He knew who he meant. If you don’t know, he leaves it up to you to puzzle it out.

His prose style has been compared to impressionist painting, but I’m not sure I buy that comparison. Granted, he’s often vague to the point of being gauzy, but I don’t think he was trying to be vague. I think he was trying to be absolutely precise, and in his own mind succeeding.

James was homosexual, and came of age during the Civil War in the U.S., at a time when it was simply impossible to be open about such things. He was also keenly perceptive and very, very bright. My guess about his prose is that from an early age he knew that it was unwise and unsafe to express his feelings, and for that reason developed the firm habit of processing the feelings through his intellect before allowing them to be seen or heard. When he tries to be precise about the emotions in a given scene, he calls on this habit in its most erudite form, and the result is almost to hide the emotions from the reader. Certainly to hide them from any but the most patient and attentive reader.

I have James’s complete works on Kindle. It was a free download; I don’t remember from where. The file opened to What Maisie Knew, so I read that.

It’s a painful downer of a story. Maisie is six years old at the start of the novel, and James doesn’t trouble about the exact chronology of the story; by the end she may be nine or ten. All of the adults in Maisie’s life are either self-involved or, in the case of the governess, Mrs. Wix, appallingly narrow-minded. Maisie gets batted around like a tennis ball. She has no friends her own age. The adults don’t trouble to explain to her what’s really going on. They’re all having affairs, that’s what’s going on, but of course in the Victorian era nobody was going to explain that to a little girl. The story is told from Maisie’s point of view, so the reader has to work it out. That part isn’t too tricky.

Sometimes the adults use Maisie for their own selfish ends. Sometimes they talk over her head and expect her to understand subtle implications of Victorian morality that are far beyond her. In the final scene, they demand that she choose which of them she will stay with — and of course she makes the wrong choice, because they’ve left her no choice at all. The end.

It’s creepy. It reminds me of the scene at the end of Chinatown where the old man leads the girl away, though without the sexual implication. Maisie isn’t a sexual victim, but she’s a social and emotional victim, which in my view is almost as bad. She’s a victim of Victorian morality and a bunch of spectacularly heedless adults — and it’s not entirely clear, at least from my first reading, that James even disapproved of that. He may have meant something entirely different by the story than what a modern reader sees.

I should probably try to find an essay online that would give me more insight into the story, but it’s so distasteful I’m not sure I want to wallow in it any further. I’d rather have another fling at Tristram Shandy.

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