July 18, 2013

Review: "The Europeans" By Henry James

The Europeans is an absolutely delightful novel!  Fun from the first page through the last.  Also, it is really more of a novella and can easily be read in one or two sittings.  The Europeans was written by Henry James in 1878.

The Europeans is actually a 'flip', if you will, in the normal Jamesian plot-line.  In other words, rather than the story of an American expatriate in Europe, this is the tale of two American expats who come back to visit family in New England.  This is the story of Eugenia, the Baroness Munster, and her younger brother Felix Young, who leave Germany because of her disintegrating marriage to a German prince.  They end up moving in with the Wentworths, relatives on their late-mother's side of the family.  I gotta say at this point too, the reader is gonna fall in love with Gertrude Wentworth--pretty much like everyone else in the novel!

Obviously, the staid New England Puritan Wentworths and their neighbors are largely over-awed by their European cousins, but everyone settles in after a bit and 'the good times roll'.  Felix is an artist--a genuine good natured fellow and free spirit--and a big hit among all of his American friends and family.  Eugenia, the Baroness, is a bit more of an enigma, and everyone minces about around her, but she too is actually a good soul.  She ends up being a positive influence on several of the novels more important characters.

Romance abounds among all of the young people, and while it is fun to watch the flowers of love open and blossom, it is also worth following James as he guides the reader through the comparisons and contrasts between the pragmatic European continental sensibilities of Eugenia and Felix, and the fresh, but restrained New England practicalities of the Wentworth son and daughters and the Acton brother and sister.

This a free-spirited, flibbertigibbet novel that asks for nothing more than that the reader sit back and enjoy it.  It ain't deep, it ain't all that serious, it is simply a heck of a good little story that upon finishing you realize that you're very glad that you read it.  And you know what?  I'll read it again sometime.  Solid four of five stars for me!


The Europeans
By Henry James, 1878
Penguin Classics Edition
Softcover, 179 pp.

Review: "Daisy Miller" By Henry James

Henry James is a prismatic kind of fellow with his fiction.  I am beginning to understand that he likes to write about his characters and actions from differing perspectives, and his novella Daisy Miller is certainly an excellent example.  Daisy Miller was written by James in 1878, and first serialized in Cornhill Magazine, edited by Virginia Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen. 

In this short tale, the eponymous Daisy Miller is a wholesome and fresh young American woman on her first tour of Europe with her nine-year old brother, and her mother, who seems to be a bit of a hypochondriac.  In Vevay, Switzerland, Daisy meets an American expatriate, Mr Winterbourne, who is visiting his aunt.  In his late-twenties, Winterbourne becomes quite taken with the vivacious Daisy, and accompanies her on an unchaperoned tour of a nearby castle, drawing words of warning from his aunt.  He encounters Daisy again later in the season in Rome and finds that she is spending much of her time with an Italian young man, much to the chagrin of the American expat community who begin to shun her in society. 

Daisy Miller is all about perceptions and misunderstandings, and it seems that most of them work to the detriment of Daisy and her reputation among the expats.  Winterbourne and the reader eventually do come to terms with Daisy and her 'free-wheeling' way of experiencing life, and come to realize that she is genuinely innocent and is much misunderstood and maligned by the Society wags around her.  The reader eventually realizes that perhaps it is not Daisy that has the problem with societal norms and cultural values, but that the expat definition of appropriate behavior is outdated and out-of-touch with the 'modern' Americans that are now coming over to Europe from places like Daisy's Schenectady, New York.

This is an extremely well-written story that quickly engages the reader, with well-constructed characters, and a fascinating plot that provides a terrific snap-shot of what life must have been like in the latter half of the 19th century for Americans traveling abroad in Europe.  While the ending is somewhat unexpected and sad, it makes the story even more powerful and thought-provoking.  Finally, it is worth mentioning that a wonderful book-end to Daisy Miller is a short story written by Edith Wharton in 1934, entitled Roman Fever.  I strongly recommend reading Wharton's short story once you've completed Henry James's Daisy Miller.


Daisy Miller
By Henry James, 1878
Penguin Classics Edition
Softcover, 128 pp. 

Review: "What Maisie Knew" By Henry James

In the annals of classic fiction I have encountered some truly monstrous parents (some of the parents in Austen or Dickens certainly come to mind), but the mother and father of little Maisie Farange must surely be the worst.  They are truly beyond despicable, and if I could reach into the pages of Henry James's What Maisie Knew, I'd throttle them both!  Okay, now that I've gotten that off of my chest, perhaps I can provide an objective review of this novel.  What Maisie Knew was written by Henry James in 1897, while he was still living in London.

The structure of this sophisticated novel is extraordinarily clever, as the entire plot is laid out from the perspective of the little girl, Maisie (and keep the title of the novel in mind as you read too).  The novel starts off with the parents being granted a divorce and the court awarding that custody of Maisie will be shared.  This poor little girl has to spend six months with her father and then be packed off for six months with her mother.  What is even worse is that the parents use Maisie in their on-going fight-to-the-death with one another, while at the same time they take on new spouses (and then immediately begin adulterous relationships!).  And while Maisie is wise beyond her years and quite perceptive to what is going on around her in the world of the grown-ups that she is surrounded by, much of what she observes has to be interpreted through the lens of the experience of her own childhood and the little bit of love and kindness bestowed upon her from a scant few of the adults--but not her own parents--around her. 

Through the course of the novel Maisie does gravitate to the two characters that do seem offer her the hope and opportunity of kindness, love, and some semblance of stability, and those two characters are her governess, Mrs Wix, and her mother's second ex-husband Sir Claude.  Sir Claude has his own 'bag-of-issues' to deal with, but he is really and truly genuinely concerned about Maisie and her long-term welfare.  He ends being more of father-figure to the little girl, by a long-shot, than her own father did on his very best day.   Ultimately, these two people, whom Maisie trusts with her heart and soul, do end up making the right decisions that give this little girl a chance for a wholesome life.

Finally, it needs to be said that there's much in this novel that can offend modern sensibilities, particularly when it comes to how children are looked after (or not), guardianship issues, or even the exercise of parental responsibilities (or not!).  The reader needs to remember that there weren't governmental agencies like 'Child Protective Services' in Victorian England to provide that safety net for children in Maisie's situation.  Henry James, like Charles Dickens before him, seems to have been much affected by child welfare issues, and I have to think he was trying to make a point here that parental responsibility is a duty and an obligation and that love and a nurturing stable environment are what every child needs and deserves.  As painful as it was to read, I'm glad that I read What Maisie Knew, and look forward to reading it again in the future.  At this point, I would give this 3.5 stars out of five.

But I still want to reach into the pages of this novel and throttle both of her parents!


What Maisie Knew
By Henry James, 1897
Penguin Classics Edition
Softcover, 309 pp.

July 15, 2013

My Summer of Henry James--

As you may have noticed from a number of my recent postings, I have been reading a lot of Henry James this summer.  Typically, every couple of years or so I pick an author and read as much of their oeuvre--in the order written--as I can.  This is an immensely rewarding experience, and each author that I have done this with has ended up becoming a 'favorite' author.  To date, I have done this Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, and Edith Wharton.  This summer I decided to tackle the novels and some of the shorter fiction of Henry James.

I had read some of Henry James's novels when I was a much younger man and in the U.S. Coast Guard in the early 1970s.  And I must confess that I struggled mightily and ultimately gave him up.  Looking back now, I realize that I simply wasn't ready for the writing of the like of Henry James, George Eliot or even Edith Wharton.  I am a much more thoughtful and close reader and now love immersing myself in not only enjoying the novel that I happen to be reading, but endeavoring to understand authorial intent, and how the author and his/her works fit within the literary movements of the day.  I now also read a significant amount of literary biographies and criticism.  All of this enhances and enriches my overall reading experience, makes me better able to recognize and interpret shifts in writing styles, and has made me a much more mature and critical reader overall.

Here is the reading list that I'm working from--

Roderick Hudson (1875)*
The American (1877)*
The Europeans (1878)*
Daisy Miller (1878)
Washington Square (1880)*
The Portrait of a Lady (1881)*
The Bostonians (1886)*
The Princess Casamassima (1886)
The Aspern Papers (1888)*
What Maisie Knew (1897)
The Turn of the Screw (1898)
The Awkward Age (1899)
The Wings of the Dove (1902)
The Ambassadors (1903)
The Golden Bowl (1904)

Those titles followed by an asterisk (*) are novels/novellas that I have read so far this summer, and many of them have been reviewed in recent postings below.  Also, I have acquired most of these novels in hardcover editions as I know that will be revisiting them for the rest of my life.  It was fiendishly difficult to find hardcover editions of some of them, e.g., The Ambassadors, but by diligently browsing on-line I have managed to fill out my library quite nicely.

Additionally, in an effort to complement my summer of all things Jamesian, I have picked up the following two books--

The Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, by Michael Gorra (Liveright, 2012, 416 pp.).  Gorra's book focuses on James and his writing of The Portrait of a Lady.  This book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography in 2013, and comes very highly touted.


The Master, by Colm Toibin (Scribners, 2004, 338 pp.).  Toibin's book is a fictional account of James in Europe at the very height of his creative powers, and also comes highly recommended.

I invite you to stay tuned as I share my reading experiences, and thoughts and observations associated with the novels, novellas and short stories of Henry James.  Perhaps some of my postings will inspire you to read a James novel in the near future, or maybe you'll start a summer reading project with an author that you'd like to get to know better.  So, what are you reading this summer?

Review: "The Portrait of a Lady" By Henry James

One of the most enthralling and enchanting novels that I've read in a long, long time.  The Portrait of a Lady is early Henry James (written in 1881), and as cliche as it may sound, it is a veritable masterpiece.  There is simply so much going on within the covers of this elegantly crafted and sophisticated novel that it will take me a while to sort out my swirling thoughts and emotions upon finishing it.  Simply put though, this is the story of the young American woman, Isabel Archer, and her voyage of self-discovery among the staid and traditional landscape of British and European society.  Isabel's ability to 'choose', and the 'choices' she makes are the thread that is carefully woven throughout the novel, and it raises her stature as a fictional heroine, in my opinion, to the level of that of an Anna Karenina or Dorothea Brooke.  The novel's Chapter Forty-Two--with Isabel, by herself, sitting in the darkened room thinking for most of the night--is perhaps the greatest psychological tour-de-force I've encountered in fiction.  I reread that chapter probably four times in a row, and simply marveled at the creative genius that is Henry James in writing this novel and creating the character of Isabel Archer.  Stunning stuff!

This is an immensely powerful and profound novel that I am going to reread again very soon.  I want to reread it in conjunction with a reading of Michael Gorra's recent book, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, a runner-up for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for biography and autobiography.  Give me a couple of weeks to reread The Portrait of a Lady and Gorra's book, and I'll be back in an effort to provide a more comprehensive review that will do justice to what just may be, in my very humble opinion, the 'Great American Novel'.  There really is ever so much to say about this most amazing novel.  There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the best novels I've read in a couple of years--a genuine classic!  Five of five stars!


The Portrait of a Lady
By Henry James, 1881
Everyman's Library Edition
Hardcover, 672 pp.

Review: "The Reef" By Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton's The Reef was written in 1912 when she was essentially at her very best as a novelist, and I think her powers are quite evident in this engaging tale.  Also, this is a very theatrical story that I personally think would lend itself very well to a stage adaptation.  The book could just as easily have been entitled, The Chateau, as basically three-quarters of the novel takes place within the confines of Mrs Anna Leath's French estate, Givre.

This is the story of romantic relationships, double-standards and consequences among four Americans in Europe just before the First World War, and the entire plot turns on the things said and unsaid among the four protagonists.  Wharton, through the course of the novel, puts the reader squarely inside the mind and emotions of each of the four characters.  Consequently, it becomes hard to say with any certainty that this person is right, or that that person is wrong.  It is simply a "Human Story" and mistakes are made by each in turn, and this reader found it damnably difficult to side with one over the other.  Another element that I found intriguing is that Wharton only gives the reader the barest amount of background information about each of the characters throughout the book, as she wants the reader to focus on and fully experience the emotional crisis and psychological struggle that each is undergoing as the tale plays out.

While devastatingly painful to read at times, The Reef is an insightful portrait of the interactions among the men and women of "Society" at the beginning of the 20th century.  In some respects the moral ambiguity and dilemmas faced by Wharton's characters in The Reef really have not changed all that much--people still fall in love, deception still occurs, and feelings still mean everything.  When done with the book, one can't help but realize that Wharton's title--The Reef--is spot-on.  The challenge that each of us faces as we move through life is to sail carefully, but exuberantly, and avoid crashing on the reefs that will always be perilously close.  I am so glad to have read this and look forward to picking it up again sometime.  I unhesitatingly award this novel four of five stars.


The Reef
By Edith Wharton, 1912
Everyman's Library Edition
Hardcover, 290 pp.

Review: "The Touchstone" By Edith Wharton

I just finished reading The Touchstone again, in conjunction with reading Henry James's The Aspern Papers.  I believe that The Touchstone may have been Wharton's first published work of fiction too.

The novella tells the story of Stephen Glennard a youngish gentleman of New York's upper-crust society who is trying to find the financial wherewithal to marry his fiance, Miss Alexa Trent.  Sitting in his club one evening he encounters an advertisement from a Professor Joslin who is looking for any papers and correspondence from the late author, Miss Margaret Aubyn.  Miss Aubyn just happens to be the woman that Glennard had had a long-term intimate relationship with almost up until she died a few years earlier.

In short order, the reader discovers that Glennard has bundles and bundles of very personal letters that he received from Miss Aubyn during the course of their relationship.  He then decides to have them published, and the two-volumes become a huge literary hit with the reading public.

As people begin reading the volumes, particular those in Glennard's circle of friends, he finds out that most people are frankly appalled that anyone would expose these intimate letters to public scrutiny. It is not long before Glennard himself begins to doubt his own motives for publishing the letters, and it begins to negatively impact his own relationship with his now wife, Alexa.  In fact, they've even bought themselves a nice little house on the outskirts of New York City with the riches he's gained by selling the letters.  Even Alexa--who doesn't know that these intimate letters were addressed to Glennard, or that he's sold them--is basically horrified that anyone could be so callous and black-hearted as to open this incredibly personal window into Miss Aubyn's heart and soul.

For much of the novella the story revolves around the struggle and tension between Glennard's desire to do right and provide a meaningful income and life for his new wife, and the increasing guilt he is feeling for his betrayal of his former relationship with Miss Aubyn.  It builds to an important and emotionally powerful climactic scene involving Glennard and Alexa.

I suggest that a reading of Edith Wharton's The Touchstone can be significantly enhanced by first reading Henry James's The Aspern Papers (1888).  The topics of personal privacy, betrayal, trust, and the role of literary biographers and academic research are really front-and-center in both novellas.  Which is perhaps not all that surprising considering that Edith Wharton and Henry James not only knew each other well, but became very good friends.  Finally, The Touchstone truly is a most excellent introduction to the fiction of Edith Wharton, the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1921, for her novel, The Age of Innocence (1920).


The Touchstone
By Edith Wharton, 1900
Aegypan Press
Softcover, 124 pp. 

Review: "The Aspern Papers" By Henry James

The Aspern Papers is a brilliant novella written by Henry James and serialized in the Atlantic in 1888.  In short, The Aspern Papers is the story of an academic researcher, the novella's narrator, on the trail of bundles of personal letters and writings of a long-dead American poet, 'Jeffrey Aspern'.  Apparently, these letters and papers are in the possession of a very old woman, Miss Juliana Bordereau, who lives with her middle-aged niece in an old rambling palazzo in a shabbier part of Venice.  Our narrator rents a room from the women under false pretenses and endeavors to elicit the aid of the niece in discovering the whereabouts of the papers.  He is not above using deceit and artifice in ingratiating himself with the women.  It is clear from the outset that he is obsessed and consumed with obtaining the papers--he calls them his "spoils"--and cares little for the old woman's privacy or the memories of her lost love.

This is a creepy read, and one can't help but sympathize with the poor lonely middle-aged niece, Miss Tina, and even for the ancient Miss Juliana who lives for the memories of her love affair with Aspern.  It becomes altogether uncomfortable for the reader as the narrator emotionally and psychologically manipulates the niece into becoming his accomplice in trying to find and acquire the papers.  Frankly, the ending of the tale is incredibly satisfying to my mind.

I think the point that James is trying to make in this novella is that there really is quite the moral dilemma when it comes to personal privacy and the pursuit of information for intellectual or commercial purposes.  In other words, if an author or poet becomes famous and well-read, the question becomes just how much of their life becomes fair game, if you will, for future biographers, researchers, and so forth?  It is a tough question for sure. 

As I read The Aspern Papers, I realized that other authors have written about this dilemma as well.  For example, Edith Wharton's superb novella, The Touchstone, written in 1900 revolves around a man who sells bundles of very intimate personal letters he received from a former lover who was also a very famous author.  A.S. Byatt sort of gets to this same point with correspondence between two fictional Victorian poets in her Booker Prize winning novel, Possession (1990).  Towards this end then, if you read The Aspern Papers, I strongly urge you to immediately follow it up with a read of Wharton's The Touchstone.  It is a wonderful way to link the two novellas, and is made even more meaningful in that Henry James and Edith Wharton spent much time together and became very good friends.


The Aspern Papers & The Turn of the Screw
By Henry James
Penguin Classics Edition
Softcover, 272

Review: "Washington Square" By Henry James

Some truly monstrous fathers can be found among the great works of fiction.  Shakespeare's King Lear and Titus Andronicus certainly come to mind, or Hardy's 'Michael Henchard', and 'Laius of Thebes' may be the worst of the lot.  Having just finished reading Henry James's Washington Square I am now fully prepared to add Doctor Austin Sloper to my top-ten list of 'Worst Fathers of Fiction'.

Washington Square is a short novel (more a novella) by Henry James written in 1880, and is really an excellent introduction to the fiction of James.  The novel is set in the New York City of the mid-19th century, and is the story of the courting of Dr. Sloper's only living child, Catherine, by a handsome young man, Morris Townsend.  Catherine is, according to her father, "a dull, plain girl", but she is very, very rich.  The plot largely revolves around Townsend's efforts to win Catherine's hand in marriage; the Doctor's efforts to thwart the attachment; and the meddling interference of Catherine's busy-body aunt, Lavinia Penniman.  During the course of the courtship the reader is exposed to the monstrosity of Dr. Sloper, and begins to question the motives of Morris Townsend, and most importantly we witness the maturation of Catherine Sloper.

Some authors paint the landscapes of their fictional world and insert their characters and the plot into it, but James takes an entirely different approach.  Henry James portrays the psychological landscape of his characters' minds with his words.  However, he throws a wrinkle into the mix as his narrator is neither omniscient nor completely reliable.  In other words, much of the time the reader knows as little or as much as the characters themselves in the novel.  It is almost as though the reader is sitting in the parlor listening to the conversations, but maybe is only able to comprehend half of what is said.

Read this book slowly and carefully, and try and place yourself in the the thoughts and emotions of each of the protagonists and you'll find that your perceptions sharpen and you're able to detect the psychological nuances that influence the tale's outcome.  I'm of the mind that this is a story to read and reread and continually discover new and important insights.  James seems to prefer to exercise his readers and that is perhaps not altogether a bad thing.  A solid four out of five stars for me.


Washington Square
By Henry James, 1880
Everyman's Library Edition
Hardcover, 232 pp.

Review: "Roderick Hudson" By Henry James

While Roderick Hudson was Henry James's second published novel (Watch and Ward being the first and serialized in The Atlantic Monthly in 1871), he always considered Roderick Hudson his "first novel".  James also freely admitted that Roderick Hudson was his take on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun (1860). 

I went into this book with my eyes wide open and ended up loving it.  This is early James and is completely accessible to any and all readers.  It is, in my humble opinion, a bit of a Byronic--and an almost Gothic--tale that hits on several themes.  First, there's the comparison and contrast between the Old World cultural values of Europe and the New World values of the American expatriate community.  Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, this novel felt very autobiographical in that both the eponymous 'Roderick Hudson' and the novel's other primary protagonist, 'Rowland Mallet', seem to represent the author at various times in his literary life.  This novel really seemed to be the story of the battle--the constant tension--between the Artist and the Muse; and I have to really wonder if this really isn't Henry James pouring his heart and soul out upon every page.

We've all known artistic people like 'Roderick Hudson', and we care for 'em to the very best of our ability.  Sadly though, artistic geniuses like them burn 'hot', and there's just not much that can be done; whether its a Kurt Cobain, a Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Vincent Van Gogh, Egon Schiele, Lizzie Siddal, John Keats, or even a Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  The candle burns hot, gutters, and then its out.  Roderick Hudson is just such a story.  Strange as it may sound, this novel pulsed and throbbed with passion and emotion like that found in the fiction of one of the Bronte sisters or even Mary Shelley.

For a 'first' novel--at least from James's perspective--this is an engaging and durable plot that completely hooks the reader.  The novel also serves as a terrific travelogue as the protagonists travel throughout much of Europe highlighting the experiences of the American nouveau riche and brashness among the Old World European sensibilities.  Who's right?  Who's wrong?  Well, you can gain some perspective on this question through reading about the experiences of Rowland Mallet and Roderick Hudson in this wonderful example of Henry James's early fiction.  If you're just coming to the fiction of Henry James, Roderick Hudson is truly an excellent novel to start with.


Roderick Hudson
By Henry James
Penguin Classics Edition
Softcover, 398 pp.