Category Archives: Literary Fiction

Such Constant Attention: Some initial thoughts on The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

William Gass astutely describes the literary style of Henry James, “If any of us were as well taken care of as the sentences of Henry James, we would never long for another, never wander away; where else would we receive such constant attention, our thoughts anticipated, our feelings understood?”   As I was struggling to decide which title on my list of  epic books to read first, I opened up a few of them and read a paragraph or two.  After reading only a page of The Portrait of a Lady I knew exactly what Gass was talking about. That’s not to say that some of the other books on my list didn’t appeal, but the language of  The Portrait of a Lady struck me as so  meticulous and precise that I was immediately drawn in:

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony know as afternoon tea.  There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not—some people of course never do—the situation is in itself delightful.  Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime.  The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon.  Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality.

I also noticed, and was delighted by, James’s droll sense of humor.  Mr. and Mrs. Touchett, ex-pats from the United States,  have been married for many years, most of which they have lived apart.  It is clear that the couple has not had a successful or happy marriage, and Mrs. Touchett’s reasons for not staying in London with her husband are trite and hilarious:

Mrs. Touchett indulged in no regrets nor speculations, and usually came once a year to spend a month with her husband, a period during which she apparently took pains to convince him that she had adopted the right system.  She was not fond of the English style of life, and had three or four reasons for it to which she currently alluded;  they bore upon minor points of that ancient order, but for Mrs. Touchett they amply justified non-residence.  She detested bread-sauce, which, as she said, looked like a poultice and tasted like soap; she objected to the consumption of beer by her maidservants; and she affirmed that the British laundress (Mrs. Touchett was very particular about the appearance of her linen) was not a mistress of her art.

These seem like rather trivial reasons to reject living in a country.  I have to admit that, although I’ve never heard of or had bread-sauce, after looking at photos and recipes it does seem rather unappetizing.

Finally, James’s contrast of American versus British customs, attitudes and characters I found most compelling.  He often lingers on the habits, speech and physiognomy of his American characters.  My impression, so far, is that the English are traditional, reserved, quiet, and, perhaps, a bit uptight.  The Americans, especially in the form of the heroine Isabel Archer, possess a great deal more candor, are less interested in social classes, and, in general, are a bit more carefree.  Isabel, who has been brought to London from New York by her Aunt Touchett after the death of her parents,  is intelligent, speaks on a variety of interesting topics, is well-read, and English men like Lord Warburton, when they first encounter Isabel,  find her more appealing than her British counterparts:  “Lord Warburton was left standing with Ralph Touchett, to whom in a moment he said: ‘You wished a while ago to see my idea of an interesting woman.  There it is!'”

On a rather tangential note, I visited the Frederic Malle store in Manhattan and had the chance to sample his famous Portrait of a Lady scent.  It is spicy, sensual and exotically intriguing.  It is unclear whether or not the scent was inspired by James’s novel or character, but the description of the scent, I think, can be equally applied to what I already know about Isabel: “A rare symphonic perfume appeared: a new oriental rose, a sensuous beauty that attracts people like a magnet, a modern classic: Portrait of a Lady.”

 

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How Always Alone: Nothing but the Night by John Williams

Published in 1948, Nothing but the Night is John Williams’s, little known about, first novel.  It takes place over the course of a single day in the life of twenty-three year old Arthur Maxley who has suffered a very traumatic experience in his childhood.  When we first meet Arthur, he is alone in his apartment—he is most often alone—and after a night of solitary drinking and reading is just waking up from a dream.  The story is intense and suspenseful from the very beginning as Williams slowly reveals the tragedy Arthur has suffered in his early life.  By slowing down time in his narrative, we are given a realistic glimpse into Arthur’s fractured and damaged mind.  For instance, Arthur forces himself to get out of bed and take a walk in the park, but never actually makes it to the park because he goes into at a seedy diner.  The vivid and startling description of his breakfast is a clue that Arthur is truly suffering:

From the chipped blue plate, the egg stared up at him like a knowing, evil eye.  At first, he was amused by the fancy; but as he stared longer and as the yellow eye glared back at him, he became acutely uncomfortable.  He blinked rapidly.

And still the yellow pupil stared senselessly at him from its greasy white orb.  He reached for the bottle of Tabasco sauce and poured a bit of the fiery red liquid on the eye.  As if it were suddenly irritated beyond all endurance, the white surrounding matter became alarmingly bloodshot and developed a network of liquidly shifting veins, changing the vacant expression into something almost frightening.  It looked up at him reproachfully, as if in great agony.

With an effort, he tore his gaze away and forced his lids down to cover his own eyes and he shook his head vigorously from side to side.  He tried to laugh at himself.  These fancies…Why did he allow them to take hold of him?  It was only and egg, a simple thing, and for a moment his imagination (it was only his imagination) had made him think that…

Throughout the course of his ordinary day, Arthur is on edge and easily startled by what appear to be the simplest things.  Two events in particular, though, trigger flashbacks to that fateful day in Arthur’s childhood—a letter and a visit from his father.  Williams slowly builds up to revealing Arthur’s tragic memory at the very end of the book which, I thought, was rather unexpected.  The dramatic suspense and Williams’s depiction of the loneliness of mental illness are the strengths of this book.  No one can truly understand Arthur’s suffering, even if he were able to put it into words.  A brief distraction with a lovely woman at a nightclub only highlights Arthur’s abiding sense of being alone.  He thinks he is happy for a fleeting moment, but then his intrusive thoughts come flooding back to him:

And again the desire to convey to her his utter contentment overwhelmed him.  But there was the barrier, always the barrier of words; and that which he now felt was beyond words, deeper and more meaningful.  He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again, and said nothing.

For at the moment he realized that this understanding which he so desired was a thing that must come from between them, inviolate and alone, unasked and unacknowledged.  And he thought for a moment that he had discovered the secret.

This was the thing that drew men and women together: not the meeting of minds nor of spirits, not the conjunction of bodies in the dark insanity of copulation—none of these.  It was the tenuous need to create a bond, a tie more fragile than the laciest ribbon.  It was for this that they strived together, ceaselessly and always really alone; it was for this that they loved and hated, gathered and threw away. For only the little thread which they could never test for the fear of its destruction, for only the delicate thread which they could never secure for fear of breaking it in two.

How alone we are, he thought. How always alone.

The three books of Williams’s that I have read—Stoner, Augustus, and Nothing but the Night—are all very different stories.  I would advise not to go into this short novel expecting any of the narrative elements that are in his other two books.  What is similar, however, in all three novels is the author’s brilliant and mesmerizing way he uses language; there is something about Williams’s style of writing that completely absorbs me and draws me into these different worlds he creates.

(I read the Vintage edition published in the U.K., but NYRB Classics is also reissuing this book later this year.)

 

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A Certain Amount of Daring: Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

When I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to read my first Jane Bowles story, there was a rather strong, positive reaction to her writing.  But the comments I received about Two Serious Ladies still did not prepare me for reading this story.  This short novel, in fact her only one, is enigmatic, humorous, surprising, even shocking and sad all at the same time.  Truman Capote’s description of the story, I think, sums it up best:

Voyaging for the first time into Two Serious Ladies, I was immediately disoriented.  I did not know what to make of this object at all.  There was no discernible narrative strategy.  There was no way of explaining or analyzing the processes at work.  Interpretation was useless.  The vistas were dispiriting, the food foul, the wind always howling.  Her people were mournful, impulsive, and as erratic in their peculiar journeys’ flights as bats.  They were often drunk.  They thought continuously, obsessively, but had no thoughts exactly, no helpful method of perceiving the world or their positions in it.

Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield, the two serious ladies, spend very little time together as they are casual acquaintances.  Each has her own distinct story, but what fascinated me about both of them is their attempt to live on their own terms and find their own versions of happiness.  I found them a bit crazy but also rather brave.  Mrs. Copperfield is dragged to Central America by her adventurous husband; we get the feeling that she stays with him out of a sense of duty, even fondness or nostalgia, but she would much prefer to be off on her own.  And that’s exactly what she does.  In Colon she stays at a seedy hotel, makes friends with a prostitute, and drinks way more gin than she ought to.  At the end of the story she tells Miss Goering, “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years.  I know I’m as guilty as I can be, but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring, which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.”

Miss Goering is horrified by Mrs. Copperfield’s new outlook on life, but perhaps she is frightened by those qualities which she recognizes in herself.  When the story begins she is a spinster living alone on her family’s home in upstate New York but she slowly gathers a rather strange entourage of people around her.  I found Miss Goering’s narrative to be the most surprising.  What oftentimes begins as a humorous description of her adventures quickly turns melancholy; twice she is invited by men back to their apartments and on both occasions nothing turns out as one would expect.  She is different from Mrs. Copperfield in that she seems to be on a mission to save herself and the strange men she meets from some sort of sin.  Her last words in the novel are mysterious and disconcerting: “‘Certainly I am nearer to becoming a saint,’ reflected Miss Goering, ‘but it is possible that a part of me hidden from my sight is piling sin upon sin as fast as Mrs. Copperfield?’ This latter possibility Miss Goering thought to be of considerable interest but of no great importance.”

I am very eager to read Bowles’s letters which I am impatiently awaiting to arrive in the mail.  I suspect, from what little I know about her life and from reading this book, that I will find among them humor, sadness, loneliness and a lot of drinking.

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Entrusting One’s Sleep to Another: Propertius 1.3

Auguste Jean Baptiste Vinchon. Propertius and Cynthia at Tivoli.

Sextus Propertius, a Latin elegiac poet of the Augustan age, is, rather unfortunately, not as well-known as other poets of this era. He was friends with the most famous men of his day including Vergil, Maecenas and Augustus. His talent as an elegist is evident in his four books of poetry which contain 92 poems. I was fortunate enough in graduate school to be in a program that appreciated his work and I took three different classes that focused on this poet. I admit that I haven’t looked at or translated his work in many years, but he seemed like just the thing to suit my mood this week.

In Poem 1.3, he visits his lover, Cynthia, while she is fast asleep in her bedroom. In his amorous and drunken state he is tempted to wake her with a showering of kisses, but holds off for fear of angering her. He, instead, watches her sleep. I find the images of the first 20 lines, comparing her to a sleeping Ariadne and a Bacchante, simple yet sensual and intimate. I offer here my translation of lines 1-20:

Cynthia seemed to me to be breathing softly and quietly while sleeping with her head on her entwined hands; similar to weary Ariadne as she was lying on the deserted shores while Theseus sailed away on his ship; or similar to Andromeda, finally freed from the harsh cliffs, as she was resting during her first sleep; and similar to a Bacchante, exhausted from her continual dances, as she collapses on the grassy banks of the Apidanus. As the slave boys were shaking the torches late into the night, I dragged my feet, drunk with too much Wine, into her room. Not quite yet completely out of my senses, I softly attempted to lie on the bed beside her. Although two relentless gods, Love and Wine, were driving me, seized with a double passion, to disturb Cynthia while she was sleeping and to slip my arm under her and to steal drawn out kisses, I did not dare to interrupt my lover’s rest for fear of incurring the reproaches of her anger with which I am all too familiar. Instead I remained fixed to my spot with my eyes intent upon watching her—I was like Argus, the 100-eyed monster, who kept a vigil over Io with her strange horns.

Propertius’s last few lines, in particular, capture the vulnerability and sensuality of one lover watching another while asleep. It reminds me of the intimacy and trust involved in the experience of sleeping beside another person as described by Quignard in his novel Villa Amalia:

Entrusting one’s sleep to another is perhaps the only real indecency.

To let oneself be watched while sleeping, feeling hungry, dreaming, growing erect or dilated is a strange offering.

She could see his eyes quivering beneath his lids, moving beneath the pale, fragile skin. She could see everything. She could see he was dreaming. Who was he dreaming of? Curiously, she dreamt he dreamt dreams that weren’t dreams of her.

It turned out that he too sighed in his sleep—just like his little daughter.

They both of them gave enormous sighs—like sighs of relinquishment.

Stuart Shotwell’s novel Tomazina’s Folly has, for me, one of the most tender scenes in literature as a woman looks through her lover’s private sketch book in which he has drawn erotic and caring images of his ideal marriage:

As she went on through the book she discovered that a conspicuously recurring theme was that of one spouse watching the other sleep: the wife, sometimes gloriously nude, sometimes fully clothed, either in bed herself or in a chair, watched her husband as he slept; and likewise the husband watching over his wife. There was a tenderness and curiosity and protectiveness in the expression of the watchers, as if they themselves could not sleep, but wanted their spouses to dream undisturbed.

Finally, Jean-Luc Nancy in The Fall of Sleep touches upon the reasons why falling asleep beside another person is an extension of an act of intimacy:

Sleeping together opens up nothing less than the possibility of penetrating into the most intimate part of the other, namely, precisely into his or her sleep. The happy, languid sleep of lovers who sink down together prolongs their loving spasm into a long suspense, into a pause held at the limits of the dissolution and disappearance of their very harmony: intermingled, their bodies insidiously disentangle, however intertwined they can sometimes remain until the end of sleep, until the instant joy returns to them as renewed for having been forgotten, eclipsed during the time of their sleep, where their agile bodies surface again after having been drowned at the bottom of the waters they themselves poured out.

Propertius’s poem ends with his lover waking up, accusing him of being in the embrace of another woman, and complaining that he wasn’t there to fall asleep with her. Cynthia’s wish for him is that he get a taste of his own medicine and that he also experience a lonely night without her in his bed.

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Duller than a Dull Hick: City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya

The stereotypes of country dwellers being crass and uncouth and city dwellers being urbane and sophisticated is one that reaches all the way back to Ancient Rome.  In Carmen 22, Catullus describes his good friend Suffenus whom he admires for being venustus et dicax et urbanus (charming, well-spoken and sophisticated).  The Latin word urbanus, from which the English word urban is derived, literally means a person from the city who is sophisticated.  But Catullus sadly notes that Suffenus is an awful poet and when one reads his compositions he appears to be caprimulgus aut fossor (a goat herder or a ditch digger) and he is infaceto est infacetior rure (duller than a dull hick).  Rus, ruris becomes in English the word rural which is associated with someone who lives in the countryside and is decidedly unsophisticated.

Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, a nineteenth century Russian author who wrote and published her works under a male pseudonym, uses the stereotype of city folk and country folk to satirize the landed gentry in the time period immediately following the emancipation of the serfs in her country.  Her main character, Erast Sergeyovich Ovcharov, is an urbane and worldly man who is used to living in Moscow and traveling to the most famous cities across Europe.  He is proud of his elegance and refinement and thinks that exposure to his good qualities will elevate the manners of his country neighbors.

Ovcharov’s country estate in Snetki has fallen into ruins and he has not come to any agreement with his serfs who have just been freed so he is forced to spend a summer among the country bumpkins.  Ovcharov is a humorous caricature of the Russian nobility who views himself as a perfect example of charm and wit for the poor country folk who do not regularly visit the city.  He is haughty, condescending and patronizing to his neighbors in the country and he writes political pamphlets that fully display his self-righteous personality.  He comments about the rural gentry women he encounters:

The old rural gentry-woman type has barely changed: moral and physical clumsiness.  On the other hand, the old despotism has disappeared, and the younger generation is spreading its wings.  It spreads them clumsily, crudely, gracelessly, but spread them it does.  It raises its own voice and acts, to some extent, according to its own will.  The second-rate shrinking violet of the past, oppressed by the parental right hand, is also being transformed into a second-rate dahlia.  Still it is a beautiful flower, bright and attractive in a flower bed.  Yes, it’s true: the younger generation of women in the countryside and provincial towns in freer than it was twenty years ago.  Now is the time to show that who deserves thanks for this freedom.

Ovcharov rents a bath house from his neighbor, Natasyha, who is a kind-hearted widow that has successfully managed her own farms and workers for many years.  Natasyha’s daughter, Olenka, is smart and witty and when she rejects Ovcharov’s advances the irony of the situation is hilarious.  It is Olenka, the seemingly country hick, that rejects the urbane, supposedly sophisticated, Ovcharov.  Olenka is smart enough to see Ovcharov for the ridiculous man he truly is.  The author’s wit is subtle yet affective in providing a glimpse into the lives of the Russian upper classes in the 19th century.

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