Sunday, February 08, 2009
My Summer of Many Words
Henry James stood for me, back when I was an under-graduate, as the height of nothing doing. We were assigned The Portrait of a Lady and I think I got to the 45th page before putting the book down and devoting my time to other things. Looking back on that as a current college instructor, I can imagine the challenges of discussing the merits of such a novel with students like me. It's a big leap to change from discussing the "what's happening" of plot, to the deeper elements of "what are they thinking" or "why are they thinking this." As one of those students, I refused to open that book and nodded in agreement eagerly whenever the professor made a point, hoping to show by this nodding that I not only was paying attention, but that I had actually read the novel in question.
Seven years later, having been in a Corporate job for some time, I actually found myself thinking quite a bit in that grey cubicle, much like Isabel did staring at the fireplace. I turned to difficult and enormous novels to keep my mind from reducing to unappealing elements, like iceberg lettuce left in its plastic bag too long.
Everyone should have a Henry James summer. His sentences are never-ending, sure, but after a while, I found myself going along like a big ship cuts along through water. It took a while to get to speed. Once there, I was never unaware of the constant friction of so many words, but, like the water, all of it was necessary to support the hull.
His character names are occasionally hilarious (who today would have the chutzpah to name a main character, as in "The Wheel of Time," Fanny Knocker?). He's also the master of the artificial problem, such as finding a sealed envelope in "Sir Dominick Ferrand" where they want to know what the papers are, but in order to do so, they'd have to break the seal. So the characters sit and think on it.
It's perhaps from this summer that I got my longer-than-usual sentence length. I lay the blame on James.