Posts Tagged: Henry James

Opaque and Transparent

Authors whose books I admire greatly but have to read over and over again because I never quite get a complete understanding of them:

Ellen Raskin
E.L. Konigsburg
Diana Wynne Jones
Henry James

Authors whose books I read over and over because they are transparent to me and show me myself (they feel too close to me to say I admire them greatly…though of course I do):

Beverly Cleary
Jean Little
Daniel Pinkwater
Lois Lowry
Jane Langton

ETA: when I typed tags for this entry, all the authors on the opaque list were already in my tags. Only DMP from the second list was already there. I guess there is a trying-to-understand motive when I blog about books? (unless it’s a showing-off motive.)

Dead Tri-Met Literary Boyfriends

~Spoiler warning for Henry James’ The Ambassadors~

Very soon after I started Henry James’ The Ambassadors, it became my bus book. Bus books are the ones I really do want to finish, but they don’t make it out of my backpack when I’m home– there’s always some other book (or the internet) that grabs my attention first. They end up living in my backpack for commuting and lunch hours, and get read eventually, maybe with a non-bus rush at the end once momentum has built.

Many of my bus books are classics or Good Hard Books, like the ones by my Dead Literary Boyfriends, Nabokov and James. In the case of The Ambassadors, Henry James himself told the Duchess of Sutherland to read it five pages at a time, “but don’t break the thread…& then the full charm will come out.” Some kinda nerve to give your friends their reading instructions, huh? This book was his favorite and I think he really wanted it to be liked. Anyway, five pages at a time it makes for a great bus book.

It was my first “late James,” and sometimes I wondered if I was actually understanding what the characters were talking about. Sometimes I wondered if any of them ever did, said, or thought anything straightforward. (How Henry James would hate Twitter.) Sometimes I marveled that anyone reads this book, even though I myself was loving it. I laughed when I ran across this Amazon review by David K. Hill:

When the topic is obvious and simple, his characters question one another intensely trying to determine what it is they are talking about. When the topic is strange and hidden, amazingly they all understand each other perfectly and silently.

My favorite small thing is how every now and then, in all the thickets of clauses and commas, there’s a rush of adjectives spilling out like their subject has flashed too bright and quick to be slowed down and contained by grammar:

What was clearer still was that the handsome young man at her side was Chad Newsome, and what was clearest of all was that she was therefore Mademoiselle de Vionnet, that she was unmistakeably pretty–bright gentle shy happy wonderful–and that Chad now, with a consummate calculation of effect, was about to present her to his old friend’s vision.

Or this one:

It was of Chad she was after all renewedly afraid; the strange strength of her passion was the very strength of her fear; she clung to him, Lambert Strether, as to a source of safety she had tested, and, generous graceful truthful as she might try to be, exquisite as she was, she dreaded the term of his being within reach.

And Jeanne, married off to an aristocrat, goodbye, sank without a ripple like Isabel Archer. Damn. And what of Maria Gostrey? All I know is if I see someone online using the handle Maria Gostrey, I will think there’s likely an interesting person.

The reason I decided to read The Ambassadors now is because one of my alphabetical-reading books, Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies, is described as a “photographic negative” of James’ novel. Eh, a bit, particularly in the comparison of Europe and America, which for me is pretty much the least interesting aspect of James but one of the most talked about. I did Ozick’s book no favors by reading it right after The Ambassadors— the multiple points of view in Foreign Bodies mostly brought home to me how masterful James was in keeping to Lambert Strether’s perspective through that whole long knotty novel. There was some good writing in the Ozick, and some that didn’t move me. I copied down one culminating quote that for me held the photographic-negative effect:

She thought: How hard it is to change one’s life.
And again she thought: How terrifyingly simple to change the lives of others.

Now I’m reading Terry Pratchett’s The Wyrd Sisters. My friend Pat played Granny Weatherwax in the stage adaptation last year, and I have a slight case of picturing the actors as the book characters. Especially Magrat, for some reason. Most recent quote I swooned over in the “it’s so true” way that Pratchett induces:

The castle was full of people standing around in that polite, sheepish way affected by people who see each other all day and are now seeing each other again in unusual social circumstances, like an office party.

Wyrd Sisters will be with me at home and on the bus til I finish it, because today I gave up on another O book and bus book, George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying. The protagonist was too angry-sad-sack, a la Lucky Jim, and I didn’t want to spend one more minute with him.

happy bits of writing news

A few sweet things have happened in my writing life lately:

  1. I got a call from the director of Write Around Portland, asking for permission to reprint the first piece I ever published in a WRAP anthology, back in 1999! It will be in an academic book about writing and community. I read my piece over and did not cringe. I wouldn’t write that way now–too much of the Cryptic Yet Meaningful–but it’s not horrible. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about early writings. Partly because my bus book is Henry James’ The Ambassadors, and it is so very different from my beloved Portrait of a Lady and The Bostonians. Partly because I am painfully aware how much less open I feel writing on the internet now than in the early days of my LiveJournal. I don’t think it’s only me. And partly because I’m reading Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father and it seems so, so candid! I can’t imagine someone writing it while knowing a Presidential campaign might be in the cards. And he didn’t know. Yet…he was a U.S. senator-elect when it was published, far more prominent than I expect ever to be. It makes me want to have the courage to be more open.
  2. I emailed my former workshop instructor at the IPRC and he wrote me back to say my stories had really stuck with him! There is little that could make me happier to hear than that.
  3. I got a rejection from One Story for “Non-Nutritive Boyfriend.” Granted, this is not as sweet as getting an acceptance, but it means I can proceed with assembling the chapbook edition and putting it up for sale. One sub-project I’m psyched about is making a light box for product photography.

In non-writing news, I walked through the western rose garden in Ladd’s Addition this morning and was swept off my feet by a hybrid tea called Voodoo. I don’t usually like coral-colored roses–they make me think of lipstick–but this one was gorgeous and smelled sweet and complex. Fragrant roses get harder to find in September.

the library haul

I got off the bus a mile from home to pick up my library holds. Even though I’m in the middle of both Maisie Dobbs and James’  Ambassadors, I had to bring the new ones up on Spaceship Couch with me and sample them.

  • David Carkeet’s mystery novel (starring a linguist) Double Negative, because I so loved his piece The Crap In My Head the other day. (His crap has become my crap– I hear “A B? A B?” now too.)
  • Something called My Business Is to Create: Blake’s Infinite Writing, a writing advice book based on William Blake’s life and writings. Partly because, what chutzpah, and partly because I’m hooked on the genre.
  • Vivian Gussin Paley’s The Boy on the Beach: Building Community Through Play. I love her, I love the respect she gives children and their work together in the classroom. As she’s talking about play I of course experiment with substituting “writing,” just as I do when I read about religion, or about business or work. But here I wonder about substituting “television” instead– isn’t this why I prefer good television to movies?

    As in a really good research study, play does not value closure. It seeks new direction and unexpected results. We want to be surprised but also reassured that we know the territory.

But now I have to find clothes to wear tomorrow, and put a frozen burrito in a sandwich bag, and floss, and stretch over the big orange ball so I’m not a curled-up, barely breathing reading thing.

O is for OMG Ossum

Today I finally sat down with a post-it note and figured out what I want to read for the letter O. (I still have a few chapters to go with Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, which had to be returned to the library and then come back to me, and a significant amount of listening in The Time-Traveler’s Wife, which is my housecleaning audiobook and you know how much housecleaning I do. But it’s high time to start tucking some O into my library queues.)

Joyce Carol Oates, After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away
Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father
Robert C. O’Brien, Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of NIMH (reread)
Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death
Sharon Olds, Strike Sparks (collected poems)
George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying
Cynthia Ozick, Foreign Bodies (have to read Henry James’ Ambassadors first because that’s what it’s based on. Oh twist my arm why doncha!)