Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Americans in Paris

I have a strange relationship with the novelist Henry James.  I used to detest the man, and his writing.  His prose seemed so stilted, so heavy, so ponderous and inaccessible.  He was the ultimate of the pretentious pedant, so self-absorbed, so self-referential.

Of course, his followers swore by him. Make it through that dense maze of dependent clauses, and you'll find a golden light of shining, subtle, sensitive psychological insight.  I never saw it, and my anger only deepened.

I come to find that this bald, bearded man came to Paris to write.  That was not unusual for an American of means in the 19th century.  Paris was, after all, the center of the known universe at that time.

James was a young novelist, still in his early 30s, and he thought he could add a coin or two by producing a weekly "letter" for the New York Herald Tribune while here.    His later style was not in full form yet, but the earliest givings were there.  The year was 1875.  The Paris that was to produce the art we have been worshiping for the past century - Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, to name a few - was just coming into being, and the politics of the time were raw and unstable. 

Needless to say, James' career in the news business was short-lived.  His capacity to constrain his wandering mind, to shorten his wandering sentences, to produce the sorts of things consumers of news wanted to read, was limited.  How to make something au courant and a la mode?  He was never able to solve this puzzle, and it wore down his soul.

Of course, I think my true fear about Henry James was that I bore all his awful attributes.  Could I compound a sentence even further?  Could I obscure the kernel of the thought with yet another obfuscatory perambulation?  Bien sur.  And more.

Time doesn't necessarily heal all wounds, but it does modify points of view, and I am less quick to judgment about James now.  The complicated business of observing the world and saying something interesting about it allows for lots of different types of speak.  Florid or simple, it's the same endeavor in the end.  Peoples is complex, and the machinations they get up to, even more complex.  The modern plainness of the 20th century that was so critical to overcoming James now must give way to a more organic truthfulness in the 21st century.

How Paris fits into all this ... like a true follower of Henry James, I am seeking to see.