Thursday, November 5, 2009

Reading a Henry James novel is akin to bushwacking in a state park. Somewhere, I feel, there are smooth gravel paths, interpretive signs, and pristine views. Occasionally, I even glimpse them.  So how is it that I keep getting entangled in this uncharted undergrowth? I mean, consider this sentence from The Ambassadors:

But it was in spite of this definite to him that Chad had had a way that was wonderful: a fact carrying with it an implication that, as one might imagine it, he knew, he had learned, how.

By this point, I have read that sentence at least 10 times, and I still have no idea what it actually means. The words make no sense together, and the harder I look, the more confusing the syntax gets. Nonetheless, when I stand back, I sort of have kind of an idea about what James is saying; and I'm starting to think that, really, that's the only way to read this novel. I need to allow it to smother me like a magnificent haze, which every once in a while opens into clarity. This makes the novel less than ideal as bedtime fodder, and I'm also glad I'm not reading it on a bus. But it does work reasonably well at about 10:30 in the morning, as I sit in a patch of sunlight drinking tea and eating the last slice of banana tart.

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