Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Tolerable Cruelty

Washington Square, by Henry James, Read by Lloyd James, Blackstone Audio, 1999

After having listened to a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, I was somewhat prepared to write off most of the authors of that period in American letters as simply unfit for audiobook. (Save for this odd choice in adaptation, of course. The mind boggles.) There was too much of the speculative in the prose, too much of the not concrete, too much rhapsody of language within the baroque style of the past. This is not a failing of those novels; one needn’t write with the varieties of adaptation in mind to be a good writer; and anyway, Hawthorne couldn’t have guessed at Demi Moore’s interracial lesbian scene when his cinematic turn came. While you may have an easier time turning a sow’s ear into a purse, the opposite isn’t necessarily true.

And so I rather expected Henry James’ Washington Square to be a tiresome disappointment. Ostensibly in the same era as Hawthorne (as much as can be said of two novels separated by thirty years and the Civil War), James is rather known for painful and pointed psychological novels that plum the depths of his characters hidden motivations. With characters often distressingly alienated and a sentence structure that can only generously be described as highly digressive, analytic, thoughtful fiction isn’t typically the stuff one can listen to easily.

Surprisingly, this is not the case here. As James shifted in styles, employing an amanuensis to whom he dictated his work, they rather benefit from being read aloud much in the way hearing a recording of the author himself would shed interesting light on his conversational style. By conversational style, one shouldn’t read loose, slangy, informal. James was from a very formal family, still steeped in that very proper tradition of the time, yet his novels have the decided feel of having been told stories instead of simply imagined.

It helps too that Washington Square is an earlier, short novel with a very specific scope to its tale, limiting both the cast and the settings. Widower Doctor Sloper has one single daughter, the sheltered, innocent, na├»ve, and plain Catherine. While he makes every effort to show his daughter love, Dr. Sloper secretly believes her to be a dullard and a bit of a bore. When romance appears in the shape of handsome, witty Morris Townsend, the doctor is naturally suspicious. It is his belief that Townsend, set on his daughter by Catherine’s Aunt Lavinia, a hopelessly muddle headed romantic herself who sees in the plot an intrigue worthy of a novel, the bringing together of sundered love too choice for her not to involve herself in, seeks more the fortune that will come to Catherine after her father’s death than the girl for herself. Dr. Sloper informs Catherine that she is under no circumstances to marry Townsend and should she do so, then she would be completely disinherited

The story, then, is one of psychological warfare, Townsend trying desperately to hold on to his intended while using both her and her aunt in his quest to win over Catherine’s father, while Dr. Sloper merely seeks to crush out of his daughter her affections for the young man whom he has decided is a sponge, a wastrel, and a fortune hunter. Having investigated the man’s past, the doctor knows there’s some truth to the charges. Townsend claims to have changed, asserts his wild youth was simply his “oats sowing” time, insists that he never went into debt and only ever spent his money alone, and gives his word as a gentleman that while he is aware of Catherine’s supposed inheritance that it is not his motivating force.

What’s rather pleasant about the conflict of the novel is that both parties are completely rational, completely reasonable. At no point in the early stages of the conflict do you ever believe either man is acting from base considerations. When Townsend and Dr. Sloper come to their disagreement about the marriage, it is rather finely portrayed as an interview, both parties moving gingerly as though through a minefield laid by the other. Tempers are kept in check, the full honesty of what each feels for the other is only hinted at to each other though in such a manner that the reader can clearly perceive it, and words are used as hooks, bludgeons, bait, shields, nets, pits, swords, and any other manner of weapon, all while keeping complete upper class decorum and propriety. It is a scene of incredible virtuosity, alone worth the reading of the rest of the novel.

What James goes on to demonstrate, however, is how in the midst of challenge and battle, one can lose sight of one’s compassion and one’s own humanity. Dr. Sloper, while never actually attacking Townsend or his daughter in any fashion save to deny the possibility of the marriage, becomes sadistic in his “defensive” measures, at one point obtaining an interview with Townsend’s sister and extracting a great sum of painful revelations about her brother’s character. To his own sister he at one point confesses that he wishes to crush Townsend completely, to obliterate him. The ironic, somewhat amusing, crusty old gentleman slowly experiences a metamorphosis in front of our eyes into a restrained yet demonic monster, never losing his equanimity, never breaking out into anything more than high temper. The success of this cruel victory coarsens the man, and we watch as he becomes crueler and crueler though reasonably. It is a delightful and frightening operation of psychological acuity.

Cruelty seems to be in quite a supply in James’ writing. Having read Daisy James in college and seen the film versions of The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove, the novels seem to bridle with a not quite restrained misogyny, his female protagonists often embarrassing, slow, shameful, easily duped, stolid, ditzy, or any other unflattering adjectives you might mention. And yet, for all that, James seems to identify with these women in some sense, he seems to associate his alienation, his shortcomings with theirs, and to make of this sympathy female characters that remain, on some very elemental level, true to themselves, pure, and ennobled despite their tragedies. Again, it’s a damnable trick that James pulls off here, a literary slight of hand in which he manages to write as if at cross-purposes with himself while bringing it all to an unexpected cohesion.

For most of my adult life, I had been familiar with Wilde’s famous epigram on the author, “Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty,” and this wit led me to the assumption that James was agonizing to read. While Washington Square falls into the first third of James’ career, before his style grew fantastically serpentine and elaborate, I found the novel to pass effortlessly and painlessly. It left me being rather hungry for more — a reaction I had completely not anticipated—and curious as to what all the agitation was about. It is quite likely that his later, more impenetrable prose may prove a turn off, but this merely underscores the importance of a long-standing habit of mine when deciding to read an author: start at the beginning and work your way down the line. The rewards of Henry James’ writing may grow more difficult to unpack from his overstuffed portmanteau paragraphs, but had I begun at the end, it might have been more difficult to find the patience necessary when panning for gold.

Part of what made the book such an exquisite enjoyment can also be laid at the feet of the narrator. Lloyd James is a pretty wonderful reader and he shines, not with the stellar brightness of award-winning narrators like Dick Hill, but with the glow of a warm love for his work, a depth rather than an intensity. He speaks softly, with very gentle intonational changes and pauses without flashy vocal shifts. He is like a beautiful friend who reads to you as you lie abed sick, very intimate, very personable, the lights of your room low. Even the author’s most complex sentences succumb to his seductions, turning the blur of Washington Square’s inner demons into soft, sweet honey.

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