On Re-Reading Henry James in the Late Afternoon of my Life (Henry James)

By J.S. Porter

“In Heaven there’ll be no algebra,/No knowing dates or names,/But only playing golden harps/And reading Henry James.” —Anonymous

You need to be over fifty to read Henry James, that great antidote to speed. He’s wasted on the young.

Henry James. The one whose mind was never violated by an idea, the one on whom nothing was lost, the one whose novels Hollywood keeps churning into movies. Is there a major James novel not yet made into a movie? I always used to find him unreadable—unbearable. In school I had to read The Portrait of A Lady and The Ambassadors along with short stories like The Real Thing. James was the man who would say in forty words what a plainspoken person might say in ten. He wrote with gloves on. I associated him with the effete. He represented all I detested in certain writers. He was an Artist; he made Art.

I liked artists like Hemingway who pretended to be monosyllabic and uneducated, who could shoot a lion, or at least like, Albert Camus, kick a soccer ball. Did James know how to do anything sporty other than walk?

At the time, my idea of hell, similar to Mark Twain’s, was to be stuck in a room with nothing but James to read. I would have gone mad. Now—here’s what thirty years does to you—my idea of heaven is to be stuck in a room with a library of James close at hand.

The poet Rumi says go find yourself some ridiculous project like Noah and his ark without thought of what others may think. My ridiculous project for the next twenty years is to read all of James’ tales. There must be seventy of them. Note I say tales, not short stories, not novels. I can’t read any more Jamesian novels. The Golden Bowl, much as I enjoyed it, did me in. I no longer have the patience, the concentration, the discipline to give my all to works that require my all. I’m satisfied with the tales, those medium-sized narratives— like Daisy Miller and The Aspern Papers— that James brings to perfection, like small Brancusi birds. You don’t want them any bigger than they are.

I’m a minimalist. Or, so my friend Dan tells me. I like paintings without much paint, stories with not much happening, poems with lots of space, rooms with very few objects. So how did I who aesthetically favour consomme over minestrone come to sup at the table of the supreme maximalist, Henry James? If Samuel Beckett is at one end of the language spectrum—grunts, gasps and groans—James is at the other: parentheses within parentheses.

The quick answer is that I’ve come slowly to realize that nothing in life, or nothing about people, is simple. I’ve learned to appreciate the Jamesian sentence with its hesitations, modulations and qualifications. It seems to take me closer to life’s entanglements than a Hemingway sentence, for instance, with its noun, verb and conjunction. I want my modifying adverbs and adjectives, my qualifying clauses and phrases. Life is mottled, so why shouldn’t a sentence be the same?

Here’s a Jamesian sentence written by Rebecca West: “But for all the exquisiteness of Daisy Miller there were discernible in it certain black lines which, like the dark veining in a crocus that foretells its decay, showed that this was a loveliness which was in the very act of passing.” That’s damn fine writing; you can’t beat the pictures and the sound.

I’ll tell you why else James is pulling at me. He takes me places. Places I can’t afford to visit. He takes me to London, Paris, Venice and Rome. He provides me with brilliant conversation. After reading a Jamesian tale, I feel like the butler in Brooksmith. I don’t want the Master to pass on because I know I’ll never hear conversation like his again.

James tells me what I need to reflect on in my late afternoon years. He says if you get a chance, seize it. If you meet somebody you like, tell her you like her. Everything goes by fast, so don’t stand at the shore wondering if your ship is about to come in, plunge into the water and swim to it.

I’m living James now, not just reading him. Years ago, when I met the woman whom I loved, I was too shy, too dumb. I let her go. She married somebody else. Years went by. She divorced. Her father told me to go after her. I did. I got a second chance. At the wedding ceremony I graduated from usher to groom. Usually that doesn’t happen in James or in life. That’s what I see now in James: the terror of missing your chance. Of misreading it, of failing to act on it.

So, my friend, when you see your Daisy, go get her.

  • published in The Hamilton Spectator, December 17, 2002

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