32. The Golden Bowl by Henry James

Year Published: 1904
Pages: 596
First Sentence: The Prince had always liked his London, when it had come to him; he was one of the Modern Romans who find by the Thames a more convincing image of the truth of the ancient state than any they have left by the Tiber.
Rating: 1/3 (don’t bother)

Henry James has three books on The List, and The Golden Bowl is ranked lowest but still in the top third. (Which, let's just pause for a moment and acknowledge how exciting it is that I'm two thirds of the way through my project!) The other two, The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove are side by side just at the edge of the Top 25. After reading The Golden Bowl, I'm a little bit unsure of how that will go for me.

In some ways I feel like I've read a lot of James prior to picking up this book, although I've actually only read two of his novels (The Bostonians and The Portrait of a Lady) and two of his novellas (The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller). Given who he is as a writer, however, it may only take one book to make you feel like you've read a lot of James, which is to say that he is maybe the most longwinded writer in the entire canon. His reputation precedes him when it comes to that. Also if you just pick up one of his books and flip through it you will see how longwinded he is because you will see all the paragraphs that go on for multiple pages. On the other hand, I’ve enjoyed most of what I read by him previously, with the exception of The Turn of the Screw (an extremely frustrating work, because James is so good and he just falls down on writing a ghost story).

But we're not here to talk about his other work. I think the point I'm trying to make is that James has this reputation for being impenetrable and I never really got that before, but boy I sure do now.

I did some reading about this before writing the review. Was I hallucinating when I enjoyed The Bostonians back in my early twenties? No. The fact is that as James got older, his work got more.. intense. The Bostonians was published almost twenty years before The Golden Bowl. In other words, all three books on The List are late period Henry James and I will need to strap in for some nonsense.

In this case, the nonsense consists of a very simple premise: a father and daughter's spouses start an affair with one another. American-in-London Maggie Verver marries an Italian named Amerigo who is never given a last name but who is implied to have a very good pedigree, such that he can be called a Prince. I imagined to myself that he was a member of the Borgia, although they probably aren't Italian enough. In that case, maybe a Medici. Anyway, Amerigo is basically marrying for money (but likes Maggie well enough). Maggie's father, Adam, is fabulously wealthy. The two of them are close due to the death of Maggie's mother at an early age. For various reasons, Adam Verver ends up marrying a friend of Maggie's named Charlotte Stant, not realizing that she and Amerigo had a romance before Amerigo and Maggie met. The two couples spend a lot of time together. Things go bad.

Sounds good, right? Well, it kind of is. I didn't hate this book. My reading experience was marked by a lot of frustration, though. This is a simple story that another writer could tell with maybe only a third of the pages that James takes. My previous reading made me feel that the whole point of James is to plumb every last thing to its depths, but that's unfortunately not what's happening here. In this case, the characters are so vague in their dialogue and thought that I often wasn't quite sure what was going on. Maggie and her father have three big scenes together: one before his marriage, one after she's discovered their spouses' betrayal, and the third at the end. In the second and third scenes, especially the second, I had literally no idea what transpired between the two of them.

There were two characters in the book that I loved, Fanny Assingham and her husband Bob (I doubt I need to, but I will also point out that Fanny has one of the great names in literary fiction). These two kind of disappear after a certain point, which is a shame, but they serve to provide commentary on the situation at some points. Fanny is a busybody. Here is a little bit of dialogue from a scene between her and Maggie which I hope will illustrate my point:

"Can she?" Fanny Assingham questioned.
"Can’t she?" Maggie returned.
Their eyes, for a minute, intimately met on it; after which the elder woman said: "I mean for seeing him alone."
"So do I," said the Princess.
At which Fanny, for her reasons, couldn't help smiling. "Oh, if it's for that he's staying—!"
"He's staying—I've made it out—to take anything that comes or calls upon him. To take," Maggie went on, "even that." Then she put it as she had at last put it to herself. "He’s staying for high decency."
"Decency?" Mrs. Assingham gravely echoed.
"Decency. If she should try—!"
"well—?" Mrs. Assingham urged.
"Well, I hope—!"
"Hope he'll see her?"

And I mean you're missing a few hundred pages of context from that scene but trust me, it doesn't help. I complained about the dialogue in Green Grass, Running Water (albeit for a different reason), but I'd take that any day over this.

Quick aside to also mention a gross line that James apparently had to throw in about a vendor acting on a rare scruple that is "almost unprecedented in the thrifty children of Israel." Like, get out of here. I didn't even know that the character was Jewish until the appearance of the racial slur!

I wish I could've loved this. I was so looking forward to reading more Henry James. After six hundred pages, though, I feel like I deserve clarity rather than ambiguity. Besides the next two of his books on The List, I'll stick with his earlier work in the future.

- - - - -
"You've seemed these last days—I don't know what: more absent than before, too absent for us merely to go on so. It's all very well, and I perfectly see how beautiful it is, all round; but there comes a day when something snaps, when the full cup, filled to the very brim, begins to flow over. That's what has happened to my need of you—the cup, all day, has been too full to carry. So here I am with it, spilling it over you—and just for the reason that is the reason of my life. After all, I've scarcely to explain that I'm as much in love with you now as the first hour; except that there are some hours—which I know when they come, because they almost frighten me—that show me I'm even more so. They come of themselves—and, ah, they've been coming! After all, after all—!"
- - - - -

NB: This book is one of the entries on my Classics Club list! -M.R.

Five Years Ago This Month: May 2014

Five years ago this month...

...I wrote about Calgary Expo. This was the last time I went to a big con, and I think my burnout has finally dissipated. Next stop, WorldCon?

...I was distracted.

I also looked up Stella Ella Ola
on Wikipedia for some reason.
It gets very specific.

R68. Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

Year Published: 1984
Pages: 332

First Sentence: Edward—
You must come back to the Lodge.

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock | Two Hectobooks

I first encountered Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood in its novella form in the really excellent short story collection, The Secret History of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle (the man, the legend). It's the second last story in that collection. I remember very clearly sitting on my couch reading this story one day and the heater made a noise or something, and I was so startled that I almost dropped the book.

From what I can recall and based on a quick flip through my copy of the collection, the first section of the novel, called "Mythago Wood," is basically the same as the text of the novella. This is a story about Steve Huxley, who returns to his childhood home in England after fighting in the Second World War, and discovers that his older brother has become obsessed with the nearby Ryhope Wood, a forest that their father also studied for many years prior to his death. There's a run on sentence for you. The first part of the novel is mainly about the interactions between the two brothers, and each of their interactions with Ryhope Wood. This is an old growth forest that has interesting energies within it that generate myth images (mythagos) from many different eras of legend. The wood seems to actively work to keep people from entering into its furthest reaches.

This is quite an excellent book, and although I didn't recapture the level of absorption that I had on my first read, there are definitely eerie and atmospheric bits in the book that are really effective. Holdstock is really good at descriptive writing that engages all the senses, even if he sometimes leans too hard on bad smells. But he's right up there with Marilynne Robinson when it comes to leaves and water. Everything that happens in the book, despite being fantastic, feels very grounded in the world the author describes, or in other words it all feels internally consistent somehow despite the fact that it seems almost anything could happen.

My one issue, which ended up being more of a big deal than I would've liked, was with the mythago Guiwenneth. She's a mythic figure from the Bronze Age, who supplies motivation for all of the male characters in the book, and whose portrayal made me a bit uncomfortable, as being someone who just exists for the sake of said male characters. There's a very easy counterargument to this though: that's literally what all of the mythagos are. The people who enter the wood generate the mythagos from their subconscious (this probably seems spoilery but I promise you it comes up early and also this book is way more about the journey than about any specific plot points). So whatever any incarnation of Guiwenneth is, that incarnation was created by the male characters, both according to the myth and according to their own preconceptions about women. Not sure if she could be anything other than a Celtic Princess Dream Girl under those circumstances.

There are only a couple of other female characters in the book and only one of those has a speaking role. However, she's kind of awesome, and both of these two characters demonstrate how the Wood has basically ruined the human relationships of the men who explore it. I'm not sure if that should be applauded or not but whatever. It's a good book, people.

This isn't an exciting adventure fantasy novel. It's a slow burn, atmospheric and thoughtful. I recommend it to fans of House of Leaves who are also fans of Guy Gavriel Kay.

NB: This book is one of the entries on my Classics Club list! -M.R.