20 reasons I love “The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James.

henry_james_pic_conversation_piece_1000px

It’s 1880. Henry James publishes ‘The Portrait of a lady” as a serial in a magazine to portray Isabel Archer, an American lady travelling in Europe to affront her destiny. The book has been considered a masterpiece ever since. Here are my top 20 reasons why this novel will always stay with me as a book of reference for outstanding fiction.

1. Its opening line:Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” Sets the tone. Englishness, aristocracy, leisure: a comedy of manners. Between the lines, though, you can’t fail to notice an implied sinister touch -or, is it just me?- putting “agreeable” into question.

2. The visual clarity of the description of a “splendid summer afternoon” in its “perfect middle”: “Part of the afternoon had waned but much of it was left and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality.” Henry James’s prose makes sure from the first sentences you know what you are about to experience: literary language of the rarest quality, just like his splendid summer afternoon.

3. The exchange of pleasantries between the characters. Witty, literary crafted, not minimal neither redundant, natural enough but not prosaic, lively indicators of the characters’ rank and complexity.

4. Isabel Archer’s description of happiness as “a swift carriage of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can’t see-that’s my idea of happiness.”

5. The description of Madame Merle being “a woman of strong impulses kept in admirable order.”

6. The portraiture of Americans in Europe as free agents. Uninhibited, self-reliant and adventurous spirits, the new world in contrast to the old-established world, a cast of people their European peers feel inclined to look up to and shame at the same time.

7. Mrs. Touchett, being a “person of many oddities”, “a woman with an extreme respect for her own motives”, as Henry James would inform us early on. For having a way of her own “of which she was so fond, a way not intrinsically offensive- just unmistakably distinguished from the way of the others.And as Henry James would have Madame Merle describe her to her niece: “Having no faults for your aunt means that one’s never late for dinner-that is for her dinner. It means that one answers a letter the day one gets it and that when one comes to stay with her one doesn’t bring too much luggage and is careful not to be taken ill. For Mrs Touchett those things constitute virtue.”

8. THE kiss between Gaspar Goodwood and Isabel Archer. It had to be given some two pages before the end of the novel. And it had to be as passionately hopeless and helpless as ever. This is as overtly carnal as Henry James’s literary and puritan conscience and his restraints of prudery would let him go, concerning the depiction of love scenes in the book. “His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession. So had she heard of those wrecked and under water following a train of images before they sink. But when darkness returned, she was free.” An eloquent scene of cinematic precision from the master of psychological realism.

9. Pansy. That “diminutive”, fragile girl- one of the most gracefully passive and subdued literature’s female characters.

10. Chapter 42, Isabel Archer’s vigil. “Sitting by the fire in the soundless saloon and long after the fire had gone out, hearing the small hours strike but with no danger of her feeling the cold because she was in a fever”, Isabel Archer catalogues her unhappiness, thinking and rethinking her marriage and everything that led to it. During that thought and revelation process, she sees clearly for the first time, she reaches conclusions, reading all this “as she would have read the hour on the clock-face.”

Chapter 42 would serve as a template for the narrative technique known as stream of consciousness, a term coined by the philosopher and Henry James’s brother William James and would be pushed to its limits by Marcel Proust, Virgina Wolf, James Joyce and other essentially modern writers. Of course here we don’t have the sometimes incoherent line of thought, both in content and in form, of those writers but an intelligible mental process of bringing consciousness alive to take over all other forces in its presence and not stop until it has reached a sense of complacency. Or just because “the clock struck four; she got up she was going to bed at last for the lamp had long since gone out and the candles burned down to their sockets.”

11. Its engaging outdatedness, an implicitness that speaks louder than modern blunt descriptions. The creation of a universe where two persons can be “unconsciously and familiarly associated” just because they are seated in a way no one would even bother to take notice of today. “What struck Isabel first was that he was sitting while Madame Merle stood; there was an anomaly in this that arrested her.” And, indeed, her instinct was not to blame.

12. Poor Ralph Touchett, the hands constantly fixed in his pockets. Isabels’ cousin whose “state of health had seemed not a limitation but a kind of intellectual advantage; it absolved him from all professional and official emotions and left him the luxury of being exclusively personal” is a key character of the novel the reader both admires and feels sorry for.

13. The old English country mansions and castles and Italian palazzos highlighting the characters’ inner lives. Gardencourt’s, Lockleigh’s, Palazzo Roccanera’s and Palazzo Crescentini’s facades and interiors are not only the settings where the action takes place but they are also values in themselves, standing for the characters choices and motives.

14. Ralph’s death-bed scene and his wise words to his cousin Isabel: “There’s nothing makes us feel so much alive as to see other die. That’s the sensation of life- the sense that we remain.” Ralph and Isabel are never closer, never more sincere and open to each other than during his last hours. The words and passions they exchange have the rare and violent quality of confession, the riot of expression, that took too long to materialize. Hence, their last-resort tone.

15. Gilbert Osmond, both a palpable character and a concept. Isabel Archer admits during her stream-of-consciousness revelation that “she had mistaken a part for the whole”, a part being Osmond’s charming elements and the whole being its egotistical nature. One of literature’s most captivating villains, no wonder why Isabel Archer succumbed to that “nonentity” deliberately and against all advice only to find out that deep inside that person was full of hatred and contempt for her and her “too many ideas”.

16. The comic relief characters of Henrietta Stackpole, of whom Henry James himself in the preface of the novel admits we have indubitably so much of- and Countess Gemini. Both are given key roles in the book apart from their unique presence per se. Comic, absurd, even hysterical (more in the case of the Countess), they are nonetheless full characters and not caricatures-that’s why we really indulge in their company.

17. Isabel’s assertion “I don’t wish to marry till I’ve seen Europe”. Innocent, child-like, american, modern, spirited at the same time.

18. Isabel Archer’s modernism. A lot has been written about Nora’s being the first modern woman in literary history when she slams the door in her family’s face to start all over again or Madame Bovary’s trying to break free from domestic entrapment but isn’t Isabel essentially modern in the face of her choices? It’s not only her decision to marry the man she wants against the opinion of the others but her choice to… live up to the original choice she had made although she can have it otherwise. Isabel Archer’s standing up to the choices she once committed to is at once modern, mature, tragic and liberating.

19. The culture of suitors, answering to missives, dressing up for dinners, having over guests, welcoming guests, showing guests out, the “awkward” waiting for the carriage and all that 1880 period drama stuff of the high-class which can only but make our imagination run wild.

20. For the sake of lines as “An Englishman is never so natural as when he’s holding his tongue” and “There’s no more usual basis of union than a mutual misunderstanding”.

 

Handy advice for social climbers by Undine Spragg (The Custom of the Country).

 

Undine Spragg, together with Madame Bovary are definetely two of literature’s most self-absorbed and self-righteous -and thus, despicable- female characters. Edith Wharton’s craftmanship, though, has made “The Custom of the Country” such a pleasure to read and Undine Spragg a vivid character that stays with you long after you’ ve finished the book. The novel’s up-to-datedness is impressive and for that, credit is due to Wharton’s sharp eye for detail and social observance. At the dawn of the twentieth century, where the new comers aka the invaders aka the new money struggle with the initiated of old New York and Washington Street to take the lead, the Custom of the Country chronicles the human greed to climb to the top and stay there. A greed that has stayed with us ever since.

opera_box

Handy advice for social climbers by Undine Spragg- to follow at your own risk.

  1. Marry either to wealth or to social title. Divorce to obtain the other half.
  2. Skip the opera boxes. But if you do hire an opera box, don’t do it on the wrong night.
  3. Don’t be ashamed to sell what you can’t afford to keep. Yes, even your husband’s historical estate tapestries Louis the Fifteenth had given to his great-great grandfather. Declutter.
  4. Live up to your opportunities and divorce.
  5. There is a lot to learn from your manicurist & masseuse. Hire one with the natural  talent of having manicured some really high-class nails.
  6. Change continents with the ease of changing dresses.
  7. Give your marriage a chance before you reach any conclusions or take any action. Go as far as to use honey moon as a trial period.
  8. When everybody around you is saying that this is the end of the world as we know it, just go out and buy another pair of shoes.
  9. A divorce is always a good thing to have: you never can tell when you may want it.” Still: “Divorce without a lover? Why, it’s as unnatural as getting drunk on lemonade.” So, think big and proactively. Get a lover before the divorce. It speeds up the process.
  10. You’ll need your parents on board in this. You must be on the same page here. Rather they must be on the same page with you. No need to be overtly hostile or intimidating to them, a passive-aggressive behavior will do.
  11. Make sure a fashionable artist does your portrait. Pick the one who knows how to “do pearls” and who “keeps his studio tidy enough for a lady to sit to him in a new dress”.
  12. If a very wealthy man offers you a ride with his car on the day of your son’s birthday, trust your instinct to choose- not the maternal the other one, the raw, that of social survival. And if you feel “that rush of physical joy that draws scruples and silences memory”, then you know you’ve made the right decision.
  13. Of course you can miss out on your kid’s birthday. There is always next year. Kids forget.
  14. Don’t settle. Divorce.
  15. Invest in your looks. Not your books.
  16. When your mother says “How could you?” it’s not that she didn’t expect it from you. It’s that she can’t help feeling stupefied every time it happens.
  17. Don’t think low of marriage. One couldn’t be divorced without it.
  18. Talk nonsense as long as you look nice on your new dress.
  19. Discard whatever smells of history. Old Newyorkers, European titles, whole Italy.
  20. Live beyond your means and divorce.

My 30 reasons for always returning to Chekhov’s stories.

ckekhov short stories

Lists may not be everyone’s favorite form of argumentative thought but sometimes thinking disconnectedly –but not incoherently- is the only way to think at all. My 30 reasons is an arbitrary number to signal my love for Chekhov. It could very well be 40, 60 or just one: his talent for humanity.

Why i love Chekhov

  1. For his clarity of description and the realism in depicting his characters’ inner thoughts, motives and sentiments. Should you try hard, you wouldn’t find a vague and redundant paragraph in his stories.
  2. For making page turners out of plotless stories.
  3. For the undercurrents that undermine even most of his straightforward narratives.
  4. For who else has so entertainingly minuted the lasting fragrances of a random kiss (The Kiss), the restlessness of insomnia (A dull story), the sinister weight of sleepiness (The darling), the longing of a person in love to write a letter and send it to the PO (Love), the unbearable loneliness of bereavement (The Misery, The Enemies), the banality of University life (A dull Story), the uninspiring promiscuity of prostitution (The Chorus Girl, A nervous Breakdown aka An attack of Nerves), the spiritual agony of a nervous breakdown (A nervous breakdown), the dreariness and ordinariness of mental illness (Ward No.6), the uselessness of rank and wealth (A lady’s story)…
  5. For his trademark non-endings. An inconclusiveness ascribed to his desire to make a new era for the story (and the play). One to break free from the unrealistic fixed endings of the past which by giving  answers to the readers, were sparing them the need to think for themselves. No comfort zones here. Just awkward helplessness facing the human predicament.
  6. For his testing of our own fitness as readers. (Virgina Wolf on “The Russian point of view”.)
  7. Especially for the unlikely ending of “The Lady with the dog”: And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning. For the familiarity of those unfamiliar long roads we all eventually take in our lives. And the relief to find other people there.
  8. For being moral without raising a finger. Predisposed to try to understand his characters rather than judge them. For his stories being a masterclass on empathy.
  9. For his rendering dull characters interesting through evoking a special characteristic that makes them unique. (One of his liveliest dull characters is Ippolit Ippolititch, in the “Teacher of literature”: “He considered that the most important and necessary part of the study of geography was the drawing of maps, and of the study of history the learning of dates: he would sit for nights together correcting in blue pencil the maps {…} not a talkative person; he either remained silent or talked of things which everybody knew already.”) For his supporting characters playing a key role in the story. That of blowing an air of physical reality to it.
  10. For his characters struggling with life. Even in the “Dreary Story” (aka A dull or A Boring Story) the teacher who has only 6 months to live, facing his death, it is with life he is struggling. Trying to come in terms with what he has lived and not with the fact that he is dying.
  11. For his sharp anatomy of marriage. Marriages rarely “work” in his stories. Either doomed to failure from their very start due to incompatibility of the spouses or insincerity of their motives (bail out marriages) or starting with the best of intentions (love, admiration), they often lead to the estrangement -even hatred- of the couple.  (A wife, The teacher of literature). Unhappily married wives and wasted husbands constantly draw our attention to the voracious nature of marriage- one of the major subjects of modern theater (Ibsen, Strindberg, Albee).
  12. For his quote “Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.” More or less the bottom line of all his short stories: a plan for surviving the day.
  13. Long before Eudora Welty’s “listening for stories” (“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on), Chekhov had been programmed to listen for people and unearth characters. For he knew they could be found everywhere.
  14. For the ambiguity of evil and good in his characters. The impossibility for the modern man to be an either/or character. And its soothing effect on our conscience.
  15. For his democratization of suffering. The universality of the human condition that knows no classes, ranks, genders and other borderlines. Everybody hurts and Chekhov made that vividly clear.
  16. For his being existential before it was cool.
  17. For giving  boredom, this intrinsically modern emotional, mental and for Chekhov physical state, its literary expression. Many chekhovian characters are paralysed by ennui that renders them apathetic or prone to evil thoughts and deeds.
  18. For the character of urgency even in the most uneventful of his stories that compels us to follow them to the last -but not final- word.
  19. For the mockery of rank positions and lebels. For his debunking hypocrisy, uncovering shallowness, exposing the pettiness of status stemming only form wealth when not followed by education and humane values.
  20. For his being the russian equivalent of Henry James’ and Edith Wharton’s critique on pretentiousness on people becoming the brand of their status.
  21. For his characters being resilient enough to persevere. Even with broken wings, they fly. If the can’t fly, they walk. But still, they go on- a beckettian mindset here: You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.  (The Unnamable)
  22. For his being essentially modern. A timelessness pertaining to the Greek tragedy or Shakespeare in their treatment of free will struggling with fate.
  23. For his content dictating the form and not the other way around. For being essentially anti-postmodern.
  24. For providing you with the words and the sentiments to channel you raw emotional material.
  25. For dismissing the creative courses’ guidelines that for a short story to matter there must be a conflict and a change of its character. Chekhovian characters ponder for a while only to recoil to their familiarly vulgar self.
  26. For reminding us what foolish lives we live. The predecessor of Kafka, Camus, Beckett and Ionesco in framing the absurdity of human existence, before the two world wars  would make it one of the most resonant literary movements of the last century.
  27. For his characters not getting what they were after, or getting what they were after, outliving their happiness (“The teacher of literature”).
  28. For blurring the line between the story and the treatise on the elusive nature of happiness (“The Gooseberries”). For being an essayist through his characters’ lives, suggesting that the condition for one to be happy is for the unhappy to remain silent: “It’s obvious that the happy man feels contented only because the unhappy ones bear their burden without saying a word: if it weren’t for their silence, happiness would be quite impossible. It’s a kind of mass hypnosis. Someone ought to stand with a hammer at the door of every contented man, continually banging on it to remind him that there are unhappy people around and that however happy he may be at that time, sooner or later life will show him its claws and disaster will overtake him in the form of illness, poverty, bereavement and there will be no one to hear or see him.”
  29. For resorting to weather to mirror moods, with almost chemical precision and accuracy. The descriptions of weather conditions are never redundant in his stories with snow and rain being organic characters.
  30.  For his talent for humanity. (An expression he uses to describe the main character of his short story “A nervous breakdown”. A perfect fit for the writer.) Because just his unparalleled gift for writing stories would have only gotten him so far.