Sunday, February 24, 2019

On reading Henry James

I read all of Henry James novels – or nearly all – it was some time ago; so I don’t want to be too positive.  I can’t remember anything specific about The Ambassadors other than that I liked it.  I recall that I liked the Portrait of a Lady a lotI read that more than onceI can’t recall having a standard like Maxwell Geismar’s who criticized James to an absurd (IMO) degree for not having the same standards he did – although Geismar would have argued, I’m sure, that his standards ought to be the world’s. 

Simon Harcourt Nowell Smith did a review of Geismar’s Henry James and his Cult in the 2-6-64 issue of the TLS.  He wasn’t kind to Geismar nor, if you look at Geismar’s books in Amazon have most reviewers been  since.  Smith in his review thought that Dreiser met Geismar’s standards more closely than James did.  Geismar may have been unhappy with James, Smith writes, for not writing a Sister Carrie.  Smith condemns Geismar for being guilty of the “anachronistic fallacy” for calling Jim Pocock in The Ambassadors a “pre-Babbitt” or “pre-Dodsworth.”

BTW, I did read most of Sinclair Lewis at one time along with that class of novels considered to “muckrake.”  I remember anguishing over the first house I was able to buy because it was a tract house of the sort condemned by Lewis in Babbit.    I personally don’t think that Sinclair Lewis or Theodore Dreiser are as good, or as readable, as Henry James.

Yes, James' world is a strange one, but then so was Kafka’s.  One of my early goals was to read “all” of certain novelists.  I had James on that list along with Hardy, Conrad, Dostoevsky, Mikhail Sholokhov, Kafka, Tolstoy, Sinclair Lewis, Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe, Kazantzakas among others. 

I mentioned somewhere being stunned upon first reading Sylvia Plath’s Ariel.  The only novelist that did something equivalent to me, that I can recall at the moment, was Nikos Kazantzakas.  It was the first novel I read by him, a translation of The Greek Passion, but I recall liking Freedom or Death nearly as well.  I also read The Last Temptation.  I didn’t think his most famous novel (in English) Zorba the Greek was as good as the others I read.  I know he also wrote a sequel to The Odyssey, which I once had, but I don’t think I managed to read the whole poem – can’t remember why.   

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