As much as in pains me, I’ve had to drop one of my targets set earlier in the week. At over half-way through (after a number of weeks I’m too embarrassed to specify) I’m dropping Henry James’s classic. Why? Because, to be perfectly honest, it’s trash.
Like many other readers, the idea of abandoning a novel mid-way leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, and since last night I’ve twice jumped back to pick this one up, hoping against hope I can just get on with it. But I’ve come to the realisation that I actually dislike it so much, it’s making me miserable.
I’m a firm believer that if you’re learning from a book, you should give it its due attention regardless of your personal feelings; I don’t think I’ve learned anything more significant than that I hate this book! However, in the spirit of learning, I’ve done a little bit of research into James, how he was when writing this ugly mammoth, and what other readers have thought of him over time.
‘The Golden Bowl’ was published in 1904, and is essentially a late Victorian-style novel about adultery. Sounds interesting, right? Initially it almost was – to see its four principal characters juggle with the ever encroaching, never explicit nature of ‘cheating’ and resolve (badly) to accommodate it with the oh-so-British way of ignoring something until it becomes impossible to bear, was almost interesting from an historical point of view. Stress almost.
This novel, as Jorge Borges once said of James’s works, is filled with “the absence of life”. The characters are utterly without character, save for a few minuscule moments, and the plot! – well – a cursory search has found an apt quote from Virginia Woolf: “Please tell me what you find in Henry James. … we have his works here, and I read, and I can’t find anything but faintly tinged rose water, urbane and sleek, but vulgar and pale as Walter Lamb. Is there really any sense in it?”
But the clincher for me, connected with this lack of “sense”, is the verbosity of the book, combined with its lack of interesting thoughts. It’s a sizable novel, at around 800 pages, but at least 50% of the sentences I read might have been finished beautifully in half the words (and much fewer parentheses!). It’s a rambling mess, in my opinion – conflated and impenetrable. But even this wouldn’t be terrible – many great works are similar – if it weren’t for its total lack of meaning, lack of engaging ideas. It feels like four Victorian aristocrats with far too much time on their hands, stitching some great ugly dress made of nothing but hot air.
His ‘Portrait of a Lady’ was, in my opinion, far superior, because it made some sense. Clearly he was a great writer. So why is this book so damn awful? I’ve read from unverifiable sources that James was, toward the end of his life (and when writing this novel) suffering with “delirium”. Without rifling through a full biography, I can’t seem to fact-check this. But whether was truly ill or not, ‘The Golden Bowl’ certainly feels like a self-indulgent, well-educated but ultimately boring madman’s work. I have a (definitely unfair) mental image of him dictating his foolish speeches, like old Mr Dorrit.
I adore classics – they’re pretty much all I read. I have a first-class English degree. I understand that patience is at times required with these books. But that patience is always, at some points, rewarded with something inspiring. ‘The Golden Bowl’ utterly lacks inspiration for me, and that is why it’s doomed to the bottom of the bookshelf.
NB: Going forward, I plan to review books as I finish them; I’m going to try and finish my next one – ‘The Age of Innocence’ by Edith Wharton – by Wednesday coming, along with my other targets.