Henry James: The Awkward Age

One of my rituals when visiting Santa Fe was stopping off at Nicholas Potter Books; unfortunately, he had to close his bookstore a couple of years ago.  There are a few used bookstores scattered around Santa Fe, but I have not found one quite like the old Nicholas Potter Books.  I mention this bookstore because while I have the complete Henry James on Kindle, tablet, and iPhone, I still like to read him in book form.  About 5 years ago, I found a Pantheon’s The Novel Library edition (1949) of The Awkward Age.  It has teeny-tiny print on very thin paper, and is just a tad too big to fit in my pocket.  When I started to read the book, I did not need glasses . . . .  I finally finished the book last week, and am currently on my second prescription for reading glasses.

Henry_James
Henry James, 1910. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, George Grantham Bain Collection, Digital ID ggbain.04703

My favorite Henry James novel is The Ambassadors: it is his most approachable late work, the least elliptical, and with the most sympathetic lead character.  The Awkward Age is not in that league, but I can see the progression from that book to his final works.  The short version of the story is that of two girls, Nanda and Aggie, the former too much exposed to a corrupting society, the latter cossetted to the point of imbecility, and how each breaks out of her awkward age.  Surrounding them are mothers and guardians and friends, each with his/her own set of beliefs on the role of society and the moral code, and each acting ultimately not for the girls’ good, but for his/her own benefit.  The tale is told almost entirely in dialogue, and that made it a difficult slog.  Without a lot of clues about the people populating the play, I was left to my own devices about how to feel about the whole arc of the story.  All the characters talk … and talk … and talk … and it is never clear exactly what they are talking about and how they actually feel about anything, or anybody, in their lives.

I think I tried too hard the first few years to read every word, mull over every sentence, with the result that I would put the book down for a while, then have to reread from the beginning.  The trick to reading this particular book is to pretend you really are in the drawing room with the characters, and just “listen” semi-attentively as you would at a cocktail party populated by people you don’t particularly like.  You know you are going to miss some things along the way, but really, does it matter if at the end of the night, you do in fact get the gist of it all?

A random conversation between Mrs. Brook and Vanderbank:

“I called Nanda in because I wanted to.”

“Precisely; but what I don’t make out, you see, is what you’ve since gained by it.”  

“You mean she only hates me the more?”

Van’s impatience, in the movement with which he turned from her, had a flare still sharper.  “You know I’m incapable of meaning anything of the sort.”  

She waited a minute while his back was presented.  “I sometimes think, in effect, that you’re incapable of anything straightforward.”  

Indeed.

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