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, 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.”  


Santa Fe 2015: Sunflowers

A well-dressed tourist in this city of tourists, she stood in front of the still life of sunflowers.

“I was in Amsterdam years ago and got to go to the Van Gogh Museum,” she said.  “It was a privilege.”

“How lucky you were,” the artist agreed.

“I loved his Sunflowers painting,”  she continued, “and of course I can see his influence on your work.”

“You know, I get that a lot,”  the artist replied. “It’s the sunflowers, it’s the only thing people see.  But except that they are sunflowers, everything else really is different!”

“Yes, but you can still see his influence,”  the visitor insisted, turning to look at the artist.

Outside, a beautiful day of turquoise skies and spring breeze.

“Thank you,” the artist stepped back on a sigh.

Red Chair Listens: The Borough Treasurer

I keep telling myself, “No more mysteries with inane heroines!”  And then I go and blow it.  The latest: The Borough Treasurer by J. S. Fletcher, 1921.  It started out promisingly with a description of the town of Highmarket, its mayor Mr. Mallalieu, and his partner and the borough treasurer Mr. Cotherstone.  Enter the wily Mr. Kitely, former policeman turned blackmailer (a man has to eat, right?) who recognized Mallalieu and Cotherstone as a pair of embezzlers from 30 years ago . . . .  Murder, of course!

Mr. Kitely is dead, strangled like a pig, and Mallalieu and Cotherstone suspect each other without actually accusing each other of the crime.  Mr. Cotherstone tries to throw the suspicion on the mysterious Mr. Harborough: what is his alibi and why does he refuse to just come out with it?  And why does Mr. Brereton, young lawyer from London, suddenly decide that Mr. Harborough is innocent and he simply must defend him?  Well, OK, that last part is easy . . . .  One look at Avice Harborough, and Mr. Brereton is determined to prove her father’s innocence.  Meanwhile, Mr. Cotherstone has to make sure his past stays in the past, not the least because daughter Lettie is engaged to the wealthy Windle Bent, who is also Mr. Brereton’s best friend.  And rounding out the list of unsavory characters, there is Mr. Stoner, Cotherstone’s clerk and neophyte blackmailer, and Miss Pett, a woman with her own secrets to protect.

In the end, everything is explained, even the lamest red herring plot ever.  I do, however, appreciate the moral imperative that everyone gets what he/she deserves, even if the message could have been less heavy-handed.

IMG_3067Tula, waiting for it to be all over.

50,000 Words

OK, it’s actually 50,023 words, and the novel is NOT done!  I am celebrating, though I don’t have a pie.  It was going to be a cherry-peach pie from my favorite pie shop in Estes Park, but it’s too cold and too windy to trek up there, whine whine whine . . . .  Luckily, I am apparently part Scottish, so I am “making do” with a drop of The Macallan, cask strength (59.3% alcohol), with just a hint of water.  Water of life, right?

What I learned this month:

1.  The New York Times is right — the English language is hard to destroy.  But then again, I may have to change my mind if, say, Sarah Palin were actually to write her own book …

2.  You can’t write if you don’t show up for work.  I am perhaps most proud of the fact that I did not miss a writing day — although it is also true that some of those writing days were spent in bed, with sustenance brought to me at appropriate intervals by my loving family :-))

3.  A little single malt Scotch helps make new neuronal pathways — trust me, I’m a doctor.  A trained professional.

4.  Write in a style with which you are most comfortable.  I tend not to be interested in fiction written less than a hundred years ago — show me a book from the high Victorian era and I am a happy camper.

5.  But because of (4) above, this novel is anything but tightly plotted (oh, wait, the motto was “No plot, no problem,” right?) or tightly written.  Fortunately, it is also true that you cannot revise what you have not written.

Is it happy hour yet?

Opie the Winter Guinea Pig

“I Am Not Deserving”

Word Count, NaNoWriMo 2010,Day 3: 5,156

I have just spewed out 500 words describing the governess finding a letter, taking it over to the window, and daydreaming about the writer of this letter.  No plot no problem, quantity not quality: it’s good to know I am taking all that to heart 🙂

The Chinese have a wonderful saying, used primarily by an older person to a younger person, which loosely translates to: “I am not worthy of ___.”  Its purpose, of course, is to shame the younger person, though I am not sure of its effect given that these days, the sense of entitlement seems to be built into the human genome.

So, I present a classic example.  My nephew, when he graduated from high school, managed to get into only one college (out of 20 or so) — and though it was his last choice (a state school), he only got in after a suspenseful 3 months of sitting on the waiting list.   Which of course ought to have told him something about the disparity between his opinion of himself and the reality.  But, his parents had promised him a new car, and the choice was between a sporty little black BMW or a sporty little black Infiniti.  Not that it matters which he chose, but he ended up with the little black Infiniti.

My father, who never had a handout (he grew up during the Depression) and worked hard all his life, saw the sparkling new car when his grandson drove it home from the dealership.   “I am not worthy of such a car,” my father said, when my nephew offered to take him for a spin.  It has been six years, and I don’t think he has ever ridden in that car.

Be Inspired: NaNoWriMo 2010

Word Count, Day 1: 1,922

NaNoWriMo 2009 didn’t quite work out — I lost my way after 50 pages.  It was nevertheless an interesting experience, so here I am, ready for 2010.  The difference is a tweak of the attitude: I didn’t believe enough in just writing and getting the words out.  I am full of words, but real life means real editing — all the time.  So this year, I am trying really hard to just write, knowing that it really is about the quantity, not quality, and that just “showing up” everyday and getting the 1,600 words out there is the practice.  How else do you begin to write?  Of course, it helps that what I am writing this month is in a style most familiar to me — that of the standard three-volume nineteenth century novel.  I have no incentive to be economical with words 🙂