Book Reivew: Portrait of a Man Reading The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady
Henry James

You may recall that I brought eight books with me for our 16-day trip. I managed to get through five of those eight. No doubt I would finished more had Henry James not been in the bunch. You can see from the pictures above that I had it with me everywhere I went in Switzerland. Including reading a paragraph or two at over 11,000 feet.

I have never had an easy time with James. He seems like an author I should like more than I do. It took me some time, over a hundred pages or so, to get to the point where I started to be interested in what I was reading. I was bemoaning his long-winded sentences when I began to wonder if the novel could be improved with some judicious pruning. As I read, I started mentally editing the text to remove what seemed like extraneous words. I was reminded of that line from the film “Amadeus” about Mozart’s music having “too many notes.” But then a funny thing happened. As I started to edit the book in my head, all the extra words that I thought might be expendable turned out to add quite a lot nuance, and weren’t as expendable as I thought. And from a process standpoint, trying to mentally edit the book turned out to be a good way to read the text more closely and ultimately get more out of it.

Having said that, I am still not a huge fan of Henry James. There were some things about this particular book that annoyed me more than a little. I had a hard time believing that the main character, Isabel, was as fascinating and smart as James and the characters in the book kept telling me she was. She seemed more like a game player than anything else. Willfully obtuse and unwilling to communicate clearly with people who loved her most and had her best interest in mind. And a bad judge of character of those who were prone to use her or steer her in the wrong direction. Her friend Henrietta I found particularly annoying and meddlesome. Madame Merle was perhaps the biggest villain in the book, yet everyone loved her until they hated her.

As far as the story goes, let me try and sum it up in 50 words or fewer: Young American woman taken to Europe by wealthy aunt. Becomes everyone’s darling and has men falling at her feet. Claims to have an unquenchable independent spirit that refuses to be tamed (married). Then gets inexplicably married to a man who ultimately tames her and makes her miserable. Finally admits her misery but is seemingly unable or unwilling to do anything about it. (Okay that was 62 words, but we are talking about Henry James after all.)

No doubt there are some great themes that I missed. For instance, I am pretty sure James was trying to say something about Americans and Europeans, but what that was I am not entirely sure. And the last pages of the book left me scratching my head. The language was just antiquated enough that I am not really sure what happened at the end.

I didn’t dislike the book, and I must say I missed the story once I finished the 580 or so pages, but I can’t say I was a big fan.

Although I may be a bit thick when it comes to picking up on some of the grand themes of the book, I did pick up on one inconsistency. At least I am pretty sure it was an error. Chapter 34 begins just before lunch time:

One morning, on her return from her drive, some half-hour before luncheon…the
stillness of noontide hung over it…

Yet, despite the fact that the action in the chapter was linear (and moving forward), the chapter inexplicably ends with Isabel asking her cousin if he is going to come in for breakfast to which he answers in the negative and returns to the garden

…to breakfast on the Florentine sunshine.

Maybe James and his editors got confused by his own run-on sentences and didn’t notice the mistake. Or perhaps there is a James scholar out there who will tell me that I missed something and I am the one in error, not James.

By the Decade: Reading 12 decades in 12 months

Blogger 3M has issued a challenge to the book-reading blogosphere to read books from as many consecutive decades as possible by the end of the year. She is going to do 15 books/15 decades between January 1, 2007 and December 31, 2007. You can check out her By the Decade Reading Challenge and sign up by June 30, 2007 if you want to participate officially.

Even if you don’t, you might want to think about going beyond the bestseller list and choosing some things from other decades.

I have decided to do 12 books from 12 consecutive decades, working back from our present 2000s (otherwise named by my partner as the “ought naughts” as in “these Bush years ought naught to have happened”) to the 1890s.

So, here is my list (bold titles have been finished):

1890s: Lourdes by Emile Zola
1900s: The Golden Bowl by Henry James
1910s: The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence – 5/23/07
1920s: Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley – 7/16/07
1930s: The Big Money by John Dos Passos (3rd in his USA trilogy) – 5/30/07
1940s: Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon – 5/20/07
1950s: Mountolive by Lawrence Durrell (3rd in his Alexandria Quartet) – 2/27/07
1960s: The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark – 7/1/07
1970s: A Word Child by Iris Murdoch – 6/4/07
1980s: In the City of Fear by Ward Just – 11/10/07
1990s: American Pastoral by Philip Roth
2000s: I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe – 4/20/07