February 28, 2005

The rhythm of the Remington

In response to my posts about Henry James, Ray Davis from pseudopodium.org wrote in with some biographical revelations about Henry James, and a suggestion about how to read him.

Just in case you haven't already been deluged with notes from Jamesians, here's the message I suspect you might have been deluged with: The break between "early" (or "middle", if you're an especially energetic Jamesian) James and "late" James is conventionally dated at 1896. That was when James gave up the dream of becoming a successful professional playwright, true. It was also when repetitive stress injury (probably due to his enthusiasm for the typewriter) led him to begin dictating his fiction to a secretary rather than writing the first draft himself.

He remained addicted to the rhythm of the typewriter:

"Indeed, at the time when I began to work for him, he had reached a state at which the click of a Remington machine acted as a positive spur. He found it more difficult to compose to the music of any other make. During a fortnight when the Remington was out of order he dictated to an Oliver typewriter with evident discomfort, and he found it almost disconcerting to speak to something that made no responsive sound at all."

The rhythms of his prose, gladly or sadly, however, with removal of the self-editor available to those who combine creation and self-inspection, rapidly evolved or collapsed into those sentences so offputting when attacked directly, as if firmly marching, power-tied, into a hostile board meeting, but so pleasing to those who have learned to float upon their languid, perhaps to the point of tepidity, surfaces.

Yes. Floating on languid, perhaps to the point of tepidity, surfaces. That captures the feeling exactly. I can see that I've been going about this all wrong, struggling with the arduous assembly of phrases and sentences and paragraphs. No doubt it was this old-fashioned kind of reading which led Oscar Wilde to conclude that "Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty". If we just let the stream of consciousness carry us off, rather than trying to wade against the surge of words, the results will be completely different.

Let's try it:

It was not, fortunately, however, at last, that by persisting in pursuit one didn't arrive at regions of admirable shade ...

Yes. Feel those adverbs lapping languidly against the side of our little raft; and suppress your uncertainty about whether one arrives or doesn't arrive, and whether persistance in pursuit has anything to do with it, whatever the outcome. The shade is admirable in any case, and the tepid surfaces are dappled with patterns of pursuit and arrival.

Let's try again:

At this it hung before her that she should have had as never yet her opportunity to say, and it held her for a minute as in a vise, her impression of his now, with his strained smile, which touched her to deepest depths, sounding her in his secret unrest.

Now, what is it that she should have had (as never yet) her opportunity to say? That thing that hung before her? A null, unspecified object? or is the object of say "her impression of his..." Her impression of his what? Her impression of his now, i.e. his present moment? or her impression of his (now, etc.) sounding her? Or was it his smile that was sounding her? By the way, what held her as in a vise? was it the opportunity or the impression? And was it his smile or his sounding that touched her?

Hush. There are, I believe, answers to these questions. The sentence can be parsed and interpreted. But now I see that as soon as I start to ask these questions, struggling to connect subject to verb to object -- linking up appositives and backgrounding parentheticals -- reading becomes hard work. Instead, we should float on the surface of the phrasal stream: hanging before her... her opportunity to say... briefly held as in a vise... her impression... his strained smile... her deepest depths... his secret unrest. Of course. Much better.

I think I still prefer literature in which I can keep track of who did what to whom. But the only real question here is whose feelings about what are not being expressed, and the answer seems to be "everyone's feelings about everything".


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 28, 2005 07:26 AM