Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Literary Politician Inspires a Sunday Afternoon's Musings

While I'm not one to make political posts especially in social (or anti-social) media, it doesn't mean I don't have my own opinions but it does mean I don't feel the need to preach to my choir of friends or annoy those who disagree with me.

In the past few months, while dealing with back trouble, a 50-day siege of sciatica, and the aftermath of surgery last month, I have been doing a great deal of reading if nothing else, mostly revisiting books I don't recall that well which I'd read maybe 20-40 years ago. It surprises me how much I don't remember or what (or for what reasons) I do. Still, having read something in my 20s or 40s might have a different perspective now that I'm in my 60s. 

But with this election now (finally) behind us, I found this observation made by a character in a novel by an American author which I just started rereading the other day. It's set mostly in England and this particular scene concerns a young man who is being courted by his political friends to stand for a seat in Parliament.

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“...I speak beautifully. I can turn it on, a fine flood of it, at the shortest notice. The better it is the worse it is, the kind is so inferior. It has nothing to do with the truth or the search for it; nothing to do with intelligence, or candour, or honour. It's an appeal to everything that for one's self one despises..., to stupidity, to ignorance, to density, to the love of names and phrases, the love of hollow, idiotic words, shutting the eyes tight and making a noise. Do men who respect each other or themselves talk to each other that way? They know they would deserve kicking if they were to attempt it. A man would blush to say to himself in the darkness of the night the things he stands up on a platform in the garish light of day to stuff into the ears of a multitude whose intelligence he pretends that he esteems.”
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A couple pages later, as the discussion with his rich friend continues (she is a woman whose money is expected to back his election), he explains that his mother, the widow of a late Member of Parliament, is herself a political person:

= = = = = = =
“And she can't tell me a bit more than you can what she thinks, what she believes, what she desires.”

“Excuse me, I can tell you perfectly. There's one thing I always desire – to keep out a Tory.”

“I see; that's a great philosophy.”

“It will do very well. And I desire the good of the country. I'm not ashamed of that.”

“And can you give me an idea of what it is – the good of the country?”

“I know perfectly what it isn't. It isn't what the Tories want to do.”

“What do they want to do?”

“Oh, it would take me long to tell you. All sorts of trash.”

“It would take you long, and it would take them longer! All they want to do is to prevent us from doing. On our side, we want to prevent them from preventing us. That's about as clearly as we all see it. So, on one side and the other, it's a beautiful, lucid, inspiring programme.”
= = = = = = =

Regardless of ones own politics - Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative (Tory, in this case) - it might comes as a surprise these two views were taken from The Tragic Muse by Henry James, written in 1889.

Initially, when I first read this in the late-1980s or early-'90s, whenever I was reading the Complete Novels and a Slew of Short Stories by Henry James in chronological order, I must have glossed over Chapter 6 because I distinctly remember details of the scenes immediately preceding and following it but recall nothing of this scene. There is less "story" in Chapter 6 and, when I was 40-ish, I was still apparently interested more in story.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * 

Nick Dormer, the young man in question who had once won a Parliamentary seat and then lost it the next time 'round, is not fond of being the politician in the family like his father was. He would rather paint. He's an artist with an affinity for painting portraits and a political career would obviously not only limit his time to paint, it would be at odds with an artist's sensitivities. The "tragic muse" of the title is a young would-be actress named Miriam Rooth who is introduced in the next chapter and shown to have little immediate talent for it. Together they and their aspirations form the basic tensions of this long and leisurely novel (Leon Edel, the biographer and editor of so much Henry James, called it his longest and most leisurely novel) which is also perhaps James' most personal statement about being an artist.

Henry James (March, 1890)
It is the end of a series of "Middle Period" novels largely overlooked in comparison to works like The Portrait of a Lady (1880, written when he was 37) or the last phase of by and large largely indigestible masterpieces like The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl (written between 1902-1904).

In mid-August, I began reading The Bostonians of 1885 again, excusing it as "research" for a scene set in Harvard that same year in my own novel-in-progress, another one of my Classical Music Appreciation Comedy-Thrillers, In Search of Tom Purdue, and then decided, for no particular reason, to continue with the novel he began immediately afterward, The Princess Casamassima, full of conspiracies and terrorists in the underground societies of London and which, at least at the opening, reads like James' take on Charles Dickens.

Both of these were "critical failures" as far as sales were concerned, and it's probably no coincidence that his next novel, which he described as a jeu d'esprit, was a short, rather light-hearted comic work (a light-hearted comedy as far as Henry James is concerned) called The Reverberator.

In between, I had decided to read another novel set in Boston and written in 1885 - William Dean Howell's The Rise of Silas Lapham which I'd originally read while still in high school (Class of '67). Then, I thought it should have been The Rise and Fall of Silas Lapham since it largely chronicles the loss of his fortune, climaxing in the fire that destroys the grand house he's building to proclaim himself part of Boston society. This time around, I saw the fire at his house as just another loss and instead of "falling" he had actually risen to become a moral man rather than one living on greed - his unwillingness to bilk future investors from their money just to save his own - and one who is ultimately happier in his "old age" back on his original farm than he was as an industrial baron worth millions. As a teenager on the verge of life, I saw the life ahead of me as a succession of successes, culminating in financial well-being and professional acceptance. Now, as a "senior citizen" whose life has not quite worked out as dreamed by a student, I have a different sense of what - whatever - this life might all be about.

One of Howell's plot-threads is the romance between the son of a prestigious Boston family who falls in love with one of Lapham's two daughters. Eventually, after much tension and equivocation, the daughter (not the one everyone assumed he'd fallen for) accepts the young man's proposal only after it is clear the loss of her father's fortune is no cause for him to walk away from her.

Within two years, James had written his next novel, this Reverberator, shorter and more populist in tone than was usual for him, in which the young son of a prestigious (if pompous) family of American ex-patriots living in Paris falls in love with the younger daughter of a wealthy American tourist who lacks the class and culture to fit in with French society (especially considering the young man's three older sisters are all married to empty-headed French aristocrats). Despite creating a horrendous faux-pas which scandalizes his family, the young woman realizes instead he still loves her and, on the final page, he throws over his family to run off instead with the traveling Americans (cue the violins).

The Tragic Muse, originally intended as two separate novels before a publisher asked for a larger-than-usual work from him, is also the last novel he wrote before taking a five-year break to produce a series of plays, something of a dream of his - you can see him champing at the restraints of a novel in the course of his dialogue and scene-setting in the Muse - which, unfortunately, turned out to be a critical and financial as well as personal and psychological disaster. But then in 1896, he published The Spoils of Poynton and the following year wrote his most famous work, the short story The Turn of the Screw.

But for now, we'll leave it there.

The first time I'd read through James' works, I was primarily interested in his literary style and how he went from something like The Portrait of a Lady, one of my favorite novels, period, to the headache-inducing Golden Bowl. It was the same kind of question why a music-lover might want to listen to the complete works of Beethoven in the order he wrote them to hear how the composer of the Late Quartets evolved from the first set of piano trios and sonatas. In fact, in the end, I found James' three great late novels much easier to read once I finally got there and have reread each of them since (and am looking forward to picking them up again in the year ahead). While his meandering dependent clauses and grammatical curlicues can still be maddening, so can the vagueness of his (or rather his characters') thoughts - a few pages well into one of the post-dramatic period novels, The Sacred Fount published in 1901, would be sufficient to see how far his viewpoint of his characters' viewpoints could go. But that is all part of how an artist evolves his voice.

Now, it's a more leisurely stroll through distantly recalled but not clearly remembered territory as I deal with compositional issues in the music I still hope to write and the novel that, for some reason, I am still working on. And, since recuperating is a slow and difficult process, it still beats watching a lot of television...

- Dick Strawser