24 September 2009

Book Review: The Figure in the Carpet and other stories by Henry James

The Figure in the Carpet In “The Author of Beltraffio” a young man secures an opportunity to visit an author he greatly admires. Mark Ambient’s seemingly idyllic home contains a family strained by tension. When his guest attempts a well-meaning intervention, something finally gives. A house party allows Paul Overt to get close to his literary hero in “The Lesson of the Master.” As well as Henry St George, he also meets Miss Marian Fancourt. But Paul’s new mentor has his own opinions on the place of women - even intelligent ones - in a writer’s life. On a holiday in Switzerland in “The Private Life” actress Blanche Adney sets out to persuade Clarence Vawdrey to write her the role of a lifetime. Clarence is curiously vague on the subject of his writing, even claiming to have been working on a new piece when his fellow guests know he wasn’t anywhere near pen and paper. But if Clarence is odd, Lord Mellifont might be odder still.

In “The Middle Years” a novelist who suspects his own years are coming to an end is meets a young doctor who has to choose between tending to his new friend and the chance of wealth. Another novelist passes away in “The Death of the Lion,” leaving a magazine journalist in an awkward predicament. He had appointed himself a kind of guard dog to Neil Paraday, preserving the peace of his final months. Now he wants to oversee the publication of Paraday’s last work - but there’s a catch. In “The Next Time” Mrs Highmore and her brother-in-law Ralph Limbert are writers with opposite problems. She has made a successful career out of writing, but longs for a splendid failure to make her reputation. He needs the money a best-selling novel would bring, but can never manage to produce anything but brilliant works that no one buys. A journalist wants to know the deeper meaning in the collected works of Hugh Vereker - the unifying pattern, “The Figure in the Carpet.” Trying to find it unleashes a comedy of errors. Another journalist is drawn into a battle of wills with the editor of the Cynosure over an article on the late author “John Delavoy,” with the dead man’s sister caught in the middle.

Yes, there is a theme here - writers, writing, and the literary life. And on these topics Mr James and I shall have to disagree. His characters and their works are all so highbrow and serious. Personally I read for entertainment and information, not an intellectual uplifting; and my own literary aspiration is to be an escape from, not a reflection of the highest truth of, real life. There is, of course, a place for erudite literature; it just doesn’t happen to be in my reading neighbourhood. So “The Next Time,” where quantity of sales and quality of work don’t - can’t - coexist, irked me, as well as seeming snobbish.

Although the collection is built around “The Figure in the Carpet” my favourite by far was “The Author of Beltraffio.” The smallest words and actions carry a wealth of significance and speak volumes about the characters. It’s suspenseful, laden with a sense of impending doom - it’s so clearly a situation that is too tense to remain static - and ranks among the top short stories I’ve read. “The Private Life” I think I’ve met before, in a collection with The Turn of the Screw; I enjoyed the chance to re-read it while focussing on the literary rather than the eerie aspect. (On the whole I prefer the latter.)

Several of the remaining stories - “The Lesson of the Master,” “The Figure in the Carpet,” and especially “The Death of the Lion” carried a final twist that livened them up considerably. In fact if the beginnings and middles had been more interesting (and in the case of “The Lesson of the Master,” shorter) they could have been highly amusing. (And if the narrator of “The Death of the Lion” hadn’t struck me as arrogant for taking it upon himself to organise Paraday’s life.) But together with “The Middle Years” and “John Delavoy” they reminded me of a long-ago family road trip which included the opal-mining town of Lightning Ridge. There might be a gem waiting for you at the end - or not. Either way, you have to go through some pretty barren country to get there.

Rating: C


Jenny said...

Henry James is one of those writers I sometimes think I would love, and sometimes think I would hate. I never pick up his books because they're long and wordy and I don't want to read them if I'm just going to hate them. It's not a very progressive relationship that I have with Henry James...but sorry this wasn't better for you!

CoversGirl said...

He can be insufferably long-winded at times, but I did love The Turn of the Screw. I hope one day to meet another of his novels I love as much, but no luck yet.

Christine said...

Blargh, I can't stand Henry James -- but good for you for getting through!

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776