The fiction of Henry James must be an “acquired” taste, because I have friends, good readers, whose eyelids droop and heads shake to indicate ‘No’ at the mere mention of his name. So for all of you who can’t bear his elliptical prose in which the only thing more scarce than action is metaphor, I apologize, but I insist that Henry have his place in The Virtual Anthology. Besides, as another famous writer named Henry (Miller) said, “All great art must be a trifle boring.”
A book of his stories fell into my hands somehow the summer I was eighteen. I had just flunked out of my first year of college and was working at a metal shop, feeding a Burroughs power press that banged oddly shaped slugs from a ten foot long, flat bar of steel I fed to it from off my left shoulder. The first story in the book I chose was actually a novella, “Washington Square,” which I read on my lunch breaks, when I wasn’t getting high down by the railroad tracks with Paco, Raphael and a guy from Virginia who spoke directly to God, and while walking home in the late afternoon beneath the shade of a long avenue of elm trees. When I finished reading it, I was astonished, for never before had I read a story that so entranced me by merely fulfilling those expectations it had set up in the first three pages. I don’t recall many of the details, but I know it was about a woman, in “danger” of becoming an old maid, who was in love with a man she hoped would ask her to marry him. The question at hand: “Was this fellow a bounder, just stringing her along, or did he really love her?” It was pretty clear that he didn’t love her from the start, but as the story developed, I was subject to all of the vicissitudes of hope and despair that the woman experienced in relation to this suitor.
After I finished that collection, I began to look for more James. His writing style was at times complex to the point of being complicated, and his lines, like the paths in a maze, twisted and turned, doubling back on themselves. He was a master of the parenthetical phrase. The excitement in reading him was not due to a melodramatic climax of action. Everything was subtle as hell. Even in “The Turn of the Screw,” which had some truly frightening moments, the effect came more from the calm and quiet nature of the action, the sense of loneliness, a concentration upon what would in any other story seem insignificant. Many of his stories ended in ambiguity and those that didn’t drew their final affect more from what was inferred by the narrator than what was actually told. There was a grace and precision to the whole enterprise that I wanted to get to the bottom of.
I’ve never read any of James’ big novels like Portrait of a Lady or The Golden Bowl. At one time or another I started and abandoned pretty much all of them. Too much. My feeling is that James is better in the shorter form. There are some novels, little more than novellas really, that are just excellent — The Aspern Papers, What Maisie Knew, The Spoils of Poynton. As for the stories (or Tales as James referred to them), there are too many great ones to mention. Some of my favorites are “The Figure in the Carpet,” “The Altar of the Dead,” “The Pension Beaurepas,” “The Marriages.” Each is a masterpiece of psychological fiction, for want of a better term. The drama is 9/10ths in the heads of the characters. They are tales of jealousy, envy, insecurity, hubris, vanity.
An aspect of his fictions that puts some people off, and, to an extent, rightly so, is that they are always also about a certain class. It’s really hard to figure out in a James story what anybody’s job is. Everyone seems to be on a perpetual tour of Europe or they are a famous writer or on vacation. This is some kind of Jamesian leisure class, convenient for the author in that a character doesn’t have to have a daily schedule mucking up the works. Rarely does James turn his attention to a character who is not fairly well off or at least was at one point. James’ stories are not, though, about the trappings of the upper class as Balzac’s often are, they are about the interior of people’s heads. Granted, some of the issues in the reality of the characters that set off their internal dilemmas would be scoffed at by the working class or the poor, but the mental and emotional process of dealing with them gets at the essential elements of the universal human drama. To be fair, many of the stories illustrate the foolishness and destructiveness of the attitudes of the wealthy.
And then there are the ghost stories, or, as Leon Edel (scholar and editor of The Complete Tales of Henry James) referred to them, stories of the supernatural. James wrote quite a number of them. It was a tradition with many 19th century and early 20th century magazines that their Christmas issues carried ghost stories. Many of the well known writers of the time had tried their hand at the genre. James’ close confidant, Edith Wharton, was another writer who did wonders with this form (and if The Virtual Anthology lasts long enough, she will have her place here too). There is a new paperback on the shelves at bookstores these days, the Wordsworth Classics edition of Ghost Stories of Henry James, which includes “The Turn of the Screw” and nine other tales. I bought it because in all of the editions of James’ stories I own, none of them contained “The Real Right Thing,” or “The Private Life.” It’s a nice collection, with notes by James about nearly all of the pieces. Edel’s earlier editon, from 1949, Rutgers University Press, The Ghostly Tales of Henry James, carries eighteen tales. I’d like to get my hands on a copy of that one.
There is something about James’ style that is very fitting for the story of a haunting. First, the quiet, reserved, almost suppressed, recounting of the physical detail of the event stands in stark contrast to the supernatural phenomena that transpire. Then there is the usual psychological aspect of all of his stories. To have a ghost story, you don’t really need a ghost, all you need is a haunting. In this sense, the majority of his stories are ghost stories in that his characters are haunted by their cares, their self-obsessions, their self-doubts. The horror is not one associated with murder or ghoulish phantoms, but an intellectual horror, a philosophical horror. The reader is never quite clear in some of these stories if there was even a ghost at all or if the haunted character has been his or her own ghost, projecting their inner demons onto the world at large. What intrigues me is the way that James manages to skate gracefully along a thin line of ambiguity between the supernatural and the natural.
One of the best of the ghost stories is “The Friends of the Friends,” a piece that James offers no explanation of but acknowledges is one he thinks is a true success in what he was trying to achieve with the form. It was written just prior to “The Turn of the Screw,” and could be seen as an early expression of the ideas that would soon manifest themselves in this later, longer masterpiece. “The Friends” begins with a narrator, unidentified, who has been going through the diaries and papers of a deceased woman. Someone has requested that he try to find something publishable in them, but the narrator attests that she is “fearfully indiscreet,” hinting at the fact that her view of others is often disparaging. The piece that he eventually finds and chooses to present, a separate little booklet containing the complete recounting of a personal tale, bears out the fact that the woman in question is both extremely judgmental of others and very insecure herself. Then the opening narrator steps back, and presents the tale as recorded by the woman in question.
One of the technical achievements of this story, if you could call it that, is the fact that none of the characters is ever named. Even the narrator who is going through the woman’s papers and the woman, herself, remain nameless. Whereas James carries off the sleight of hand flawlessly, never causing confusion, I might have a little more trouble with it. Please bear with my attempts to identify the pronouns. This odd effect adds to the ghostliness of the tale in a way, but if there is some other reason for it, I have been unable to figure it out. Perhaps if you read the story, you might be able to come up with an explanation for its use. If you do, I’d very much appreciate your writing in to Fantastic Metropolis.
The woman begins her tale in the following way: “I know perfectly of course that I brought it upon myself, but that doesn’t make it any better. I was the first to speak of her to him — he had never even heard her mentioned. Even if I had happened not to speak, someone would have made up for it: I tried afterward to find comfort in that reflection. But the comfort of reflections is thin: the only comfort in life is not to have been a fool. That’s a beatitude I shall doubtless never enjoy.” And so the female narrator marks herself as one whose greatest fear in life is to have been perceived as a fool. This, of course, is the way she perceives nearly all those she meets. Her sense of superiority is evident in her descriptions of the friends and the friends of the friends. This attitude in life signals a distinct lack of confidence, a fear of letting go, and ultimately a sort of death in life.
Following this introduction, she tells about a young female friend of her’s, who is beautiful, open and something of a fool for having married unhappily. The one thing that distinguishes this young woman is a story she tells about herself. When she was eighteen, she was traveling through Europe, and one day, in one of the old museums in an unnamed country, she entered a small out of the way gallery. There were two men in the room, one was a custodian of the museum, and the other was sitting on a bench in front of a large work of art. Upon noticing the man on the bench, she recognized it was her own father, who was supposedly back in England. She gave a start upon seeing him there, but as she moved toward him, he disappeared. When her aunt and cousins, with whom she was traveling, caught up with her in the small gallery, she told them of the incident. She then sent a message home to see if her father was well and learned that he had died of a seizure almost at the very moment she had seen him in the gallery. The narrator and all of their mutual friends told and retold this story about the young woman, and she finally became known as “the one, you know, who saw her father’s ghost.” The young woman went on from her youth to make a bad marriage that eventually ended in a separation.
The reader is then introduced to another friend of the narrator’s, a man, who when younger, had a strikingly similar encounter, but with the ghost of his deceased mother. The friends of the friends find this astonishing and neither the woman who saw her father nor the man who saw his mother could be spoken of without mentioning his or her counterpart. It is roundly agreed that the two should meet. Although the narrator and her friends make many attempts to get the two together, something always comes up to prevent the fateful meeting, and their inability to meet goes on for years and years, becoming something of an astonishing story itself.
Then the narrator informs the reader that the man who had seen his mother’s ghost has proposed marriage to her. She accepts and becomes his fiancée. At approximately the same time, the woman who had seen her father’s ghost finds out that the husband she has been separated from has died. She goes to see the narrator and during their visit, she sees the photograph of the narrator’s fiancée on the fireplace mantle. Whereas she had never had any real desire to meet her counterpart before, she now seems extremely interested in him. The narrator then sets up another meeting for them, and the woman swears she will be present.
As the meeting date approaches, and it seems that the meeting will finally take place, the narrator begins to get cold feet. Because the woman is so much better looking than she, is more charming, more open, she is afraid to introduce her fiancée to her in fear she may lose him to her. At the last minute, the narrator sends a message to her fiancée that the meeting has been canceled and it does not come off. Still the woman appears in the late afternoon for the meeting and when she is informed that the narrator’s fiancé will not be able to show up, she appears heartbroken. She again looks at the portrait on the fireplace and then turns it over and looks at the back of it where the man’s address is written. She finally leaves in a state of thinly disguised depression.
Later, when her fiancée meets her for dinner, he reproaches her for not having been able to make the meeting work, and she admits to him that she called it off because she was beginning to feel a certain jealousy for the woman. Here a small rift begins between the narrator and the man and through the remainder of the story it slowly widens. To alleviate his anger at her for having been so foolish, she promises him that she will go to the woman’s house the next day and admit what she had done and apologize. This seems to heal things between the man and the narrator. Still, he does not stay with her after dinner but goes home. The next day, the narrator takes the train out to the suburbs to tell the woman what happened. When she gets to the woman’s door, she is greeted by the maid, who informs her that upon returning home the previous evening at 11:00, the woman fell upon the sofa and died. It comes to light that the woman had a long diagnosed heart ailment.
I will end my recounting of the plot here so as not to ruin the entire reading experience for those interested in checking out the story. Suffice it to say that James is not yet done in developing his plot. He torques it nicely at least three more times before the piece draws to a close. One can guess from a piece of minor information I have given in this essay what his next move might be.
What I like about “The Friends of the Friends” foremost is the writing. The style is impeccable, complex without being confusing, it manages to capture the machinations of the second narrator, her inner-thoughts as well as the action of the piece, drawing analogies between those inner and outer realities. Also, the plot begins simply enough, and you believe you have a handle on it and feel if it only follows this course through to the end it still promises a satisfying ghost story. Then there comes the addition of the second person who has seen a loved one’s fetch a long distance from home at the hour of death. The plot is turned another notch by the fact that no matter what pains are gone to, it seems impossible to bring the two together. On and on, James continues to ratchet up the plot as we go, and by the time the thing ends we are far afield from where we thought we were at first headed. All of this is accomplished at a very calm pace, no rush, no trumped up suspense.
There is a real eeriness to this story, and it certainly belongs in the ghost story genre, but there is also, almost more importantly, an intense portrait of the character of the troubled narrator. For my taste, when a speculative piece of fiction pays attention to the depth and development of its characters the results are always more rewarding than when the characters are indistinguishable cut outs, crudely formed, whose only purpose is to let the plot work on them. What is created by the former is a richer reading experience. “The Friends” offers supernatural events, an ingenious plot, an intensive character study, an unsettling feeling that continues to grow, a masterful manifestation of ambiguity, and a meditation on at least one aspect of the human drama. A question remains after one has seen the end of the story as to why the narrator acted as she did and what was her purpose in writing the incident down. That, one can spend some time pondering to any number of ends.
When readers claim that James’ stories have no plot, are boring and pointless to boot, I realize that they have never read his work. Although murder and mayhem and chains rattling in the upstairs hall have their charms for readers (this reader as well), James’ ghost stories will keep you awake at night just as late; more enthralled by entities haunting your head than fearful of ones haunting your house.
For the lover of the literature of the fantastic, I suggest The Sacred Fount; a short novel by Henry James. This one really skates on the thinnest edge of the genre, on a single blade of ambiguity.
Copyright © 2003 by Jeffrey Ford.