Henry James (1843-1916) wrote more than twenty novels, including The Portrait of a Lady, The Turn of the Screw, and The Golden Bowl.
"Featuring a new introduction, it is a brilliant and sophisticated satire of manners and morals in the best Jamesian tradition. The Wings of the Dove is an indelible take on the tragic love triangle in which two poor yet ardent lovers seduce a dying woman in the hope that she will leave them her fortune."
A number of years ago, I became very interested in what I thought of as Henry James’s best book, The Turn of the Screw. In particular, I believed that one hundred years of critical study had missed the point of it completely, and I had a better idea (which I still believe to be true). It’s only recently, however -- in the wake of completing the manuscript for a short book about the correspondence of Henry James and his philosopher brother William -- that I’ve come to realize that I thought of The Turn of the Screw as Henry James’s best book only because it was the one I could understand.
James had a lot of problems with people understanding him -- most notably, William -- and to this day he has a kind of writer’s-writer grudgingly granted Master-status. Tooling around on Facebook, I’m surprised to see him so infrequently listed (as in never, so far) among folks’ favorite books or authors. If he is discussed these days, it’s for his famous ghost story, which mostly gets used to justify the recent glut of crossover literary/genre books.
But there’s a problem with that: James didn’t think a whole lot of The Turn of the Screw. No, scratch that. He did like the book, he thought he’d executed it perfectly -- he just didn’t prefer it. It was too obviously commercial. James wrote a lot of things for money in his life, and occasionally he was craven in doing so, but he always recognized it for what it was. He didn’t like unambitious writers, or writers who wrote only one kind of thing, and he criticized “vulgar,” tasteless audiences, too -- ones that wanted to be told only stories that were exactly like stories they had already been told.
So what were James’s new stories? Well, they were the big novels that I didn’t think were his best work. I had told myself that my problem with them was that I just couldn’t get all that worked up about whether some young girl was going to marry. Without really knowing it, I was signing on to a familiar take on James -- his fascination with the lives of young women spoke probably to some latent facet of his psychology or personality. AKA, he was gay. But the truth is, that’s stupid. I don’t know whether James was gay, and neither do you, and neither of us should care. And more important, these books are much better than The Turn of the Screw, and I had to write a book of my own to figure out why. (It’ll appear, by the way, from the University of Iowa Press in Fall 2012!)
And that brings me to my real recommendation here -- The Wings of the Dove. I’m not going to bother telling you the plot of the book at all, because that’s kind of the point I’m trying to make. Most book reviews these days are ninety percent plot summary -- so is it any surprise that we have trouble understanding an author who was trying to transcend plot? The plot of The Wings of the Dove doesn’t matter; it’s how the story’s told that makes the difference. Which means that if you’ve seen the movie, then you don’t understand anything at all about the book.
How’s it told? It’s almost entirely without events. That is, it’s almost all character interiority -- you’re in the mind of a character, riding sidecar to their consciousness, as they mull away on some upcoming event, and then suddenly, whoosh, the event has come and gone, and now the character is recalling the event, characterizing it in retrospect. Through almost the whole book -- and it’s a big book -- almost nothing just outright happens.
To understand why he would do this, we have to go back in time a little bit. For James, just about everything returns to Balzac (e.g. the plot of Eugenie Grandet sounds so much like a Jamesian plot it’s not even funny). Late in his life, in an essay called “The Lesson of Balzac,” James described Balzac as a “painterly” writer, and a monk. It’s the painter part I want to focus on (though if we were to all think of James as a monk, too, we’d probably have much more intelligent discussions about him).
Henry and William James were both more or less reared in the nursery of museums, and you’ll have to take my word for it that Henry said on a number of occasions that what he wanted to do, as a writer, was what he thought he saw happening in the history of art. What was that? Well, after the invention of perspective -- depth -- paintings were divided into foregrounds and backgrounds. Often you had a portrait in the foreground -- Virgins and Jesuses -- and in the background you’d have some kind of landscape, maybe some ruins. As time passed (art historians, please sheath your sabers -- this is not an art history lecture), artists started to get more and more interested in that background. The background, in other words, climbed into the foreground: thus, the shift from portrait painting to landscape painting. In the avant garde -- though Henry didn’t know this -- something else was happening: even though the background became the foreground, it didn’t come into any kind of focus. Hello, impressionism!
Now that’s a terribly, terribly, terribly simplified version of things -- but it does seem to jibe with how Henry James basically thought of it, and he articulated as much in a story that described the illustrations of a particular edition of Sleeping Beauty. In short, he noted how the blurry background of an image seemed to tug on the imagination, how it triggered something like a stream of thought, a reverie of images. That’s what he wanted his fiction to do -- inspire readerly reverie.
So how does The Wings of the Dove do that? Well, in a story, the plot is the foreground -- the events, the dialogue, the action. What’s in the background, often unstated (think Hemingway, Carver, etc.), is the meandering minds of the characters who have mulled these events in advance, and who will reflect on them in retrospect. The Wings of the Dove, like the art that Henry wanted to emulate, inverts the background and the foreground so that all we get are blurry impressions of events -- blurry impressions that are truer to a reality the confusion and ambiguity of which we fool ourselves by denying.
When I reread The Wings of the Dove for my book, I started to see it like this, as James wanted me to see it -- I started to make out the shapes in the fog. My old anxieties faded away. I found that I cared a whole lot less about who was going to wind up marrying whom than I did about recognizing the mind wheeling there on the page, streaming and reverieing away -- didn’t it seem a little similar to mine? That, I realized with a jolt, was the whole point.