I have tried several times to read The Wings of the Dove and always stalled somewhere around page 30, when Kate Croy and Merton Densher meet in Kensington Gardens. A couple of months ago, after spending my summer reading back-to-back Stephen King novels, I was restlessly scanning the bookshelf for something new and experienced the intellectual version of the thing where anemic people yearn to eat dirt. I had surfeited myself on easy reading; my brain, sensing the slow atrophying and death of its parts, compelled me to reach for Henry James, and together we chugged right through the gate of Kensington Gardens and all the way to the end. When you’re ready, you’re ready.
I was so ready to read The Wings of the Dove that it caused me to have a mystical experience of the sort typically associated with psychotropic drugs. Let’s say that my previous efforts with this book were equivalent to the disappointing herbal cigarette from a store called Groovy Vibes, or a bag of mulch obtained at the concert from someone’s questionable cousin. But this time I got, so to speak, the good shit. You eat the Henry James mushrooms, you look upon his dense thicket of sentences, his plodding parade of commas, and suddenly the text, and the entire world, come into insane focus. The mere act of securing myself a sour-smelling BART seat and opening the paperback was enough, for the two weeks it took me to finish the novel, to return me to this heightened state.
As it happened, reading The Wings of the Dove coincided with a breakthrough in my note-taking. Rather than trying to hold my book and write out long quotations on the train, rather than snapping acid-weakened corners with excessive dog-earing, I realized that it’s possible to take a picture of the choice passage with my spiffy phone. Since discovering this tactic I have used it to very good effect with some books. However, when my consciousness-elevating sojourn with Henry James ended, I was confronted with nearly a hundred photos of pages — a mute and largely meaningless mosaic of text and image like an ill-considered senior art project. Looking at them now is like reading the mad scrawl of someone who has actually taken drugs. Perusing these “notes,” all I can hope for are a few good flashbacks.
Flipping hopelessly through the Henry James digital photo album, I find that some of my choice passages retain the startling magic that I felt during my trip. Some of them, in fact, leave me with the distinct impression that there is actually something a little bit trippy about Henry James. Kate’s beau Merton Densher, a journalist without enough money to be a suitable husband, is offered the chance to go to America and write a series of society dispatches for his paper; the advent of this opportunity is described as an “imprisoned thought” that “had, in a word, on the opening of the door, flown straight out into Densher’s face, or perched at least on his shoulder, making him look up in surprise from his mere inky office-table.” I see the imprisoned thought like a friendly little pterodactyl, the inky table, Densher looking up with a charming startled look on his guileless face (specifically, I see a young Daniel Day Lewis, as directed by Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola).
(If Henry James wasn’t the originator of the vision of hope as “the thing with feathers,” he certainly made something of it with all his lovely winged things. Here’s Mrs. Stringham, the companion of a young heiress named Milly Theale, when they first form their connection: “But this imagination — the fancy of a possible link with the remarkable young thing from New York — had mustered courage: had perched, on the instant, at the clearest look-out it could find and might be said to have remained there till, only a few months later, it had caught, in surprise and joy, the unmistakable flash of a signal.”)
As far as I know, the major complaint about Henry James is that he is insanely boring. But if you look at him the right way you understand that he is just relentlessly attuned to the dimensions of moments and thoughts, like people on drugs, or teenagers, or neurotic adults. It is easy to miss this when you are busy being grumpy about the incomprehensible passages that pop up all over:
Not to talk of what they might have talked of drove them to other ground; it was as if they used a perverse insistence to make up what they ignored. They concealed their pursuit of the irrelevant by the charm of their manner; they took precautions of a courtesy that they had formerly left to come of itself; often when he had quitted her, he stopped short, walking off, with the aftersense of their change.
I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but squinted at in just the right way, some passages reminded me a bit of Tao Lin’s Taipei, a book I am on the record as finding abhorrent. Here, when Kate thinks about her sister, who made an undistinguished marriage and is now saddled with undistinguished widowhood: “She was little more than a ragged relic, a plain, prosaic result of him, as if she had somehow been pulled through him as through an obstinate funnel, only to be left crumpled and useless and with nothing in her but what he accounted for.” How, when I loathe the style of Tao Lin, can I see him preordained in a book I found so stirring? Some of it is merely coincidence, the deployment of similar analogy and rhythm, as here in Taipei: “He imagined his trajectory as a vacuum-sealed tube, into which he’d arrived and through which — traveling alone in the vacuum-sealed tube of his own life — he’d be suctioned and from which he’d exit, as a successful delivery to some unimaginable recipient.”
I think, though, that while there is a universe separating their prose, Henry James wields a real-time emotional barometer in the way that Tao Lin strives to do. The difference is that Tao Lin’s project is concerned only with the measurements of one person. Perhaps this is a more honest project, if we are to concede, à la Conrad, that life is ultimately a solo enterprise. But this can be such a limiting approach. In The Wings of the Dove, James devotes his prodigious abilities to the group, so that we feel, more or less, the preoccupations of Kate, of Merton, of the mysteriously ailing Milly, of her anxious minder Susan Stringham. James also manages to show the gulf that exists in human consciousness between certain hard revelations about the self and deeper, damning truths still unplumbed:
[Kate] saw as she had never seen before how material things spoke to her. She saw, and she blushed to see, that if, in contrast with some of its old aspects, life now affected her as a dress successfully “done up,” this was exactly by reason of the trimmings and lace, was a matter of ribbons and silk and velvet. She had a dire accessibility to pleasure from such sources.
Kate sees this, but she doesn’t see the way that this relatively common and redeemable “accessibility” to material things will cause her in the end to do something irredeemable. James scrupulously describes his characters while still managing to leave the impression of a final veil separating each person from what they really think of themselves, and one another.
Another key difference between James and Lin is that, if James, like Lin, has you living so much in the moment and inside the minds of his characters, his moments are all of them in service to a story. James strikes me as very bold and modern in his approach to the novel, but he does not abandon plot as a critical component of the form. When we learn about Kate’s knowledge of her own weakness for the finer things above, it is as critical a plot-point as Milly’s wealth, described inimitably thus:
…it was in the fine folds of the helplessly expensive little black frock that she drew over the grass as she now strolled vaguely off…it lurked between the leaves of the uncut but antiquated Tauchnitz volume of which, before going out, she had mechanically possessed herself. She couldn’t dress it away, nor walk it away, nor read it away, nor think it away; she could neither smile it away in any dreamy absence nor blow it away in any softened sigh. She couldn’t have lost it if she had tried — that was what it was to be really rich. It had to be the thing you were.
And the plot is a real doozy. Poor Kate with a dead mother and unsuitable father, taken in by a rich aunt, who forbids her marrying poor Merton even as the aunt finds Merton a charming companion. Merton goes to America, meets heiress. Heiress falls for Merton, which may or may not be a result of Merton’s excessive attentions. Heiress meets lady writer. Lady writer falls for heiress. Heiress and lady writer go to England, and meet Kate and Aunt. Heiress is discovered to have unnamed fatal disease with very few symptoms. Kate convinces Merton to woo heiress, even to marry her, so as to get her money. Merton demands sex in exchange for his promise. How did these nice people go so wrong? How will it end?
Another surprise, considering my earlier struggles with Henry James: this is actually a very sexy book. It’s a canard of old people that entertainment of yesteryear had a kind of chaste sexiness that you just don’t see today, when TV is a riot of exposed jugs and racy language. Usually I am inclined to disagree; the old movies that are allegedly sexy always just leave me feeling desolate over the thinness of Grace Kelly or Ingrid Bergman, unmoved by Cary Grant, and wondering if people used to go all the way to fourth base while exclusively doing close-mouthed kissing. But Wings of the Dove is such a suggestive book that if two characters had even the briefest conversation I fancied that they then ravished one another on a credenza. As Merton returns to London from New York, he yearns for Kate: “His absence from her for so many weeks had had such an effect upon him that his demands, his desires had grown; and only the night before, as his ship steamed, beneath summer stars, in sight of the Irish coast, he had felt all the force of his particular necessity.”
Once Kate and Merton are reunited, this “particular necessity” remains unmet in a spicy way:
If Kate had consented to drive away with him and alight at his house, there would probably enough have occurred for them, at the foot of his steps, one of those strange instants between man and woman that blow upon the red spark, the spark of conflict, ever latent in the depths of passion. She would have shaken her head — oh sadly, divinely — on the question of coming in; and he, though doing all justice to her refusal, would have yet felt his eyes reach further into her own than a possible word, at a time, could reach.
When Merton finally understands the full extent of Kate’s plot — that he should lay hold to Milly’s fortune by marrying her before she dies, he is by then so full of unrelieved passion that he will do anything:
…he passed his hand into her arm with a force that produced for them another pause. “I’ll tell any lie you want, any your idea requires, if you’ll only come to me.”
“Come to you?” She spoke low.
“Come to me.”
Very few people really come out well in this novel, but there is still sympathy to go around. How awful to be Kate and belong to the chattel sex; for your earthly comfort to be tied up with the whims of your benevolent relative; how awful to have been brought up with fancies and expectations you can ill-afford, ill-equipped to earn a living. How sad for sex to be your only bargaining chip, so that when it’s gone you’ve got nothing left to trade. How sad to be Merton Densher, with an excess of chivalry deployed only when it’s too late. And how sad, of course, to be Milly, to be so young and rich and lovely, and dying and preyed-upon.
Just like you have to exercise your idiom when you’ve spent the summer devouring beach reads, you have to exercise your emotional register. When you are in a state of placidity, you must remind yourself of the way that it is possible to feel like a giant, throbbing nerve. But if mushrooms leave you fetal in a corner, if you’re too old for MDMA, thrill-seek with Henry James. He is there to remind you that every conversation, every interaction shared among human beings, is multidimensional and freighted with meaning.