A novelist who loved to keep the reader guessing

Henry James (Wikimedia Commons)

Over at the Guardian, Alex Clark is spot on. August is the time for the long read, indeed the time for “another assault on the unscaled mountains of literature.” Last year she failed with Henry James, but this year she is setting off to climb Mount Proust, a peak that has defied, among others, the distinguished novelist Susan Hill until just recently, as she confesses in the Spectator Diary.

While Susan Hill took 50 years to get round to reading Proust successfully through to the end, I realise I can give him a few years yet. I have begun In Search of Lost Time at least once, but after fifty pages in which that madeleine never quite made it from teacup to mouth, I gave up.

In the meantime, like Alex Clark, I am tackling Henry James, once more. I had to read Henry James at university as part of my English degree, and found him a mixed bag. The Portrait of A Lady remains a favourite book of mine. Though long, it is readable and enjoyable, and contains the best revelation in the whole of literature (no spoilers – read it yourself). It also has the advantage of beautiful settings: Rome, Florence, Paris and that evocative opening scene somewhere in the Thames Valley.

While the Portrait is an easy read, and the same goes for some of the earlier James novels, What Maisie Knew, which is a short book, is impossible. There is a mad imprecision of expression to James – one can never quite know what his characters mean when they speak – and this makes What Maisie Knew a deeply opaque novel. Some of the later novels are not quite like this: The Golden Bowl and the Wings of the Dove are both rewarding, and both were made into excellent films.

But the absolute peak of James is The Ambassadors, as every James fan will tell you, and it is this that I am currently engaged upon. As a youth of twenty summers, I found it very difficult, and though I returned to it in the intervening years, I never got on with it. Now, however, I am the same age as the hero, Lambert Strether, and as a result the stream of consciousness makes much more sense to me. There still is that lack of precision about the book, though this, if we are honest, is what makes James the great writer he is in the eyes of his devotees, as he is a writer who loves to keep the reader guessing, indeed delights in playing with us.

Strether has come to Paris from New England to rescue Chad Newsome at his mother’s behest from an entanglement with a French lady, and Mrs Newsome will marry Strether if he succeeds. But as Strether discovers more about Chad, he begins to see that there may be more to life than marriage with Mrs Newsome. On these rather slight foundations rests a superstructure consisting of almost 400 pages of dense prose. There is little action, but much analysis and introspection.

If ambiguity is the hallmark of James, his most famous work, the Turn of the Screw, a long short story, is perhaps where we see this aspect of him most clearly. Being a short work and a ghost story it is not really suitable for summer, but it is probably the best way in to “The Master” as people love to call James. Told at two removes – thus giving us a double dose of doubt as to its reliability – it is the story of two seemingly innocent children who are tormented by ghosts – unless of course the ghosts only exist in the mind of their governess. Is she mad or deluded or both? And is the story some sort of Freudian allegory? Considering its brevity, the Turn of the Screw has probably generated more discussion than any work of comparable length.

Find a good beach, and settle down with the book, and when you put it aside, ask yourself – where does reality lie: within us, or in the world about us? That is the perfect holiday question. Happy reading!