A Small Boy and Others, by Henry James

Late Henry James, in the main represented by his final three novels written around the turn of the century, is difficult enough, but from my recollection at least something which after a while you can get into the rhythm of; – but try to imagine what Henry James would have ended up writing ten years later if he had continued down the same path. Well, that is what A Small Boy and Others is like. Certainly the slowest book I have read this year (I started it, perhaps in 2012), and yet still been inclined to persevere with.

Here is a selection as a taster, from the beginning of the last chapter. (I won’t give you the context, since James himself infrequently does).

I feel that much might be made of my memories of Boulogne-sur-Mer had I but here left room for the vast little subject; in which I should probably, once started, wander to and fro as exploringly, as perceivingly, as discoveringly, I am fairly tempted to call it, as might really give the measure of my small operations at the time. I was almost wholly reduced there to operations of that mere inward and superficially idle order at which we have already so freely assisted; reduced by a cause I shall presently mention, the production of a great blur, well-nigh after the fashion of some mild domestic but quite considerably spreading grease-spot, in respect to the world of action such as it was, more or less immediately about me. I must personally have lived during this pale predicament almost only by seeing what I could, after my incorrigible ambulant fashion – a practice that may well have made me pass for bringing home nothing in the least exhibitional – rather than by pursuing the inquires and interests that agitated, to whatever intensity, our on the whole widening little circle. The images I speak of as matter for more evocation that [than?] I can spare them were the fruit of two different periods at Boulogne, a shorter and a longer; this second appearing to us all, at the time, I gather, too endlessly and blightedly prolonged: so sharply, before it was over, did I at any rate come to yearn for the Rue Montaigne again, the Rue Montaigne “sublet” for a term under a flurry produced in my parents’ breasts by a “financial crisis” of great violence to which the American world, as a matter now of recorded history, I believe, had tragically fallen victim, and which had imperilled or curtailed for some months our moderate means of existence. We were to recover, I make out, our disturbed balance, and were to pursue awhile further our chase of the alien, the somehow repeatedly postponed real opportunity; and the second, the comparatively cramped and depressed connection with the classic refuge, as it then was, of spasmodic thrift, when not of settled indigence, for the embarrassed of our race in the largest sense of this matter, was to be shuffled off at last with no scant relief and reaction. This is perhaps exactly why the whole picture of our existence at the Pas-de-Calais watering place pleads to me now for the full indulgence, what would be in other words every touch of tenderness workable, after all the years, over the lost and confused and above all, on their own side, poor ultimately rather vulgarised and violated little sources of impression: items and aspects these which while they in their degree and after thier sort flourished we only asked to admire, or at least to appreciate, for their rewarding extreme queerness. The very centre of my particular consciousness of the place turned too soon to the fact of my coming in there for the gravest illness of my life, an all but mortal attack of the malignant typhus of the old days; which, after laying me as low as I could well be laid for many weeks, condemned me to a convalescence so arduous that I saw my apparently scant possibilities, by the measure of them then taken, even as through a glass darkly, or through the expansive blur for which I found just above a homely image.

Which quotation highlights a few points: a) James’ well-known obsession with modifying phrases; b) long sentences of grammar so unnatural that, often just when you are expecting them to continue, they suddenly stop, and you have to retrace your understanding back to some curious usage James had employed to throw you off the scent; c) the endless mention of things which he’s not going to explain until the next paragraph; d) sentences whose abstraction is beyond any real understanding; and, e) problematic editing.

This latter is a real issue in my edition (Gibson Square Books, 2001). I’d suggest that the editor of this book found James’ prose at times even more exasperating than I did, and at some point just gave up altogether. See, for instance, the beginning of chapter 22:

Little else of that Parisian passage remains with me – it was probably of the briefest; I recover only a visit with my father to the Palais de l’Industrie, where the first of the great French Exhibitions, on the model, much reduced, of the English Crystal Palace of 1851, was still open, a fact explaining the crowded inns; and
from that visit win back but the department of the English pictures and our stopping long before The Order of Relase of a young English painter, J.E. Millais, who had just leaped into fame, and my impression of the rare treatment of whose baby’s bare legs, pendent from its mother’s arms, is still as vivid to me as if from yesterday.

The very next words in this passage, “the vivid yields again to the vague”, suggests a lot both about the experience of reading this work (for out of the more obscure passages, there often come moments of great lucidity), and of James’ method of writing it; for A Small Boy is a memoir, by a man now at the end of his life of the boy who constituted his life’s beginning – an investigation, in fact, which Henry James is conducting, into the causes of Henry James (and in particular, the causes of that specific Henry James who was to become a novelist) – with a constant acknowledgement that his memories are vague, elusive and frequently delusive, so that, as every phrase has its modifier, wishing to put us at a greater remove from certainty, so does every memory – leaving us nonetheless with a strangely strong impression of how this boy did indeed soak in from his environment the novelistic tendency. For it was not as we were thinking, that Henry James emerged fully formed one day at the age of fifty-five, but was also in fact once young, and young in the most vibrant years of New York City – though later moving to Paris and London (and, as above, Boulogne) – and lived a most bohemian life (it was unclear from the book – or I came away with no great impression of – what exactly his father did for a living, save merely to know people: – the introduction informs me he lived off inherited wealth), moving from early age through artistic circles (the theatre in particular) and constantly shifting from school to school (a lot of the book is taken up with impressions of these different schools), existing forever in the shadow of his apparently much admired older brother William (his younger siblings, as is their tragic fate, are infrequent remarked and little characterised).

A fascinating book then, but requiring a degree of concentration mostly these days beyond my powers and demanding each and every sentence be read intently, since the moment your attention starts to wander you find yourself lost. The reader must frequently read the same sentence five times, and even on the fifth occasion have no nearer idea of what the writer has just stated and begin to wonder whether the meaning of all words has suddenly slipped from his mind – or that perhaps after all words cannot be used in combination one with another as he had up to this point believed.

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2 thoughts on “A Small Boy and Others, by Henry James

  1. That is amazing. And I thought I was having a good slog through the end of Proust. Well, I am, but not as good as if I were reading this.

  2. It is perversely quite interesting. I have a copy of his unfinished novel The Ivory Tower too, which was published in 1917, though I’m not sure when it was actually written.

    I was thinking while reading it whether there was any connection with Proust: the groping after elusive memories in long sentences; A Small Boy written in 1913. Of course, one good thing about the James is that it’s only about 200 pages. You certainly couldn’t take 2000 pages of it.

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