Thursday, July 1, 2021

The Sacred Fount by Henry James

Source of book: I own this


I decided to read this book mostly because it was the other novel in my Library of America volume that contains The Wings of the Dove. After all, why not just finish the book? And at under 200 pages, not nearly the project as his longer novels. 


As I found out once I started reading it, The Sacred Fount is weird even by Henry James standards. It is his only novel in the first person (although a couple of his novellas, such as The Turn of the Screw are also in first person), and the narrator never gets a name or much in the way of identifying information. It is at least plausible that he is intended to be a stand-in for the author, which would be interesting because the narrator is not a particularly sympathetic character. 


Also interesting is that the book was widely panned at the time, although it has gained a bit of popularity since, and James himself ended up disliking it. One could view it as a bit experimental, and possibly not a particularly successful one. 


Finally, having finished it, and wondered to myself, “what the hell was that all about??” I looked up a number of articles about it, and discovered that the book has many possible interpretations - a sure sign that it wasn’t just me that had difficulty figuring it out. Add in the late James writing style, with its dense and convoluted sentences, and the experience was definitely a bewildering slog. I would say, based on that, either my least favorite James novel so far, or at least next to least - I found Daisy Miller irritating and dull. That is one interesting thing about James: along with superb masterpieces, he managed both bizarre experiments and predictable clunkers. 


On the other hand, this book isn’t bad per se. It’s just kind of weird, never really resolves, and involves wealthy people I found it hard to care about. Also, the central premise is...a bit dated. I certainly wouldn’t start with this book if you are new to Henry James. 

Society Ball by Hal Hurst


The book very nearly observes the Classical Unities: one principle action, twenty-four hours, and a single place. Slightly more than a day elapses, and the action is split between a train and an English country house, where the characters are spending a weekend. 


On the train, the narrator observes an acquaintance, Gilbert Long, who seems to have transformed since the previous year. Where he seemed dull and shy, he is now witty and outgoing. The narrator decides that this must be due to what is known as the “vampire” theory of human sexuality - that one partner essentially rejuvenates his or herself at the expense of the other partner’s vitality. Thus, Long must have a hidden partner who is feeding his new persona, and the way to figure out who she is will be to see a woman who has seemingly lost her vitality. 


The narrator decides to confide this theory to another acquaintance, Grace Brissenden, who initially agrees with him. But, it gets more complicated, because Ms. Brissenden has recently married Mr. Brissenden, a man ten years her junior. To the narrator’s surprise, however, while Grace seems to have become a young woman again, her husband seems old and almost frail. This, of course, confirms his “vampire” theory. In negotiating the discussion with Grace, he has to, therefore, play things close to his chest, lest he give away to her that he considers her to be a vampire herself. 


This being Henry James, almost everything that is said between the characters is actually not said but implied. Everything is hints and feints and almost-but-not-quite statements. It is like James looks everywhere but actually at the thing he describes. That’s typical James, but in this case, nothing really happens either. Most of the book is the narrator building an ever more elaborate theory to try to tease out what he thinks is happening. At the end, Grace decides he is just crazy, and rejects his theory. But is she concealing her own infidelity to her husband? Do we even know anything at all by the end? And is James basically describing then parodying his own social manners and overanalysis that have made him both a popular guest and a bewildering writer? I have no idea, and, I suspect, neither does anyone else, including James. 


Although the plot, if you can call it that, is puzzling, and the resolution elusive, there are quite a few good lines along the way. For example, this description by the narrator of the way lovers influence each other.


What an intimacy, what an intensity of relation, I said to myself, so successful a process implied! It was of course familiar enough that when people were so deeply in love they rubbed off on each other - that a great pressure of soul to soul usually left on either side a sufficient show of tell-tale traces. 


Or this one, which Grace disputes. 


Happiness, you know, is, to a lady in the full tide of social secess, even more becoming than a new French frock. You have the advantage, for your beauty, of being admirably married. You bloom in your husband’s presence. 


It is fascinating that the narrator is on the edge of self awareness throughout the book, although he never gets there until, maybe, at the end. The irony in this next quote is amazing - one of the best things James wrote in this book. 


It appeared then that the more things I fitted together the larger sense, every way, they made - a remark in which I found an extraordinary elation. It justified my indiscreet curiosity; it crowned my underhand process with beauty. The beauty perhaps was only for me - the beauty of having been right; it made at all events an element in which, while the long day softly dropped, I wandered and drifted and securely floated. This element bore me bravely up, and my private triumph struck me as all one with the charm of the moment and of the place.


In essence, the narrator deals with his own social awkwardness by stalking the other guests and creating this fantasy structure in his own mind about their supposed romantic connections. He is hardly the only person to find great beauty in being “right” about the supposed hidden reality behind what he sees. This is the great appeal of conspiracy theories, after all. In the same passage, the narrator has to justify why he just happens to be there where another character, the tragically widowed Mrs. Server (who may or may not be sleeping with Mr. Brissenden…) comes by. 


“I like a lonely walk at the end of a day full of people: it’s always, to me, on such occasions, quite as if something has happened that the mind wants to catch and fix before the vividness fades. So I mope by myself an hour - I take stock of my impressions.” 


Actually, I literally do that, and I suspect James did too. While a social butterfly, I suspect he was introverted, and needed to recharge and organize his impressions. Since so many of his stories have a genesis in things told to him by his acquaintances, this seems quite plausible. The narrator here isn’t being dishonest, entirely, even though he is lying about his ultimate motives. 


In each book, it seems James has at least one really great description of a character. In this one, it is Mr. Brissenden, the prematurely aged husband. 


[T]here was something in a manner decorative even in Brissenden’s wonted gloom. He reminded me at this hour more than ever of some fine old Velasquez or other portrait - a presentation of ugliness and melancholy that might have been royal. There was as little of the common in his dry, distinguished patience as in the case I had made out for him. Blighted and ensconced, he looked at it over the rigid convention, his peculiar perfection of necktie, shirt-front and waistcoat, as if some aged remnant of sovereignty at the opera looks over the ribbon of an order and the ledge of a box. 


Later, observing Grace and Gilbert together, the narrator makes another interesting observation.


The fellow-feeling of each for the lost light of the other remained in me but a tie supposititious - the full-blown flower of my theory. It would show here as another flower, equally mature, for me to have made out a similar dim community between Gilbert Long and Mrs. Brissenden - to be able to figure them as groping side by side, proportionately, towards a fellowship of light overtaken; but if I failed of this, for ideal symmetry, that seemed to rest on the general truth that joy brings people less together than sorrow.


That last part of the line is particularly fascinating. Does joy bring people together less than sorrow does? I rather suspect that to be the case. And yet, sorrow also drives people apart more effectively than joy too. Something to think about. 


I do have to mention another line, not so much for its brilliance, but for it being perhaps the Platonic Form of a late-period Henry James sentence. It occurs just before the final big scene, when Grace pretty much rips the narrator and calls him crazy. Before that, she tells him to meet her after everyone else goes to bed, so they can talk privately and without interruption.


It was strange that, the next minute, I should find myself sure that I was, as I may put it, free; it was at all events indisputable that as I stood there watching her recede and fairly studying, in my preoccupation, her handsome affirmative back and the special sweep of her long dress - it was indisputable that, on some intimation I could, at that instant, recognize but not seize, my consciousness was aware of having performed a full revolution. 


If you manage to stick with it to the end, you find that the verb of the second clause (after the semicolon) comes near the end, with so much introductory material interposing and qualifying it, that you really have to read it again just to see how everything relates. It is both fascinating and frustrating to read. 


Similarly, as the narrator begins the conversation with Grace, he muses in a Jamesian manner, in the last buildup of his house of cards before she knocks it down. 


She explained now, she explained too much, she abounded, talking herself stoutly into any assurance that failed her. I had meanwhile with every word she uttered a sharper sense of the pressure, behind them all, of a new consciousness. It was full of everything she didn’t say, and what she said was no representation whatever of what was most in her mind. 


Or not. This is peak delusion for the narrator. Or, it is peak epiphany, and Grace is just hiding behind what she says. Or maybe both. 


As with The Wings of the Dove, James ends the book with a memorable and poignant line. Unfortunately, in this book unlike the former, it kind of hangs there with an uncertain meaning. I simultaneously thought “that’s a great line” and “what the hell is that supposed to mean. Grace leaves the narrator with his theory in shambles, and his ego shattered. She gets the last word, despite his best attempts. And this is how he concludes. 


Such a last word - the word that put me altogether nowhere - was too unacceptable not to prescribe afresh that prompt test of escape to other air for which I had earlier in the evening seen so much reason. I should certainly never again, on the spot, quite hang together, even though it wasn’t really that I hadn’t three times her method. What I too fatally lacked was her tone.


So yes, “What I too fatally lacked was her tone” is a great last line, and quite memorable. But in context, wait, what? So is he still clinging to his theories? Or has he realized she was right? Or does this even have anything to do with what just went down? Does HE even have any idea what happened? (Actually, that is my theory: he has no idea what just hit him, and accidentally comes up with a great line.) 


That’s kind of a microcosm of the book. “What was THAT about?” I did kind of have fun reading it, mostly, because I like James’ language and weird writing style. But I was left kind of disappointed at the end, because it all seemed for naught. No real resolution, just more questions, and a feeling that James himself didn’t quite know how to end it. Hence why I don’t consider it his finest work. Perhaps too, it suffers from being my follow up to The Wings of the Dove, which is a true masterpiece, with a vision that is consistent and carefully revealed as the story progresses. Again, don’t start with this one if you are new to James. Of the ones I have read, I would say Washington Square is a way to ease in, or perhaps The Turn of the Screw, even if it is a bit atypical. Or, just take the plunge and go for The Wings of the Dove, which is my favorite so far. 



Other posts about Henry James:


Eight Novellas and Stories (including Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw)

Washington Square

The Bostonians

The Portrait of a Lady

The Wings of the Dove


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