Saturday, May 31, 2008


Henry James vs The Dog

An amusing recollection of Henry James that I just came across while reading E.F. Benson's 1930 memoir As We Were:

He talked like a book of his own in the making, just as he used to dictate it, with endless erasures of speech, til he got the exact and final form of his sentence... He avoided, just as he avoided in his writing, any definite and final statement, if what he meant to say could be conveyed in picturesque and allusive periphrasis... I recall, as the simplest instance, how he described a call paid at dusk on some neighbors at Rye, how he rang the bell and nothing happened, how he rang again and waited, how at the end there came steps in the passage and the door was slowly opened, and there appeared in advance on the threshold, "Something black, something canine." To have said a black dog would not have done at all....

Then came a morning when he emerged some half an hour before his usual time, and he took me by the arm and walked me up and down the lawn.

"An event has occurred today," he said, exactly as if he was still dictating, "which no doubt to you, fresh from your loud, your reverberating London, with its mosaic of multifarious movements and intensive interests, might seem justly and reasonably enough to be scarcely perceptible in all that hum and hurry and hubbub, but to me here in little Rye, tranquil and isolated little Rye, a silted-up Cinque-port but now far from the sea and more readily accessible to bicyclists and pedestrians than to sea captains and smugglers; Rye, where, at the present moment, so happily, so blessedly I hold you trapped in the corner, my angulus terrae--"

On and on went the rich interminable sentence... [until] he despaired of ever struggling free from the python-coils of subordinate clauses and allusive parentheses, for he broke off short and said, "In point of fact, my dear Fred Benson, I have finished my book."

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