1904, Books, Fiction

The Golden Bowl (1904) by Henry James

At long last I am done with this tedious novel. But, I shouldn’t start this on a bad note, so let’s start with the positives:

I liked this significantly more than The Ambassadors and actually managed to finish this one. I understand that some people view The Ambassadors as the greater aesthetic achievement, for the reasons I hated that novel, but at least this has something I can sort of relate to (sort of). I don’t hate all the characters (just most of them) and it feels as though something is actually going to happen, even though that thing is still just “oh it’s so hard to be rich and have nothing to do but worry about our relationships.” This one felt to me like there was more dialogue, too, and though I feel like James’ characters all talk like he writes (shockingly) at least the dialogue breaks up his endless, winding, discursive sentences.


This is still just a story of romantic trouble among the idol rich, told in James’ elliptical, obscurantist style. I prefer other authors’ versions of these kinds of stories for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that James’ style is endlessly maddening in his inability to say exactly what he means with any brevity and that this bizarre way of writing extends to his characters who often (though not always) speak in ways I have never heard anyone speak English.

I understand that James is admired for this style of his – his ability to just describe and describe and describe while nothing happens and the reader loses track of what he’s talking about. But what is really confusing in this novel is that his characters seem to have true psychological insights -0 the kind of psychological insights only characters in turn of the century “realist” novels could ever have, in their certainty of insight – but these people cannot express themselves in words. Half the dialogue in the book (well, not really) is one character literally repeating the words of the other character, but with a question mark. That’s why the Colonel is the only likable character. He appears to be the only one who is confused by the way everyone else talks. Good for him.

I think one could claim that James’ style is supposed to be the literary expression of all these feelings that cannot be stated or acted upon, and that’s what makes this novel great. But I have to care about the characters and I cannot when they all sound the same when they talk, and when they all talk in this incomprehensible, stilted style. These characters all feel like they are from the same place and have the same wants and desires, the only things that differentiate them are their genders – the women are considerably more neurotic – and their ages (maybe).

I think this is probably the last James book I will ever read. It really should be.


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