Henry James is My Ambien

By Julianne Dalcanton | July 19, 2008 1:12 pm

The standard lore is that most scientists are essentially self-aware robots, thinking their rigid rightleft brain thoughts from morning to night, taking short breaks to practice mentally rotating 3-D objects. In reality, most of the scientists I know also have a long suit in one or more of the arts as well. Many are excellent musicians, artists, or writers. Even more are voracious readers, or at least, as voracious as their schedule allows.

With all the parenting and sciencing going on, the only time I really have to read is right before bed. This window allows me a bit of peace and quiet, while simultaneously serving to divert my rather obsessive brain from the pressing issues which dominate the rest of my waking thoughts. Finding the right book, however, is a problem. Non-fiction tends to work well, but fiction is a bit trickier, as if the book is too compelling, I run the risk of staying up till 3am.

Over the past decade, I’ve been on a steady diet of victorian literature (Trollop, Hardy, etc). I’ve read and enjoyed Henry James, but man alive, the latest of his is killing me. As I now learn, late-period James is a very different animal than early-period James. I’m reading “The Wings of the Dove”, and find that, in spite of being a native speaker of english and well-read in James’ contemporaries, I simply cannot understand what he writes some fraction of the time.

For example, dust off your sentence diagramming skills and see what you can make of this, which starts and ends well, but in the middle veers off into I know not where:

The difficulty with Densher was that he looked vague without looking weak — idle without looking empty. It was the accident, possibly, of his long legs, which were apt to stretch themselves, of his straight hair and his well-shaped head, never, the latter, neatly smooth, and apt, into the bargain, at the time of quite other calls upon it, to throw itself suddenly back and, supported behind by his uplifted arms and interlocked hands, place him for unconscionable periods in communion with the ceiling, the treetops, the sky.

It’s actually perfect pre-bed reading, as after about 4 pages I’m exhausted. However, at 545 pages, I may not get to read another book before Christmas.


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