The Golden Bowl

by Henry James

I have no compunction about including "spoilers" in this review, as I believe that no modern reader should HAVE TO read Henry James. The Golden Bowl is the most overwritten book on the list yet. Writing like this isn't good, and if you submitted a manuscript like this today, it would come back full of blue lines & strikethroughs, redacted & rejected. By the end of every sentence in The Golden Bowl—which are all full of phrases, clauses, & asides set off by commas, semicolons, & em dashes—you can't even tell or remember what the original subject, verb, & object were. Not only is the omniscient narration this dense, but much of the dialogue has the same labyrinthine, parenthetical cadence to it too! I learn after finishing The Golden Bowl that Henry James was at this point, in his later career, using a secretary working a typewriter to whom he would dictate or recite the story. It explains a lot.

Other problems. James spends paragraphs & paragraphs on ANALOGIES of situations, instead of plainspokenly making the actual situations clear(er). A hindrance to understanding the plot aside for the moment, this technique also causes the narration to move at a glacial pace. Thousands of words (and several pages) comprise but a few seconds of the passage of time in this book. The microcosm of this is reflected in the dialogue again as well. Characters—if they reveal anything at all to one another in conversation—often speak in metaphor of broad concepts like "sacrifice" & "victim"(hood)...and I really have no idea what they're ACTUALLY saying to one another. I find at the book's end that while I've managed to get the gist of the plot, the subtleties are either lost or unintelligible to the modern reader. Henry James even inserts something of a "foil"-like character—the husband of the story's "yenta"—who fulfills the role of guileless questioner...assumedly to help the clueless reader grasp what's going on here. It only helps a little.

Then again, to be completely fair, I will tell you that there are also swaths of writing (I won't go as far as to say entire chapters) in which the prose becomes a bit more lucid & intelligible and loses most of its crazy-making sentence structure. But this only serves to frustrate because it's a tease! It only proves that Henry James is CAPABLE of clearer writing but largely elects not to offer it. And it makes the final 100 pages of the novel—the most recondite of all—therefore absolutely SUCK to read. I know the situation resolves, but I'm not 100% certain WHY. I have to go to Gore Vidal's introduction in my paperback to discover that, yes, I've got the broad strokes but not really the understanding of the human motivation behind them. The prose ambiguity and the things NOT said that are putative Jamesian trademarks notwithstanding, I really don't think the author has painted an accurate picture of how ACTUAL people behave or behaved. I don't care what century or continent it was: If you get busted cheating on your wife it doesn't necessitate that your love or passion for your affair comes to a screeching halt as well (even though your behavior MIGHT).

The take away? The only thing I can come up with is that it's easy to manipulate other people if you can rely on the fact that none of the parties involved would ever be willing to communicate about things that are difficult to talk about. Three cheers for passive aggression: It reigns supreme!