On not reading Henry James

Quotations From Henry James, selected by Louis S. Auchincloss. Charlottesville, Va.: The University Press of Virginia, 167 pp. Limited edition. Slip case. $30. My confession: I have read very few novels by Henry James through. It took me several years to finish ``The Golden Bowl''; my paperback copy was swollen with bath water by the time we were finished. I have not finished ``The Wings of the Dove''; I have a nice new Oxford paperback with a gorgeous Bronzino on the cover and a new Bodley Head cloth, but little intention of actually reading ``The Wings of the Dove.''

To read Henry James is to savor something exquisitely rich. So I like my James in morsels. Which is why it takes me forever to finish a book. So Louis Auchincloss provides a perfect solution to my problem, for I really must read a little James now and then, slowly. James reminds me like no other writer that it's the feeling that counts.

The compiler of this volume is a most distinguished man. Partner in the New York law firm Hawkins, Delafield, and Wood, he is president of the Museum of the City of New York and a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He has published more than 30 books; his 27th novel, ``Honorable Men,'' will be available soon from Houghton Mifflin. Mr. Auchincloss has chosen passages from the novels, essays, and letters to compile his book of touchstones out of Henry James. And he seems to sympathize w ith me about reading -- or not reading -- James. He says in his introduction, ``I have found in a lifetime of reading James that my appreciation of parts of his books is at times almost as great as my appreciaiton of the whole.''

The Jamesian sentence is one of the wonders of the Western world. Auchincloss disagrees with those who condemn James's later writing, when the sentence itself became an issue. James, for Auchincloss, just kept getting better at writing sentences and paragraphs. But his section of ``Sentences and Phrases'' does not show off this late style. There are plenty in the other sections, though. The feeling of these sentences is unforgettable.

Caricaturist and James contemporary Max Beerbohm, who also loved the late James (and James himself), made fun of it, and celebrated it, in ``A Variety of Things'': As his parody shows (it is included in Dwight Macdonald's ``Parodies: an Anthology''), the style depends on the suspense of sense -- grammatical and otherwise -- and it's easy to get lost or go to sleep (witness my bath-swollen ``Golden Bowl'') in the middle. But Beerbohm was a genius of reason and light. The feeling in a James sentence brims

with something near tragedy.

Consider this from the section, ``Scenes of Tension'':

She continued to walk and continued to pause; she stopped afresh for the look into the smoking-room, and by this time -- it was as if the recognition had of itself arrested her -- she saw as in a picture, with the temptation she had fled from quite extinct, why it was she had been able to give herself from the first so little to the vulgar heat of her wrong.

That's Maggie in ``The Golden Bowl.'' Auchincloss in his introduction compares James to the Impressionists. As we see her in the sentence above, Maggie could have been the creation of Degas or Monet, if not Renoir. Maggie is caught in a moment of truth: There is a darkness about this light, this truth, and it does not free her. The delicate strength of the sentence in which she is enmeshed, the interjections, the prepositional qualifications, from the imitative rhythm of the first clause to the tremendo us firmness at the end, all James's art sees to that.

And yet the feeling a sentence like that gives this reader is paradoxically free. The sentence is so consciously and lovingly a made thing that however tragic the action, the art still triumphs. No wonder Henry James is called ``the master.'' James's art can be seen in the smallest, as in the biggest, of his designs. We see it in each of the 16 sections of this book. And it is important that we see it.

Henry James has his detractors; they think of him as James thought of Gilbert Osmond in ``The Portrait of a Lady'': ``His ambition was not to please the world but to please himself by exciting the world's curiosity and then declining to satisfy it.'' As if those long late sentences, that start somewhere out in the mid-Atlantic like the largest of moonlit swells, have to please the world! Of course James was pleased to excite the world's curiosity: He was a novelist. But to leave unsatisfied is to leave too soon: Live with James, as Mr. Auchincloss clearly has, and there will be no regrets.

``Quotations From Henry James'' is intended as an introduction to a master and as a concise reader for his devotees. In both purposes it should succeed. It is beautiful but not fussy in design; the paper is archival, the print large, clear, and very readable -- it's a handsome tribute from a most distinguished writer to our most distinguished. ``This edition is limited to 500 copies,'' it says on the final page, with more than a suggestion that there will be another, less expensive one. Th ere should be.

I think I'll go finish ``The Wings of the Dove.''

Tom D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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