Friday, 22 May 2009

36 - 'What Maisie Knew' by Henry James

I do try. From time to time, I pick up a Henry James book, and I tell myself that this is a very famous author with wonderful insights into the human condition, convincing myself that this time will be different, this time I'll really enjoy it.

Never works.

Unfortunately, this time was no exception. The major feeling I had on completing 'What Maisie Knew' was one of relief, which is never a sign of a fun time had by all. Less than 300 pages, but it seemed like an eternity. So what went wrong?

Let me just clarify my opinion before I am summarily arrested, tried and executed by the HJ Fan Club (of which at least one of my faithful followers is a member...). I am not saying that I didn't like this book; I did, to a certain extent. I am not saying that it's not a good book; there is plenty to appreciate about the story and the style. The problem is that where with my previous read, 'Middlemarch', I was stealing as many minutes as possible from the day to read the next chapter or two (or ten), with this book, I pretty much only read on the train to and from work and spent large amounts of time staring out of the window. At fog (it's almost Winter here in Melbourne, and yes, it does get cold). This is the third James novel I've read, the others being 'The Europeans' and 'The Bostonians', and I'm beginning to wonder...

The story itself is an interesting one. A young English girl is used as a pawn in the messy divorce of her parents with both wanting custody of her only to annoy the other as much as humanly (or diabolically) possible. Maisie, the young heroine of the peace, entusted to the care of a governess, is made to shuttle from one house to the next and back again, all the while being exposed to the less-than-polite behaviour of her (frankly idiotic) parents. When both remarry, their game changes from one of keeping Maisie to that of trying to offload her onto the other, a game that becomes further complicated when the two step-parents become fond of Maisie, and consequently, each other. At the end of the book, Maisie, slightly older (and, hopefully, wiser) has to finally decide where her loyalties lie.

The action is seen entirely through Maisie's eyes; she is present in every scene, and this is both a strength and a weakness. The reader experiences events through the filter of Maisie's youthful naiveity and must piece the story together from the fragments gathered by the young girl. However, this style of story-telling also has the effect of being, in my opinion, slightly repetitive. The novel consists mainly of endless conversations between two of the adults which Maisie tries to follow and conversations between the little girl and one of her guardians where the adult uses her as a sounding board for their thoughts, not really talking to her at all.

The biggest issue I have though is with the language used and especially the convoluted style James uses to write his books. Never using one word where three clauses will do just as well, he spends page upon page on expressing something other writers would fit onto the back of an envelope. Although it is probably this very style which endears him to a lot of people, I am not a big fan (and secretly think that it was sometimes done just to show that he could). I suspect that having gone through the tangle of double negatives and multiple relative clauses James delighted in pouring out, whatever I read next will seem like one of my daughter's picture books (which are very good by the way; lots of princesses and animals, although not usually in the same story).

Yes, as a writer he is fit, but (to misquote a song you may or may not know) don't he know it. Henry James is the literary equivalent of a busty blonde flicking her hair back and sauntering along the beach, a trail of love-struck admirers in her wake. Ugly metaphor? Probably. Harsh? Not if you had read the ten-page essay accompanying my edition of 'What Maisie Knew' where James outlined what he wanted to do in the book and what issues he had with finding the right voice for his protagonists - and where he basically said that it was brilliant and he was a genius (I paraphrase; I don't have time to copy it out the way he said it). I'll probably give him another go, particularly as I haven't read some of his most famous works ('The Portrait of a Lady', 'The Wings of the Dove'), but I'll give myself some time to build up to the effort. And that, after all, as I said at the start, is what disappoints me; while reading should be a pleasure, reading anything by Henry James seems like more of a chore.

OK, I'm ready for the handcuffs...