I’m such a hopeless hedgehog. Probably half my blogging on About Last Night has been about Henry James or Lost in Translation, and I’ve been trying to give these topics a rest. But there’s too much interesting stuff about James floating around the internet lately to pass up.
James only seems literary because, especially in the late novels, he is constantly trying to catch the precise attitudes of his characters toward each other, reflected not just in their conversation but their gestures and thoughts and tiny inflections.
Having given a sample passage from The Awkward Age, he goes on:
The passage is lovely in its way, but James is attempting something to which what James Baldwin called the “disastrously explicit” medium of prose is completely ill-suited. Half of it is stage directions, and it could be done better, and more compactly, with movie actors who can follow such directions-which admittedly is asking a lot. James tried, unsuccessfully, to write plays, but the stage, where the actors have to project to the back row, is still too histrionic for what he has in mind. What he needed was the talkies. If James had been born a century later I’m guessing he would have done most of his writing for film, and maybe tossed off a few novels in his spare time.
This sounds right, and after reading it I was struck with sudden insight into my love of Lost in Translation: Sofia Coppola’s movie is a really very Jamesian pleasure. It does in visual language what James, in Aaron’s account, bumped up against the limits of prose trying to do in his novels.
Aaron’s account of James’s modus operandi sheds real light on the success of Lost, which is clinched in the final scene. That scene is just saturated with feeling, and despite all its layers–joy, grief, hope, irony, loss–it manages not to be crushing, but somehow aloft. It is a rich, extraordinary moment. But it is made possible by the accumulated emotional content of many ordinary scenes that preceded it, in which nothing seemed to happen (golfing, flower-arranging, a great deal of staring out of windows).
Doesn’t this start to sound like the classic complaint about James? Nothing happens–and it takes pages and pages not to happen. But I think he was up to something very much like Coppola is. He tried to capture in detail the psychic weather in which his characters acted. He did so by making the reader familiar with even their most fleeting, fugitive sensations and associations–to the extreme fatigue of many readers, but not mine. In the later novels, if you pay your dues, and follow the tortured syntax and absorb all of the complex relations, then you stand to be rewarded at the end, when a simple gesture, look, or word–loaded with meaning beforehand–makes everything fall apart or come together. It can blow you right over.
I’m as surprised as anyone to find myself comparing Henry James to Sofia Coppola, but I’m convinced that the movie is Jamesian in both narrative strategy and temperament. Furthermore, I would love to see Coppola try her hand at writing and filming an adaptation of one of the more recalcitrant James works, like What Maisie Knew or “In the Cage” (which has made me cry). Both of these highly interiorized works consist almost entirely of those “gestures and thoughts and tiny inflections” that Aaron pinpointed, and yet both have tremendous dramatic capacity. So how about it, Sofia?