Sunday, July 13, 2014

Recently Read: The Europeans, by Henry James

The Europeans is the most entertaining James novel I've read so far in my quest of reading all his novels in chronological order. It's a sort-of reversal of The American; instead of a financially successful American attempting to marry into European aristocracy, The Europeans concerns mid-19th century visitors from across the pond staying with and somewhat preying upon, plain-living New Englanders of various types, with marriage as the ultimate goal.

The Europeans are a broke and devil-may-care bohemian/artist and his older sister, unequally married to a prince attempting to dump her. The machinations of this somewhat dubious couple's attempts to ingratiate themselves into the lives (if not the hearts) of their straight-faced cousins are fascinating, subtle and frequently funny. The short novel is not considered one of James' best works, but it has a sort of tossed off quality that rings truer than some of his more labored over "serious" work. All of the characters ring true to my mind and the work is a slow simmering mixture of comedy, pathos and acute observation of manners.

I read this book 34 years ago, and enjoyed even more reading it recently.

One thought that occurred to me while reading The Europeans is how unworthy the medium of film is in translating good literature to sound and pictures. Film is literally incapable of communicating the depth of details presented in text. Consider, for example, how this passage would be filmed. I'll find out soon, when I watch the Merchant-Ivory adaptation onto film:

The Baroness took her uncle's hand, and stood looking at him with her ugly face and her beautiful smile. "Have I done right to come?" she asked.

"Very right, very right," said Mr. Wentworth, solemnly. He had arranged in his mind a little speech; but now it quite faded away. He felt almost frightened. He had never been looked at in just that way—with just that fixed, intense smile—by any woman; and it perplexed and weighed upon him, now, that the woman who was smiling so and who had instantly given him a vivid sense of her possessing other unprecedented attributes, was his own niece, the child of his own father's daughter. The idea that his niece should be a German Baroness, married "morganatically" to a Prince, had already given him much to think about. Was it right, was it just, was it acceptable? He always slept badly, and the night before he had lain awake much more even than usual, asking himself these questions. The strange word "morganatic" was constantly in his ears; it reminded him of a certain Mrs. Morgan whom he had once known and who had been a bold, unpleasant woman. He had a feeling that it was his duty, so long as the Baroness looked at him, smiling in that way, to meet her glance with his own scrupulously adjusted, consciously frigid organs of vision; but on this occasion he failed to perform his duty to the last. He looked away toward his daughters. "We are very glad to see you," he had said. "Allow me to introduce my daughters - Miss Charlotte Wentworth, Miss Gertrude Wentworth."

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