The American by Henry James

Culture clash…

😀 😀 😀 😀

American nouveau riche businessman Christopher Newman has come to Europe in search of culture. Not that he’s really sure what it is, nor does he make much attempt to learn – rather he wants to acquire it, with money. It’s the American Way, and Newman’s way tells him that to buy a copy is as good as owning the original. So he finds himself in the Louvre, offering excessive sums of money to a mediocre young female artist to copy some of the great paintings there to adorn his walls. But Newman has also decided it’s time to acquire a wife, and here he wants a true original – a pearl, a work of art. A friend suggests the young widow, Madame de Cintré, daughter of generations of French and English aristocracy. Her first marriage had been arranged by her family, to a man many years older than her with whom she shared no affection, but who was suitable due to his impeccable bloodlines. But now her own family is in a state of financial decay, like so much of the old aristocracy, and may be tempted to sell her this time round for American money. And so Newman sets out to woo her, incidentally introducing her brother Valentin to the young artist.

This was more enjoyable than I expected a James novel to be, concentrating on the contrast between the brash money-driven society of the New World and the snobbish exclusivity of the Old, with neither showing in a particularly good light. Newman himself is a moral man by his own lights, but it seemed to me this was as much because he lacked passion as because he exercised any kind of control. His growing love for Madame de Cintré – she never really became Claire to me – comes over more in the way someone would admire a vase or a painting than a person. But then, she also has about as much passion in her as a vase, so they seem well matched.

The secondary characters – Noémie the artist and her father, Valentin, and Mme de Cintré’s horrible old hag of a mother – are much more fun. Noémie is setting out on a career of her own, a traditional one if not quite a respectable, to work herself up through society by becoming mistress to men of as high rank as her beauty can attract. Valentin is fascinated by her, but has been around society long enough to know better than to fall for her snares. The old Marquise de Bellegarde – the mother – and her equally horrid son, the current Marquis, are snobs of the first water, always on guard to ensure that nothing besmirches their ancient family name. Forced marriages and mistresses are fine, but heaven forbid that they should allow the family to be tainted by the stench of “business” – one has to maintain one’s standards, after all.

Book 71 of 90

The first half is slow but quite amusing, as James reveals the characters and the society in which they operate. But suddenly it turns, unconvincingly, into a rather lifeless Gothic melodrama when the Bellegardes decide out of the blue that, after encouraging him for months, they really can’t face allowing someone with his background to marry into their family. Will Newman find a way to overcome their snobbery, or to take his revenge against them? It takes an awful long time to find out, and I found that I didn’t much care. Noémie and Valentin pretty much disappear in different way in the later stages of the book, and I felt their loss. Unlike the Bellegardes, I didn’t object to Newman’s lack of culture and blue blood, but I fear I found him a bit of a bore, and Madame de Cintré proved what I had feared all along – that she lacked any kind of independent spirit.

Henry James

I’ve only read a few of James’ ghost stories before, and objected to his convoluted style and ultra-ambiguity. His style in this is much more straightforward, making it more enjoyable to read. His observations of French society are fun, but not particularly in-depth or profound – they very much feel like what they in fact are: the first relatively superficial impressions of a youthful outsider of a culture very different from his own. I felt it required a lot of suspension of disbelief. How, for example, did Newman manage to become a reasonably sophisticated man given what we are told of his background? Why did the family countenance the match in the first place? Why did Madame de Cintré, no longer a young girl at the mercy of her family, not make decisions for herself? I felt James glossed over these questions, where just a little more work would have filled in the holes.

As always, the introduction in my Oxford World’s Classics edition helped to set the book in context and the notes were helpful in explaining unfamiliar references. There is also a glossary of all the French phrases sprinkled throughout the text – very helpful for monoglots like me!

Overall, then, quite enjoyable, but flawed. However, it has left me more willing to tackle some of his later work to see if they avoid the weaknesses of this one, so I guess that means it was quite a successful read in the end.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 256…

Episode 256

All you people who’ve been worried about my shrinking TBR can breathe a sigh of relief this week – it’s gone up 2 to 198! Still below the magic 200, though, and of course it wasn’t my fault. I tried to stop the postman delivering the box of books, but he insisted, so what could I do?? I’m sure I’ll be back on track soon…

Here are a few more that will be tripping my way soon…

Factual

The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale

Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing via NetGalley. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed several of Summerscale’s earlier books, loving her mix of true events and social commentary. This one sounds like a great way to kick off spooky season too…

The Blurb says: London, 1938. In the suburbs of the city, an ordinary young housewife has become the eye in a storm of chaos. In Alma Fielding’s modest home, china flies off the shelves, eggs fly through the air; stolen jewellery appears on her fingers, white mice crawl out of her handbag, beetles appear from under her gloves; in the middle of a car journey, a terrapin materialises on her lap. Nandor Fodor – a Jewish-Hungarian refugee and chief ghost hunter for the International Institute for Psychical Research – reads of the case, and hastens to the scene of the haunting. But when Fodor starts his scrupulous investigation, he discovers that the case is even stranger than it seems. By unravelling Alma’s peculiar history, he finds a different and darker type of haunting: trauma, alienation, loss – and the foreshadowing of a nation’s worst fears. As the spectre of Fascism lengthens over Europe, and as Fodor’s obsession with the case deepens, Alma becomes ever more disturbed. With rigour, daring and insight, the award-winning pioneer of non-fiction writing Kate Summerscale shadows Fodor’s enquiry, delving into long-hidden archives to find the human story behind a very modern haunting.

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American Classic

The American by Henry James

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. One from my Classics Club list. I’ve only read a few of James’ ghostly novellas before, and am not at all convinced his style won’t drive me insane in a full-length book. But we book bloggers must sometimes suffer for our art, so I shall gird up my loins (do women have loins? I should have paid more attention in anatomy classes. I know men have them… and pigs…) and face him bravely!  

The Blurb says: During a trip to Europe, Christopher Newman, a wealthy American businessman, asks the charming Claire de Cintre to be his wife. To his dismay, he receives an icy reception from the heads of her family, who find Newman to be a vulgar example of the American privileged class. Brilliantly combining elements of comedy, tragedy, romance and melodrama, this tale of thwarted desire vividly contrasts nineteenth-century American and European manners. Oxford’s edition of The American, which was first published in 1877, is the only one that uses James’ revised 1907 text.

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Vintage Crime

Inspector French and the Mystery on Southampton Water by Freeman Wills Crofts

Courtesy of HarperCollins. To celebrate the publishing centenary of Freeman Wills Crofts, HarperCollins are reissuing three of his books and I was thrilled to receive a surprise box containing them all! I’ve only read one of the Inspector French books before, The 12:30 from Croydon, and loved it, and have been meaning to read more, so here’s the first. Couldn’t wait, so I’ve started it already…

The Blurb says: The Joymount Rapid Hardening Cement Manufacturing Company on the Solent is in serious financial trouble. Its rival, Chayle on the Isle of Wight, has a secret new manufacturing process and is underselling them. Having failed to crack the secret legitimately, two employees hatch a plot to break in and steal it. But the scheme does not go according to plan, resulting in damage and death, and Inspector French is brought in to solve one of the most dramatic and labyrinthine cases of his entire career. 

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Dalziel & Pascoe on Audio

Child’s Play by Reginald Hill read by Colin Buchanan

I enjoyed Colin Buchanan as narrator of these books more than I was expecting in Exit Lines (review soon), so decided to go for the audiobook again for the next one in my slow re-read of this great series… 

The Blurb says: Geraldine Lomas’s son went missing in Italy during World War Two, but the eccentric old lady never accepted his death.

Now she is dead, leaving the Lomas beer fortune to be divided between an animal rights organization, a fascist front and a services benevolent fund. As disgruntled relatives gather by the graveside, the funeral is interrupted by a middle-aged man in an Italian suit, who falls to his knees crying, ‘Mama!’

Andy Dalziel is preoccupied with the illegal book one of his sergeants is running on who is to be appointed as the new chief Constable. But when a dead Italian turns up in the police car park, Peter Pascoe and his bloated superior are plunged into an investigation that makes internal police politics look like child’s play…

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?