We offered them their chance

Michael Wood

  • The Ivory Tower by Henry James
    NYRB, 266 pp, £8.99, July 2004, ISBN 1 59017 078 4

The story opens on a picture of a very large young lady, ‘a truly massive young person’, crossing from one house to another in Newport, Rhode Island, site of ‘florid’ villas and other structures ‘smothered in senseless architectural ornament’. On the verandah of the second house she finds her father, an inordinately rich man, sourly awaiting the death of his former partner, a slightly less rich man. Her father is described as ‘a person without an alternative’, the very worst fate that can befall anyone in a Henry James novel, and all he thinks about is his neighbour’s legacy, or more precisely ‘what old Frank would have done with the fruits of his swindle, on the occasion of the rupture that had kept them apart in hate and vituperation for so many years’.

It’s a great beginning, but what we have of the completed novel is only more of the beginning. The massive young person knows what old Frank is going to do with his money, because she is the person who persuaded him to do it: give it all to his estranged nephew, who has lived all his life in Europe. The nephew, a likeable, surprised, entirely unacquisitive fellow, returns and inherits, and the various local vultures begin to gather around him and his money. The vultures include the nephew’s old friend, who once saved his life and therefore is deeply to be trusted. Or would be if he hadn’t meanwhile turned into the smoothest and most unscrupulous kind of adventurer. The adventurer, for his part, has a charming girlfriend, who loves him as much as she can love anyone who hasn’t any money, and whom he plans to use as a screen for discreetly robbing the nephew blind. In a beautiful Jamesian tangle of inferences, the nephew will see that he is being swindled when he realises that the charming girl thinks the adventurer has enough money for her to marry him. He has: he has the nephew’s money. The nephew will let his friend know that he knows what is happening but will do nothing else about it, because he has discovered meanwhile how his uncle’s money was made, and wants none of it. Having it stolen is a sort of convenience, and is faithful to its calculating lineage.

The completed text ends when the stage is set. The nephew appears, talks to and then loses sight of the massive girl, tries to puzzle out what his new destiny means, meets up again with his smooth friend, and is awaiting the vultures, who he thinks are merely the inquisitive Americans he needs to get to know. We know about the rest of the projected action from the detailed notes for the novel, published with the long opening fragment. ‘It was Henry James’s constant practice,’ Percy Lubbock wrote when the work was first published (his preface is republished here),

before beginning a novel, to test and explore, in a written or dictated sketch … the possibilities of the idea which he had in mind. Such a sketch was in no way a first draft of the novel. He used it simply as a means of close approach to his subject … The notes, having served their purpose, would not be referred to again, and were invariably destroyed when the book was finished.

‘In no way a first draft’, and in no way a ‘treatise on novel-writing’ or ‘a landmark in the history of the novel as written in English’, as Ezra Pound says it is in his characteristically truculent note on the notes, also published in this new edition, James’s sketch nevertheless is a treasure.

What we see is James talking to himself about his novel (where else shall we hear him say ‘sort of’ and ‘or whatever’?), testing plot lines and working out what certain moves rather than others will do for him. It is something like The Genesis of a Novel, a diary Thomas Mann wrote about the composition of Dr Faustus, except that it isn’t a diary, and James talks to himself about nothing but the book. He wonders where he will send his characters after Newport. New York, definitely. And then? Maybe California? ‘I even ask myself whether Boston wouldn’t serve for this garniture.’ For the villain’s girlfriend he doesn’t want anything obvious, only ‘the sense of the shade of perfidy, treachery, the shade of the particular element’. ‘Intensities of foreshortening,’ he writes in a sudden analysis of his method, ‘with alternate vividness of extension: that is the rough label of the process.’

Henry James wrote what there is of The Ivory Tower during the summer of 1914, but with the outbreak of war, Lubbock said, ‘found he could no longer work upon a fiction supposed to represent contemporary or recent life’. Alan Hollinghurst, in his acute introduction to this new edition, says the same thing. James thought he could, however, take up – these are Lubbock’s words again – ‘a story of remote and phantasmal life’. This was The Sense of the Past, James’s other unfinished novel – the interruption this time was a stroke in December 1915. James died in February 1916. The two fragments of novels were published in 1917, although ‘fragment’, as Hollinghurst says, is hardly the word. There are 12 completed chapters of The Ivory Tower, and two long sections and part of a third of The Sense of the Past.

But did James abandon the ‘contemporary or recent’ for the ‘remote and phantasmal’ because of the war? The abandonment is obviously real, but why do we think it sounds reasonable? Was it easier or more comfortable to imagine a young American who becomes a ghost in the European past than to imagine a young American who has lived in Europe and inherits a fortune in America? It may be a matter of genre, and James, in a letter I’ll quote from more fully in a moment, speaks of verisimilitude. But are ghosts more relaxing in any other respect? And we might think the war would have made Europe, even the Europe of the 1820s, harder to inhabit imaginatively than America would be. There are other reasons, I want to suggest, why James may have felt the world of The Ivory Tower had closed itself to him.

When the war began James wrote a now famous letter saying what he thought had happened:

The plunge of civilisation into this abyss of blood and darkness by the wanton feat of those two infamous autocrats is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for any words.

It’s not immediately clear why the feat of the two autocrats implicates a whole civilisation, especially since James was an enthusiastic supporter of the British war effort in response to the ‘violation of Belgium’. But it is clear that James thinks the very idea of moral progress is not only wrecked but exposed as a sham. We supposed the world was getting better when all the time it was just its old grim self, if not getting worse. The years were treacherous but we, it seems, were their accomplices. We could have known, and should have known, what was happening. The autocrats were wanton, but they were only the trigger, not the cause. They allowed us to see our old enchantments for what they were, and in this sense we can glimpse how, for James, they would have implicated even their enemies. It was the world that was supposed to be getting better, not just our team, and any defection would wreck the entire imaginary order.

James wrote (at least) two other letters in the same vein, but with a different indication of what was known or not known. ‘We should,’ he said to one correspondent,

have been spared this wreck of our belief that through the long years we had seen civilisation grow and the worst become impossible. The tide that bore us along was then all the while moving to this as its grand Niagara – yet what a blessing we didn’t know. It seems to me to undo everything, everything that was ours, in the most horrible retroactive way.

And to another he wrote that he found it ‘difficult to give verisimilitude to a world for which this huge bloody trap was all the while set, and which childishly didn’t know it’. Each of these instances uses the phrase ‘all the while’, shifting the emphasis away from the war and into the preceding period, and each of them involves a terrible surprise. But the surprise itself is configured differently. It says, respectively, now we have to know what we would rather not know; how lucky we were not to know; and how childish it was of us to be so ignorant. The last accusation is the harshest, the middle one the most lenient, and the first the most ambiguous and probing – because it doesn’t finally settle just how much we knew or could have known. But what does this have to do with James’s flight from the representation of contemporary or recent life?

James’s willingness to take to heart what he thought the war revealed about ‘us’, and his distress at finding that the world was not getting better, invite us to think again about the fiction he wrote, to wonder what it was all the while really making for and meaning. He saw himself as a realist in the school of Balzac, and to some extent he was. He was deeply interested in actual social conditions, and endlessly fascinated by what he called ‘money-power’ and ‘money-prestige’. He was fond of economic metaphors for plot and style, and in his notes for The Ivory Tower, we read: ‘I want some sort of relation for him with her started; this being a distinct economy, purchased by no extravagance’; ‘of course it means the absolute exclusively economic existence and situation of every sentence and every letter; but again, what is that but the most desirable of beauties in itself?’ In such a context it is hardly a contradiction that he should write of both ‘the wonderful American world’ and ‘the dreadful American money-world’, meaning the same place seen from different perspectives, neither entirely his own.

Generally he liked to get details right, and worried when he couldn’t. He is anxious about the specifics of inheritance in The Ivory Tower, and writes of the ‘enormous difficulty of pretending to show various things here as with a business vision, in my total absence of business initiation’. Actually, he wasn’t as uninitiated as he claimed, but in any case he reassures himself that he has ‘only to give the effect of this … without going into the ghost of a technicality, and specialising demonstration’. It’s true that when James has to represent a medical consultation, as he does in The Wings of the Dove, he is all vagueness, whereas Flaubert spent hours in the children’s ward at a Paris hospital in order to get the sound of a tubercular cough right. But even James’s vagueness is in its way a tribute to the real, a sign that he has not simply escaped into fable. And of course he does get so many things exactly, historically right. In The Ivory Tower alone there are the sea and sunlight of turn-of-the-century Newport, the terrible over-ornate houses, the heavy furniture, the constant cigarettes, the rattle of money and gossip, the bustle of nurses, the patient and not so patient waiting for rich people to die.

But James is not only a realist. He is also a wit, a caricaturist, even a dark comedian. In The Ivory Tower the man we see in the first scene, the one waiting for the death of his former partner, promptly dies himself of a heart attack when he learns the other chap isn’t quite done for. One of the hangers-on in Newport, a person whom James wants to show, he says in his notes, ‘in no malignant or vicious light, but just as a regular rag or sponge of saturation in the surrounding medium’, is described in the text as ‘a frankly fat gentleman’ who ‘would hang up a meaning in his large empty face as if he had swung an awful example on a gibbet, or would let loose there a great grin that you somehow couldn’t catch in the fact but that pervaded his expanses of cheek as poured wine pervades water’.

If Scott Fitzgerald, in The Great Gatsby, hears the sound of money in a woman’s voice, James can hear ‘something like the chink of money itself in the murmur of the breezy little waves at the foot of the cliff’. An extraordinary conversation takes place between the nephew and his friend about the difference between ‘life’ and ‘affairs’ – meaning business affairs. The nephew says he’s not ‘silly about life’, only ‘silly about affairs’. The friend, not really joking, indeed expressing his own deepest belief, asks: ‘What are affairs but life?’ The nephew sticks to his distinction, and says: ‘Life isn’t affairs.’ It’s clear who should be right here, but far from clear who is. One can certainly renounce affairs in Henry James, but perhaps then one has only one’s renunciation left, not life.

James is also what we might call a possibilist, eager to imagine what we could be like, even if there are no literal examples to hand. He is more of a possibilist than a realist, I think, but this doesn’t mean his realm is fantasy, an alternative world like Tolkien’s or Peake’s, or a place of nightmare, like Kafka’s, or of pure parable, like Borges’s. He is interested in what we almost are, at our very best – although his idea of the best includes intriguing examples of the worst. He dislikes scarcely any of his characters, and a comparison with Jane Austen and George Eliot, from whom he learned so much, is instructive. They are both quite withering about figures they disapprove of. James has a few such figures – in The Ivory Tower, the socialite Gussie Bradham is one. But generally, and especially in his late work, even his sinister characters are full of intelligence and seem to be scheming either out of the most venial of motives – they’re just trying to scrape someone else’s money together – or because they have woven their villainy inextricably into their interesting personality.

James doesn’t want his scoundrel in The Ivory Tower to commit a ‘mere nefarious act’. He wants him to have ‘something like a profoundly nefarious attitude, or even genius: I see, I really think I see, the real fine truth of the matter in that.’ ‘Or even genius’ is a wonderful touch. In fact, James doesn’t want his scoundrel to be all scoundrel – why would the good guy fall for him if he was that? And in one of the most delicate moments in the book, James works out that the scoundrel has to be ‘after a fashion’ the creation of the good guy, ‘the creation, that is, of the enormous and fantastic opportunity and temptation he has held out – even though these wouldn’t have operated in the least, or couldn’t, without predispositions in [the villain’s] very genius’. This is to say, in terms of our earlier question, that the war needed the infamous autocrats but we offered them their chance. Given the availability of this transposition to us only after the fact, it is a little eerie to read in The Ivory Tower that a rich man without definite wishes is like ‘the Kaiser or the Czar, potentates who only know their situation is carried on by attestation of the fact that push it wherever they will they never find it isn’t’.

In his prefaces to ‘The Aspern Papers’ and ‘The Lesson of the Master’, James answers the criticism that any possibilist is sooner or later going to have to face: these creatures of yours don’t exist in reality – or ‘nobody talks like that,’ as Jack Lemmon says in Some Like It Hot. James’s critic is thinking particularly of writers and actors, public presences, on the assumption that a novelist can do what he or she likes with private persons. The accusation is that these people in these positions are ‘absolutely unthinkable in our actual encompassing air’. They are not unthinkable, James replies, they are only non-existent. ‘What one would accordingly fain do is to … create the record, in default of any other enjoyment of it; to imagine, in a word, the honourable, the producible case.’ This is the function of what James calls ‘operative irony’: ‘It implies and projects the possible other case.’ He also calls it ‘applied irony’ and says ‘when it’s not a campaign, of a sort, on behalf of the something better (better than the obnoxious, the provoking object) that blessedly, as is assumed, might be, it’s not worth speaking of.’ He is still thinking of his imaginary writers, more thoughtful and more subtle than any actual writers he knew – or rather, more explicitly and more fully shaped into the idea of a writer than any mere mortal person is likely to be. Browning, so to speak, becomes ‘Browning’, not a Platonic idea but a Jamesian sketch.

I think we can apply the principle of operative irony to most of James’s work, and especially the late fiction. This is a place where memories become ghosts – in a letter he writes of ‘the tendency of all the objects of the unspeakable past to become fictitious and spectral’ – and where past possibilities become ghosts too, as if time had democratised choice, and placed what might have happened on exactly the same plane as what did. This is an alluring and also frightening perspective for those who feel, perhaps, that nothing much has happened to them.

In ‘The Jolly Corner’, Spencer Brydon, an American who has lived for a long time in Europe, like the nephew in The Ivory Tower, except that this man is older and has most of his life behind him, returns to New York and confronts, in the form of a ghost, the person he would have been if he had not left. No, he confronts the person he is afraid he would have become, and is horrified. He sees him in evening dress, rich and grizzled, his glasses dangling, and notices that ‘his other self’, as if in a Hitchcock film, has lost two fingers from one hand. He realises that the face is ‘the face of a stranger’, and passes out. He later argues that this person was not his other self. He has seen a ghost but not his ghost. But then this very argument provokes a strange pathos, and we see James’s ‘operative irony’ working at full power and then falling away, exhausted by the contradictions it can’t contain. Brydon can’t see the resemblance with his other self, and he can’t see either that whatever differences there are are not all in his favour. ‘He’s none of me,’ he says to his friend Alice, who has watched over him all through what amounts to his nervous breakdown, ‘even as I might have been.’ Alice says: ‘Isn’t the whole point that you’d have been different?’ ‘As different as that?’ Brydon says, and Alice replies: ‘Haven’t you exactly wanted to know how different?’ The conversation continues, with Alice refusing to separate the two men as much as Brydon wants, and finally saying she pities the ghost. Brydon is resentful, and Alice says: ‘He has been unhappy, he has been ravaged.’ Brydon claims implausibly that he has been unhappy and ravaged too, but that is precisely what his European exile has kept him from. Alice answers: ‘Ah, I don’t say I like him better. But he’s grim, he’s worn – and things have happened to him.’ Brydon persists with his denial, and Alice, giving up her educational attempt, her irony, we may say, embraces him and says: ‘He isn’t – you!’

In ‘The Jolly Corner’ as in The Ivory Tower, America, once the place par excellence of the possible, has become the harsh real world, the place where things happen, avoidable only at the cost of everything that looks like life, while Europe, once the home of deep worldly experience and cunning, has become the place where people with modest amounts of money hide from the fact of money itself. Before the war, I think, James understood this act of hiding as perhaps pathetic and certainly an etiolation of life, but not dishonourable, and indeed a possible ground for a criticism of everything that went too much the other way. With the wanton feat of the two infamous autocrats the possible collapsed into the actual, all ironies became bitter dramatic ironies about the absence of alternatives, and The Ivory Tower, perhaps, came to seem frivolous. Not because it was contemporary or recent but because it belonged to a world where the actual could be resisted, even if only in vain; where one could continue to campaign on behalf of what might be; and where ‘the honourable, the producible case’ was not a shattered illusion.