‘The Golden Bowl’ certainly divides opinion. Reading some online reviews I came across a wonderful demolition of the novel by the awesome Rebecca West. I make no apologies for quoting at length from her analysis – West never pulls her punches and has a magnificent turn of phrase.
She opens by calling the novel “an ugly and incompletely invented story about some people who are sexually mad.” (“Completely invented” may harm her argument, as inventiveness is usually seen as a strength in a novelist, but this is passionate rhetoric, not measured argument) This gets straight to the point – sex drives the behaviour of the novel’s central characters, (however obliquely James may disguise his sexual references), and leads them to behave out of character. West knew all about how this could happen to even the most aristocratic people.
Her plot summary savages the novel’s central characters;
“Adam Verver, an American millionaire, buys an Italian prince for his daughter Maggie, and in her turn she arranges a marriage between her father and Charlotte, her school friend, because she thinks he may be lonely without her.”
This is fair comment – at its heart, the marriage between Amerigo and Maggie is based upon Maggie’s ability, through her father, to pay off the Prince’s many debts. James is clear (or as clear as anything is in this novel) that the marriage is a contractual and commercial agreement.
West’s critique of James’s writing style is equally robust. She writes of his
“sentences which sprawl over the pages of ‘The Golden Bowl’ with such an effect of rank vegetable growth that one feels that if one took cuttings of them one could raise a library in the garden.”
But this is not simply a question of name-calling – West has a serious critique to present. Her point is that the plot of the novel, and the behaviour of the primary characters, is utterly unrealistic. The characters
“are presented … as vibrating exquisitely to every fine chord of life, as thinking about each other with the anxious subtlety of lovers, as so steeped in a sense of one another that they invent a sea of poetic phrases, beautiful images, discerning metaphors that break on the reader’s mind like the unceasing surf.
“when one tries to discover from the recorded speeches of these people whether there was no palliation of their ugly circumstances one finds that the dialogue, usually so compact a raft for the conveyance of the meaning of Mr James’ novels, has been smashed up on this sea of phrases and drifts in, a plank at a time, on the copious flood….
To cap it all these people are not even human, for their thoughts concerning their relationships are so impassioned and so elaborate that they can never have had either energy or time for the consideration of anything else in the world. A race of creatures so inveterately specialist as Maggie Verver could never have attained man’s mastery over environment, but would still be specialising on the cocoa-nut or some such simple form of diet.”
I can’t argue with this, nor express it better – I doubt anyone could.
West goes on to claim to have identified why James’s writing style at the end of his life become so ornate and complex; the explanation she offers certainly has a ring of plausibility to it:
“in these later days, Mr James … began by dictating a short draft which, even in the case of such a cartload of apes and ivory as The Golden Bowl, might be no longer than thirty thousand words. Then he would take this draft in his hand and would dictate it all over again with what he intended to be enlightening additions, but which, since the mere act of talking set all his family on to something quite different from the art of letters, made it less and less of a novel. …
Always it was good, rambling talk, although fissured now and then with an old man’s lapses into tiresomeness, when he split hairs until there were no longer any hairs to split and his mental gesture became merely the making of agitated passes over a complete baldness…
Here and there the prose achieves a beauty of its own; but it is no longer the beauty of a living thing, but rather the “made” beauty which bases its claims to admiration chiefly on its ingenuity, like those crystal clocks with jewelled works and figures moving as the hours chimed, which were the glory of mediæval palaces.”
“A cartload of apes and ivory” has instantly become my all-time favourite phrase for a good bad novel!