About James The bowl of gold.
I recently read Henry James’ The bowl of gold. There was something about it that was intellectually uncomfortable. While reading, I sometimes felt like my brain was short-circuiting. I’m not alone. People who love his earlier works often draw the line at The bowl of gold. Some critics say it’s unnecessarily complex, poorly structured, badly written, a sign of the waning powers of an aging James. Gore Vidal said the book suffered because James, later in life, dictated to his secretary and would continue to revel in it. But despite these criticisms, I felt there was something.
Writing is like giving someone instructions. Imagine if, during a trip, you asked a person “Where is the station?” and instead of hearing “Take the metro three stops”, you were told: “Well, normally people take the number 67 bus three stops past the old prison and then change to the number 54 bus which passes by the cathedral. Then they go down, take the first right, past Charlie’s bar, then the second left past the cemetery, after that they go straight for three blocks and that’s it. However today , as the weather is overcast and you’re wearing a blue suit, I suggest you take another route. First…” We decide to enter freely into such an experience or to run away screaming.
There is a psychology in writing that alternates between the familiar and the unexpected. Too much of the familiar becomes boring, too much of the unexpected destroys the feeling of being somewhere. Of the intellectual pleasures, perhaps the greatest is understanding this interaction, wandering into the unknown until you finally understand. On one level it’s the fun of murder mysteries, on a more complex level it becomes a matter of character motivations and plot building. And perhaps the highest intellectual pleasure is when one becomes aware of the conscious structural processes behind material experience. The bowl of gold takes form, style and construction to levels where they become objectified presences; moreover, James makes an art of misdirection. It is a book in which one of the subtexts is the conscious act of reading itself. And form and content seem perfectly matched.
The bowl of gold deals with the marriages of a wealthy American art collector, Adam Verver, who came to Europe with his daughter Maggie to acquire works of art for his new museum. Maggie marries a poor Italian prince while Adam marries a poor but “beautiful, intelligent, and high-spirited young American” Charlotte Stant, a childhood friend of Maggie. However, unbeknownst to Adam or Maggie, the Prince and Charlotte had been romantically involved with each other in the past. And once brought closer to each other, they begin a new affair. Maggie finds out and works to end it. Throughout the story we see that father and daughter are both, in their respective ways, collectors. As a result, they “acquire” a husband and wife like a new paint or an antique rarity. But no one prays in front of a museum, we look at it, we “appreciate” it. This is what happens to the prince and to Charlotte. They are “collected” and lose their soul. History illustrates the sterility of the American ideal of prosperity.
Reading this book is a visceral and physical experience. It’s like entering a three-dimensional maze. I recommend it just as I recommend James’s Introduction to His Complete Works (which is included in the Penguin Edition). I would also suggest any reader do as James suggests and read it aloud. I did and it was worth it. There was a logic that would otherwise have been absent: what emerged was the music of a poem. James knew what he was doing.