1. THE NOVELIST OF GRAINS AND SCRUPLES
Henry James is an example of a writer who enjoyed immense fame but little popularity. Some of his best books, I believe, never passed into second editions. He was, above all novelists, an esoteric author. His disciples had the pleasure of feeling like persons initiated into mysteries. He was subject, like a religious teacher, to all kinds of conflicting interpretations. He puzzled and exasperated even intelligent people. They often wondered what he meant and whether it was worth writing about. Mr. Wells, or whoever wrote Boon, compared him to a hippopotamus picking up a pea.
Certainly he laboured over trifles as though he were trying to pile Pelion on Ossa. He was capable, had he been a poet, of writing an epic made up of incidents chosen from the gossip of an old maid in the upper middle classes. He was the novelist of grains and scruples. I have heard it urged that he was the supreme incarnation of the Nonconformist conscience, perpetually concerned with infinitesimal details of conduct. As a matter of fact, there was much more of the aesthete in him than of the Nonconformist. He lived for his tastes. It is because he is a novelist of tastes rather than of passions that he is unlikely ever to be popular even to the degree to, which Meredith is popular.
One imagines him, from his childhood, as a perfect connoisseur, a dilettante. He has told us how, as a child, in New York, Paris, London, and Geneva, he enjoyed more than anything else the “far from showy practice of wondering and dawdling and gaping.” And, while giving us this picture of the small boy that was himself, he comments:
There was the very pattern and measure of all he was to demand: just to be somewhere—almost anywhere would do—and somehow receive an impression or an accession, feel a relation or a vibration.
That is the essential Henry James—the collector of impressions and vibrations. “Almost anywhere would do”: that is what makes some of his stories just miss being as insipid as the verse in a magazine. On the other hand, of few of his stories is this true. His personality was too definitely marked to leave any of his work flavourless. His work reflects him as the arrangement of a room may reflect a charming lady. He brings into every little world that he enters the light of a new and refined inquisitiveness. He is as watchful as a cat. Half his pleasure seems to come from waiting for the extraordinary to peep and peer out of the ordinary. That is his adventure. He prefers it to seas of bloodshed. One may quarrel with it, if one demands that art shall be as violent as war and shall not subdue itself to the level of a game. But those who enjoy the spectacle of a game played with perfect skill will always find reading Henry James an exciting experience.