Literary Corner Cafe

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Book Review - Classics - The Golden Bowl by Henry James

Although The Portrait of a Lady will no doubt always be Henry James' most read and most loved novel, I think The Golden Bowl is his masterpiece. Published in 1904, The Golden Bowl, along with The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove, constitute James' final, and most complex, phase as a novelist.

The Golden Bowl, set in England and in Italy from 1903 to 1906, is the story of four people, two men and two women, and two marriages. Two marriages whose core holds the same secret, the same unacknowledged truth. The plot is a simple one and revolves around that most human of all "failings" - adultery - or at least the suspicion of adultery, and in this case, suspicion may prove to be more deadly than the actual deed, itself.

Adam Verver, a wealthy American industrialist, sans scruples, has acquired almost all the material possessions his heart desires. When he travels to Europe, accompanied by his young daughter, Maggie, however, he has one important "purchase" yet to make - a husband for Maggie. He thinks he's found the perfect candidate in Prince Amerigo. And in some ways, he has. Although now impoverished, Prince Amerigo is descended from an aristocratic Florentine family, a family who lives in the once elegant Palazzo Ugolini. Prince Amerigo can provide Adam Verver's descendants with something Adam, himself, cannot provide at any price...a title. Maggie, herself, finds the Prince charming and delightful and is not at all averse to her father's plans for her marriage. But the course of love and marriage is, more often than not, a rocky road, and predictably, complications lie in wait for Maggie in the form of her best friend, Charlotte Stant, an impoverished woman who's long been involved in a torrid sexual liaison with Prince Amerigo...without Maggie's knowledge, of course. (Not really a spoiler.)

Fanny Assingham, a American expatriate now living in London, is well aware of the relationship between Prince Amerigo and Charlotte Stant, and she believes she's come up with the perfect solution. Much to Prince Amerigo's dismay, Fanny suggests that Adam and Charlotte marry. Then all four people will be happy, or so Fanny thinks. But this is Henry James, and as in real life, happiness doesn't come quite that easily. Although Adam believes Charlotte is marrying him for financial security alone, Charlotte has reasons for marrying Adam that are different from what anyone, save perhaps the Prince, suspects.

One of the biggest problems in the marriages of Adam and Maggie isn't, as might be expected, the fact that their respective mates have long been lovers. The real problems surface only when Adam and Maggie, who are both very happy with the situation, begin spending far too much time together, leaving Prince Amerigo and Charlotte to devise ways to amuse themselves, and amuse themselves, they do. But, are they to blame? Or must part of the blame lie with Adam and Maggie, themselves, who are so involved with each other and so wrapped up in each others lives that they fail to notice the problems inherent in their own marriages or their mates' attraction to each other?

The Golden Bowl is a book filled with ambiguity. Nothing is black or white, bad or good, something that makes it all the more challenging for its reader, but all the more rewarding as well. The Golden Bowl is a character study par excellence, and at least in my opinion, it is filled with more innuendo and delicately shaded nuance than are any of James' other books. In this novel, James left much for the reader, himself, to answer. And, lest any reader think the "sin" in this book is adultery, it isn't. It's excessive attachment, excessive clinging, excessive selfishness. Prince Amerigo and Charlotte are perfectly matched in their passion and sensuality; we know, without a doubt, that these two people were destined to love each other. Adam and Maggie are perfectly matched in their passive-aggressive tendencies and in their desire to take what they want despite the feelings of others; this "perfection," however, could ultimately become their tragedy.

The book's title isn't superfluous. The Golden Bowl really does contain a golden bowl, and it's this that leads Maggie to the startling realization that both her husband and her best friend have been lying to her. Does she assert herself? Does she become a victim? Does she resign herself to her fate, much as Isabel Archer did in The Portrait of a Lady? That, of course, would be unfair to disclose, but it is Maggie's actions that bring The Golden Bowl to a surprising close.

The Golden Bowl is Henry James at his finest. His narrative powers, in my opinion, have never been greater than they are in this magnificent novel, though I do know people who find this book rather boring. I really think those people wouldn't like James no matter what book of his they chose to read, and if one is new to the work of Henry James, this isn't the place to begin. Daisy Miller would be a far better choice. I found The Golden Bowl to be a richly dense tapestry, as James layers scene upon scene, set piece upon set piece, weaving all into a seamless whole.

The Golden Bowl does contain James' beautiful, flowing, convoluted prose that meanders and continuously folds back on itself again and again, however, I don't think the prose is quite as convoluted as it is in The Portrait of a Lady. The Golden Bowl is divided into two sections, with the first being titled "The Prince" and the second, "The Princess." As the novel opens, Prince Amerigo is in London, considering his options, and lost in thought regarding Maggie Verver:

The Prince had always liked his London, when it had come to him; he was one of the modern Romans who find by the Thames a more convincing image of the truth of the ancient state than any they have left by the Tiber. Brought up on the legend of the City to which the world paid tribute, he recognised in the present London much more than in contemporary Rome the real dimensions of such a case. If it was a question of an Imperium, he said to himself, and if one wished, as a Roman, to recover a little the sense of that, the place to do so was on London Bridge, or even, on a fine afternoon in May, at Hyde Park Corner.

Perhaps, more than any other book written by James, The Golden Bowl is a very interior, introspective book. Yes, even more so than The Portrait of a Lady. While that book concerned the internal torment of one very naive person, Isabel Archer, The Golden Bowl contains the internal torment of two, Prince Amerigo and Maggie Verver, and by extension, Adam Verver and Charlotte Stant, and save for Maggie, none of these characters is, in the slightest bit, naive.

Surprisingly, for me at least, the most sympathetic character isn't Maggie, it's Charlotte. Maggie and Adam are "collectors" - they treat people in much the same way they treat objets d'art. It is indicative of the genius of James, however, that our sympathies never settle, but constantly shift, first to Charlotte, then to Maggie, then to Adam, then to the Prince. It is also indicative of the genius of James that despite the tragic failings of each of the four main characters in The Golden Bowl, there is something to be pitied in each of them as well.

If I have one small criticism of this magnificent novel, it's the fact that it lacks story tension, and it might be a little overly long. We know Prince Amerigo and Charlotte are being drawn to each other like moths to a flame. It's not really a question of "if" but rather "when" and what the consequences will be.

In the end, The Golden Bowl revolves, not around adultery, but around the torment we endure because of the lies we tell ourselves, the words we leave unspoken. This book constantly asks the questions: What constitutes truth? What constitutes a lie? What is right and what is wrong? James never makes the answers clear and this book is filled with much nebulous ambiguity. In the final analysis, one must ask oneself if tragedy lies in the doing or in the unacknowledged desire of what we want, and, perhaps, need, to happen.


Recommended: To those who love highly literary, interior novels and character studies. It could be too convoluted and interior and slow-paced to suit some readers. Those who love beautiful prose will probably like this book, though. It's flowing and graceful, if a tad slow-moving.


Anonymous said...

This is my favorite Henry James book, Gabrielle. Thank you for writing such a lovely review.

Gabrielle Renoir-Large said...
This comment has been removed by the author.