Henry James, the ruthless | Babelia

These days, as we have just celebrated Christmas — some less than others — I will try to adopt a festive tone and only sometimes a little tremendous. The fact is that, at first glance, the choice of the author and the work, fit my section cleanly; It seemed like an obvious offer to me. What a big mistake! What a tremendous responsibility! It was enough to have agreed, on the advice of Álex Vicente, my loyal editor, to a classic between two centuries and a scrupulous stylist. None other than Henry James, that dragon with a top hat!

Yes, he had been around even before he had been mistaken for some taciturn millionaire or movie director. I have followed him in amazement and for many hours, because he hooks more than many synthetic drugs and, of course, thanks to excellent Spanish translations that I have never forgotten. The one that I have enjoyed the most, this time, is the excellent and never cowardly Guillermo Lorenzo. The reissue is by Alba Clásica. I always find the book of the month on a shelf in my house; that is the meaning of this column. I usually deal with old authors like good wine and that I have at my fingertips. This time, since I’m a big mouth, I rushed to reply, enthusiastic, that yes, I did. I looked calmly and did not find it. And so, I went to a bookstore near my house, which bears the unappealable name of Lee. And there was the brand new little book, The newspapers, calling to me from her deck in vaguely caramel tones. Nothing less than a reproduction of a work by Degas, entitled A cotton office in New Orleans and dated 1877. It is a calming and at the same time disturbing picture. Men who are not strictly clean, nor devoted to work, swing between mountains of a fabric (cotton, we deduce), which could never be turned into paper, while a central figure is interested in a lank-looking newspaper, smeared with ink.

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In any case, the atmosphere is too intimate, concentrated, alien to the viewer. I bought it immediately —and I haven’t bought books for a long time— and since I’m always lucky, when I read the prologue, also by Gonzalo Lorenzo, I was presented with a well-chosen and very funny quote in English, of which it has always been my James’s favorite work What Maisie knew. That encouraged me to read a book that I had not paid the necessary attention to. I first realized, canny Henry, that the book was titled The newspapers and not Journalists. In reality, the plot, meticulous, crazy and sometimes suffocating, does not concern its characters, only the “company”. James deals, as always, with his characters with a slow pace and chess morality, even with scandalous patience. Every detail of his physiognomy or his attire, his provincial slang or his sad taste in choosing an elegant place, is exposed without the slightest consideration.

James deals with his characters with chess morals, even with scandalous patience. Every detail of his physiognomy or his attire, his provincial slang or his sad taste for choosing an elegant place, is exposed without the slightest consideration.

What is he playing at? It would seem that his pen licks their necks, and then he spreads a wide smile. It is not the couple of Maud and Howard that he protects and destroys tirelessly, but something more general and vague, damaging and unappealable, which we could, by extension, call “actuality.” And that is what you are really looking for. As if the background were that pitiful couple and the real plot was a “situation” that was changing and leaving corpses in its wake. The ambitious girl, already worn out by a triumph that does not reach her, appendage of the feline and anxious boy who escorts her, is not the protagonist of this modern tale, nor is he. It is the shameless ambition of the times, the triumph of invisible nothingness; organized society, eager for gossip. They alone are the sinister protagonists of the story. And they never manage to escape the razor-sharp pen of a writer who earned his living and honor writing, measuring sounds, fitting words.

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Yes, that was Henry James. I love drumming his name on the keyboard. The winter laziness shakes me off and his half smile assails me in full digestion of some ill-fated nougat. And please don’t look for human culprits in this short story. Here only words are at stake. Or not? This was precisely the first trademark sign of this American of Irish blood, who ended up living in London and had the gallantry to abdicate his American nationality when he realized that his countrymen, during World War II, would not help their European allies. Or rather, they only moved their asses very late, a little bit slowly, when the attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor took their breath away.

I’ll end with a joke. Just yesterday, while I was debating with The newspapers, Lola Alcántara, professor of Didactics at the University of Malaga until a few years ago, and my first childhood friend in the Lay School for boys and girls, used to tell me things about her grandson Pablo. He went on to instruct me on Maria Montessori, the first neurologist in Italy in the early 1900s, whose well-known childhood studies revolutionized early childhood education. She is also the first to tell us about the “reading explosion”, understood as the moment in which the child becomes aware of the mechanism of reading. It usually occurs around the age of five. Lola’s laughter mingled with mine when, almost in unison, we agreed that the reading explosion must have caught James in his crib.

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The newspapers. Henry James. Translation by Guillermo Lorenzo. Classic Alba, 2021. 114 pages. 11 euros.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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