A Small Boy

Image: modified charcoal drawing of Henry James by Sargent— Text: A Small Boy and Others (1913)

A couple of days ago the book “The novels of Henry James” by Edward Wagenknecht arrived at my door. My dictation software really lost a tooth and an eye over getting the last name right…and when am I ever likely to use that name again? This makes me realize how glorious our brain is, how it is most generously keeping track of masses of irrelevant but gratifying detail, detail that we might need at some juncture or we might not, but especially for writers this wastefulness when archiving is one of the less celebrated treasures of our nature. The quote in the picture, from “A Small Boy And Others” (a 3rd person memoir of James’ early years) was one of the first sections that I found myself reading aloud in the bathtub (which is where I like to read critical works) and it immediately sparked off a useful little story. I won’t tell you about my story: it goes into the dark cave where most of my writing/dictating disappears these days. If I can be bothered it is printed out and filed in a black folder as nameless as this time of my life. The image itself seems to be part of the series of portraits of writers that I feel compelled to draw or paint on. It seems to me as if these meta-drawings might bring out something that’s there but that wasn’t as visible before but I might totally delude myself in which case it still remains a fun exercise in doing something else than write without going too far away from the purple vein of pulsating prose.


Click here for my reading of the text (MP3, 1’17”) — reviewed by Laurence Raw at “Radio Drama Reviews“. Image: modified charcoal drawing of Henry James by James Singer Sargent— Text: A Small Boy and Others (1913)

8 thoughts on “A Small Boy

  1. I LOVE hearing you read James! He was so much a part of my formal literary education. It brings back memories. Beautifully, and so appropriately, read.

    • Thank you! I can’t tell you how many more takes this required than most other writing I’ve read aloud (and I’m still not really happy with it)…I’d like to make more Henry James podcasts. And translate him into German—surprisingly little has been translated, he’s not very famous over here.
      Which story or novel by Henry James would you like to hear? Which one’s a favorite? Just asking.

      • When I was reading James twenty years ago, I was often struck by how near-Germanic his sentence structure is: verschachtelt und scheinbar endlos. To get the melody of these units of thought right is no easy task. I envy your stamina. Reading entire stories borders on Herculean, but The Figure in the Carpet is an important one, and relatively short for James; and rereading now, I see how my own punctuation has been influenced by James. Goodness.

        In my opinion, James’s most important novel is The Wings of the Dove, so of course I’d love to hear excerpts read from it. The Golden Bowl, In the Cage and The American are all great places to mine passages.

        • Finished “The Figure in the Carpet” last night, thank you for motivating me to read it. My head’s still dizzy. James often has this effect on me, more in the short stories, and never more than in “The Beast in the Jungle”, a later story (1903), which is thick on several levels, impenetrably constructed and probably one of the better examples of Wells’ characterization of James’s writing in Boon (1915): “His vast paragraphs sweat and struggle. … It is leviathan retrieving pebbles. It is a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost even at the cost of its dignity upon picking up a pea which has got into a corner of its den. Most things it insists are beyond it but it can at any rate modestly and with an artistic singleness of mind pick up that pea…” (quoted in this fascinating blog post)— I do agree but, oh, how do I enjoy that sweating. Interesting to hear you say that about your own punctuation. As a non-native English speaker, I suck at punctuation pretty badly (German has spoilt one for leaving out commas and semicolons etc. —it seems to me, intuitively, that German has a lot more use for punctuation marks than English…?) — I wonder what James has done and will do to my own writing! I may yet devote myself to said “Herculean” task, I’ve not decided yet…

          • And I think that pea is consciousness itself, the dissection of character into its tiniest parts. James must have been such a lonely man. His punctuation is impeccable, though. I have used paragraphs to teach clausal relationships before. Did you tell you that I read the last two hundred pages of The Wings of the Dove aloud? I had to discuss it the next morning in a graduate seminar. It was an emotional experience.

            • …incidentally, the quote by James I chose for this site is from his response to Wells’s attack in the satirical novel “Boon” mentioned earlier. I know that James is often called the “master of describing consciousness”, but in the light of said quote, this title seems to reduce him from his actual central topic, art itself (and the artistic life)—in which he is like other masters (Tolstoy whom he didn’t care for, and Turgenev, for whom he cared greatly) of that period. Not a topic of great interest to our contemporaries it seems (which I regret).

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