Tag Archives: Henry James

Sickness & Health

I had to forgive myself this past weekend for not finishing a Henry James novel. Earlier this year I’d read maybe a dozen of his shorter fictions, all of them with relish. The Middle Years, The Pupil, The Liar, The Real Thing, and The Altar of the Dead were personal favorites. Time again, I thought, to try one of his later “masterpieces.” Having failed before with The Ambassadors, I turned instead to The Wings of the Dove. I was defeated, however, after only two hundred pages. The psychological minutiae and circumlocutions of James’s portraiture, which I could bear lightly enough in short form, began to feel like one of those leaden bibs donned for x-rays at the dentist’s office. Life, I decided, was simply too short to voluntarily endure suffocation like this for another four hundred pages.

It’s not entirely up to me, of course, but I do hope to continue as a viable organism for a long time yet. Unfortunately, my doctor tells me that my cholesterol is a bit of a problem. Not that it’s so very high, but it’s a little high for a regular Joe, and higher still for a forty-year-old man like myself whose father had a heart attack at age forty-nine. My grandfather too had his first heart attack about fifty, and his father – an Iowa farmer – died of cardiac arrest in the fields near the same age. Accompanied by no extravagant risk factors which might explain it or give prevention an easy target, heart disease with us is a family tradition. With regard to this particular tradition, however, I aim for apostasy.

To that end, my new doctor, a talkative British Indian man my own age, would like to see me on statins. The wife and I have opted first to see what could be done by an aggressive change of diet. As such, though I’m still allowed minor indulgences (a glass of wine, a small square of dark chocolate), the foods I generally prefer to eat are now out of the question. Goodbye therefore to beef. Goodbye to sausage and bacon and cooking with lots of butter. There will be no more French bread and cheese just for the hell of it. I’m learning to feel a little hungry all the time and not to expect much of lunch or dinner.

You grow older and you notice that people tend rather easily to die. Not that death itself is easy, but the routes by which one may arrive at it are surprisingly numerous and convenient. The expressway to the grave is always near at hand. I assume that I will die one day of heart disease, but I might just as easily die of cancer, or an automobile accident, or by fire, or by drowning at sea, or by being crushed in a subterranean parking garage during an earthquake. It must be especially horrible to know that you are right now suffering from a disease that will, in all likelihood, put you into the flowerbed before long. Persons I know and care about are facing that prospect as I write. But living itself is a terminal condition and no one is finally spared the hard prognosis. In the cosmic scheme all human lives are brief. Some are only slightly briefer than others.

One thing I have so far avoided in my grudging play for healthfulness is initiation into the modern cult of exercise. Walking or bicycle riding for pleasure I will gladly engage in, but programmatic exercise regimens of the sort that my neighbors and coworkers apparently enjoy seem to me more than a little absurd. What would our forebears three or four generations ago have made this habit of unnecessary exertion, of middle-age denialists signing up in droves for spinning classes, or CrossFit, or (God forbid) parkour? Though rooted, it seems, in the denial of decay and mortality, there’s nonetheless an element of the hypocritically ascetic in it. If our employment is no longer honest enough that we break a sweat in earning our bread (only white-collar workers exercise), then we will force the sweat of virtue from our pores as an act of penance. Immediately afterwards, of course, we trumpet our accomplishments through social media.

On setting aside The Wings of the Dove I began thumbing again through a small volume of Robert Louis Stevenson’s non-fiction. After the rather tedious company that I’m afraid James had become, RLS was all charm and good humor. In his essay on Thoreau, Stevenson warns against the delicate, fearful, self-obsessed pursuit of healthfulness. “True health,” he says, “is to be able to do without it.” He knew personally of what he spoke, but one shouldn’t press the aphorism too far. Eventually we all, in fact, do without it, but this state in its final form is known as death and not health. Nonetheless, to learn to accept with a good grace the inevitability of one’s own decrepitude, with the restrictions on liberty and pleasure which it necessarily imposes – well, that seems a health goal worthy of pursuit.

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Marginalia, no.324

When it does not give you trouble it takes it away – takes away letters and telegrams and newspapers and vistas and duties and efforts, all the complications, all the superfluities and superstitions that we have stuffed into our terrene life.

~ Henry James, The Patagonia

James’s narrator refers to travel by ocean liner, but the same might be said – and has been said – of wine and war, sleep and sex, gardening and gambling, illness, sports, reading, television, and death, among other things. I’m spoiled, I suppose, in that I have any leisure at all, though I’d like to have more. Enforced leisure might help to dispense with the guilt. Tourist cruises sound awful, but I wonder, do they sell passenger space aboard container ships?

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Night Work, Reading by Nose, The Master

In fact, I write for a living – or that’s mostly what I do. Of course, the sorts of things I get paid to write aren’t generally my idea of literature. They’re press releases, talking points, media pitches, byline articles, company reports, strategic messaging documents – that sort of stuff. I like to say that I’ve been quoted in most of America’s major newspapers but never under my own name. I generally keep a strict division between office life and home life. Work, however, has been bleeding into every corner these past few weeks. The size of our team has been reduced by two thirds, but our work load not at all. I hardly notice the robins and juncos out my office window anymore, or the fact that the magnolias are blooming. I barely find time to read, much less to write for pleasure. Most nights I dream about work, about drafting FAQs and bullet points and policy analyses. Years ago at the salmon cannery in Alaska, a Mexican coworker named Lenin told us that this sort of dream work has a name in Spanish: trabajo de la noche.


James Duval Phelan, who had a glorious moustache, was mayor of San Francisco from 1897 to 1902. He later served as a U.S. Senator for California. Between these two assignments, in 1912, Phelan built a country manse on the slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains above Saratoga. Though born to an Irish immigrant who had made his fortune in the Gold Rush, Phelan named his county residence Villa Montalvo and laid out an “Italianate garden” on its grounds. When he died in 1930, Phelan gave the property to Santa Clara County. Today it’s a public park and an arts center with an artists’ residency program. Not long ago I was hiking with the wife and kids through a grove of second-growth redwoods above Phelan’s Villa when I caught a familiar, very specific odor. It took a moment to place it, but I finally did. Beneath the trees, the orange blanket of rotting needles gave off a musty aroma that precisely reproduced the smell of my 1946 Viking Press edition of Saki’s Complete Stories, the one with the brittle, yellowing pages.


I never had much use for the Henry James titles (Daily Miller, The Portrait of a Lady) that we read in college. In fact, I never had much use for James until I was in my late thirties and read The Aspern Papers and The Beast in the Jungle and attempted (twice) to read The Ambassadors. I’m presently making a continental tour of his novellas and shorter stories. From the handsome Library of America edition covering the period from 1884 to 1891 I’ve especially enjoyed The Pupil, The Liar, The Patagonia, and The Lesson of the Master. Why is it that James suddenly works for me? His “supercivilised” world of upper-crust Victorian socialites and moneyed ex-patriots might as well be the Japanese Middle Ages for all the likeness it bears to my own life and milieu. But his language is surely a factor, a potent mingling of cool precision and warm ambiguity. It works on me like a drug. James’s main appeal, however, may be his capacity to see into the complexities of his own characters, to make them so perfectly transparent to us while preserving a core of personal mystery. After an hour reading Henry James, I find that I look at others around me with refreshed curiosity.

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Marginalia, no.233

Every one was a little someone else.

~ Henry James, The Great Good Place

I like to think we’re given middle names to acknowledge the transdimensional interloper that manages to occupy precisely our little corner of space-time all our lives. This is the person who is us but never quite ourself and who, if we’re not careful, will make a fool of us and get us into all kinds of trouble. By naming him, perhaps, we keep him in bounds. But woe to them that go by their middle names.

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Marginalia, no.148

In ignorance she could humor her fancy, and that proved a useful freedom.

~ Henry James, The Ambassadors

Knowledge handcuffs perception. I finally feel like I understand Henry James… For the longest time, listening to Jane Birkin’s vocals on Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus,’ I’d taken her for some nymphomaniac Gallic vixen. After learning she’s English, the accent is only too obvious. Another fantasy demolished.

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Marginalia, no.42

[T]he extinction in his life of the element of suspense was such in fact as to surprise him.  He could scarce have said what the effect resembled; the abrupt cessation, the positive prohibition, of music perhaps… What it presently came to in truth was that poor Marcher waded through his beaten grass, where no life stirred, where no breath sounded, where no evil eye seemed to gleam from a possible lair, very much as if vaguely looking for the Beast, and still more as if missing it.

~ Henry James, The Beast in the Jungle

Life for the child is a sort of wild game park.  There are monsters hid in the closet and fairy things that scratch at the window, and the imagination is thick with all manner of wonderful, improbable creatures.  But the days flit through the calendar like bullets in the leaves and by twenty the list of threatened species is dismally long for most of us.  The danger, of course, is that in the end you’ll find yourself entirely disillusioned and safe.  How awful to be the most terrible thing left lurking in the woods.

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