Thursday, May 15, 2008

Review: The Golden Bowl

Only Henry James can take a beguiling idea like quasi-incestuous adultery, add an Italian prince, a billionaire art collector, and exotic foreign travel, and make a story so tedious that it is a true chore to read.

James writes in wisps of ideas, continually layering these wisps until there is a shimmery, translucent image that gives an idea of what he is trying to get at. These literary holograms are sometimes pretty, often interesting up to a point, but there is no substance to them. By the time the image emerges from the wisps, all I can think is, “So what?”

I can appreciate the talent it took to write an entire novel without saying anything directly. James definitely had a skill that he developed to the utmost. But while I admire the talent, I have no desire to make it a part of my life. I appreciate James’s talent the way I appreciate that of the artists who can paint the face of Jesus on a grain of rice. Impressive, but I’m not going to collect a gallery of rice portraits.


(If you would like your review of this book or any other Henry James book listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add your post.)


This was one of the three Henry James books on the Modern Library's list of Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century.


  1. I like the way you describe James' writing. I read one of his novels for a university class years ago and I had a difficult time staying with it. The only way I could describe what I didn't like about his writing at the time was to say that his sentences went on for so long that I couldn't remember what the point was by the time I got to the end of the sentence! I like your description better.

  2. Thanks! I've wrestled with James over the years. It would be easy to say I simply dislike his books and am bored to tears when I read them. But there is something in me that makes me glad that I have read them. Maybe it is just that the books and their stories are referrenced so often in other books.

  3. V. much like the description of James writing as literary holograms. Nicely put. I'm not ready to never say never to another James, but I can't imagine I will love one of his works. I rather feel like C. Bronte when she famously 'dissed J. Austen--where's the passion?

  4. God yes! I so completely agree with all of you about James! I was in the U.S. Coast Guard in the early 1970s, and I thought that it would be fun to read as much of James's oeuvre over a year while on a ship. What a bloody mistake. I slogged through about six of his novels, and then gave the whole pile of 'em away. I haven't read any since, nor does any of his work grace my shelves. Interminably dull!

  5. JaneGS -- Sorry for the very belated reply. I'm not ready to say never again, but mostly because Portrait of a Lady shows up on so many lists I'm working on that I will get to it someday. Just not too soon.

    Christopher -- I admire the completist streak, but can't imagine anything worse than being trapped on a boat with nothing to read but Henry James!


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