Review of “A Small Boy and Others: A Memoir,” by Henry James.
Old people often become obsessed with the episodic details of their youth, as though by recalling many discrete scenes they will explain who they are to themselves. Henry James’s memoir has something of this quality; it is a rambling enterprise, but because it is James, it is charming and often intriguing, and it is redeemed by its wit and prose style. When you are old, you can tell which of your early experiences were important or predictive: Your life has become narrative and the origins of everything are clearer than they have ever been. James has an almost psychoanalytic ability to draw crucial implications from events that seem slight or insignificant. He also seems possessed of an extraordinary memory and recalls which person did which thing on which day with a degree of precision that is astonishing to the modern reader and of which he is fully conscious: “I have lost nothing of what I saw and… though I can’t now quite divide the total into separate occasions the various items surprisingly swarm for me.” The book actually functions as a double narrative, telling both the story of what happened and the story of remembering it; he recounts not only what he recalls, but also what the recalling is like for him. James apologizes regularly for his own process: “I lose myself, of a truth, under the whole pressure of the spring of memory” and “I feel that at such a rate I remember too much.” And sometimes it is too much; the reader is in full sympathy with his elder brother, William, who “professed amazement, and even occasionally impatience, at my reach of reminiscence.”
One of the hilarities of the memoir is that the author protests throughout that it is a book to be read by people interested in William James for the information it gives about his childhood. But the book is very obviously not about William James. It is about Henry, and William’s appearances are as thin as decorum will allow; if we learn about William here, it is only because William is part of the story of Henry. The elder brother liked “to brush away old moral scraps in favour of new rather than to hoard and so complacently exhibit them,” and one feels that he would not have cared for this exercise in memory whether it was supposed to supplement his story or tell his brother’s. One must ask nothing more of it than that it be Henry’s autobiography.
The book reveals a man whose essential qualities were well in place when he was a child. Age six, in the waiting room of his dentist, he found magazines and remembers “poring… over tales of fashionable life in Philadelphia.” He knew early on what he was about; he was merely seven when he became “positively conscious that the social scene so peopled would always say more to me than anything else. What it did say I of course but scantly understood; but I none the less knew it spoke, and I listened to its voice.”
James recaptures a very old New York — “I make so far as I can the small warm dusky homogenous New York world of the mid-century close about us” — and there is something amusing to the modern reader in his late-life nostalgia for the old ice cream shop in Union Square, or for Bond Street as it used to be. To read his narrative of growing up on Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue (while I sit at home on Tenth Street and Fifth Avenue) is vastly amusing. And his characters are vivid and often very funny, as one governess whom he describes as “a large Russian lady in an extraordinarily short cape (I like to recall the fashion of short capes) of the same stuff as her dress, and Merovingian sidebraids that seemed to require the royal crown of Fredegonde or Brunéhaut to complete their effect” and another “Miss Weston — whose praenomen I frivolously forget (though I fear it was Lizzie).” Then there is “Miss Mestayer, who gave form to my conception of the tragic actress at her highest. She had a hooked nose, a great play of nostril, a vast protuberance of bosom and always the ‘crop’ of close moist ringlets… She must have been in comedy, which I believe she also usefully and fearlessly practised.”
The modern sentimentalist will be disappointed, however, by the book’s lack of emotional information or content. Though we learn how James was first struck by this painting or that piece of theater, how he first met Washington Irving, and how he sneaked out of bed to hear his cousin read the first installment of David Copperfield to his mother, what he essentially gives us are facts about the past and playful musing about the process of memory. Details of a particular afternoon with one of his parents are easy to find, but there is no information here about whether he liked his parents or not, whether he saw any tenderness in them, whether they ever made him cry — though one does gain the impression around the edges that the attentiveness of James’s father had a formative effect on him. His father’s “prime horror” was of prigs, and yet James does seem here to be awfully priggish, a fussy and self-obsessed old man. The book has a stale triviality to it. You must enter this book already interested to find much of the information beguiling.
The writing style is typical of the very late James; which is to say that individual sentences are decorated with subsidiary phrases of such number and so elaborately entangled that it is a challenge to locate the subject (which while being the grammatical subject may not at all be the thematic subject of the sentence) and the verb (in which the primary action of the sentence may scarcely lie). Such writing, at once exhilarating in its sheer multiplicity and artistry and stimulating in its depth and profundity, has many virtues attached to it, and yet it is also, if one is entirely honest about this matter, as indeed one would wish to be and as indeed James is able to be, rather irritating and extremely tiring to read, page upon page, when one’s poor mind wants simply to extract a narrative, as one might from, for example, Ernest Hemingway and his ilk, those successors of James and Proust who rediscovered the states of apparent simplicity that, though they may be always delusive in language, do make for easier reading simply by their approximation of an impossible but lovely transparency through which events can be seen whole and clear rather than in this perniciously foggy if detailed way that with its subtleties so well suits fiction and so uncomfortably sits on nonfiction, particularly this nonfiction, A Small Boy and Others, with its ostensible focus on solid objects.