Hermits Rock

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So I haven’t written much about The Golden Bowl in part because every time I’ve tried to grab a sense of it—to pull back its veil by writing, so to speak—it has eluded me. It’s quite unlike my response to The Portrait of a Lady, which I marveled and worked to make sense of at the same time. But with TGB the whole seems so much more intense than any of its parts, and at the same time none of the parts seem to make sense without an understanding of the whole. But having just finished Volume I—finally! I read like molasses drips—I want at least to say something, even if the only thing of substance I say is that, if you plan to read the thing and at the same care enough about revelation in your reading experience to hate spoilers, don’t read this 1984 exchange in the NYRB between John Bayley and Gore Vidal.

The novel juxtaposes the nuance and subtlety that exists within a tight social network with a bold action that may (or may not) take place precisely because everything else is so subtle. About the subtlety, for example, early on it takes three chapters to set up a single scene in which a half-dozen characters enter a room and notice two other characters who are already there. What they notice is that the woman wants the man (Adam Verver) and that the man’s daughter, Maggie, sees not only the woman’s designs but also his indifference to them. This recognition between father and daughter means everything. Wealthy Americans, collectors, they can do or have what they want. She, two-years married to an Italian prince (Amerigo), sees in her widower father that he has no one. Later, the two make a compact to find him someone (not the woman in the scene), as a sort of working out of the equilibrium of the universe: when Maggie married, she threw off their very close relationship, disrupted it quite against her real wishes; for him to marry might right that imbalance.

That the woman they find is Charlotte Stant, poor girlhood friend of Maggie’s, who also happens to have been Prince Amerigo’s lover just prior to his engagement with Maggie (an engagement made in no small part because of Maggie’s money), is the initiation of the boldness. The father and daughter are so close they spend their days together—they use their marriages (according to Charlotte and the Prince, anyway) as fronts to entertain their own self-absorption. Their closeness leaves Charlotte and the Prince out, and the two take advantage of it: under the noses of their spouses, even with the appearance of their blessing, they resume their affair.

There’s really not that much more to it through the first volume. It’s so far a novel about what characters know, how they come to know it, what all of that knowing means. To illuminate the meaning of glances is the entire means by which James constructs conflict here, and then he tells the story in the process of elaborate dances: at one dinner party, for example, Mrs. Assingham (a Ralph Touchett-like character—or is she more like Henrietta Stackpole?—but powerless and, I suspect, a poor reader of character, perhaps because her first name is Fanny), talks seriously with both Charlotte and the Prince, in quick succession, about the fact that they appear to be having an affair and that they should be worried about that appearance. That they’re not worried she learns, but only from both of them and in spite of her fear of actually speaking to them directly. The novel reads like a series of convergences: characters come and go in pairs such that when a third arrives to make a threesome, another departs.

It is a novel of the private lives of social people—social because of their status and money. So far there’s little that the Ververs’ (the Americans’, I should hardly need to add) money can’t do. It buys royalty and separates lovers; it also allows its owners to be naive and self-absorbed, even though the things they ignore have the potential to hurt them. Whether they actually do hurt them I have yet to see (except, of course, that I did read Vidal’s conclusion, but I swear I can suspend judgment at least as long as it takes me to finish).