|Being the first review of the New Year, 2006, and being curious about this particular author, I thought I would start off right and resolve to read more Classics. This author has always been on the to-be-read list, but for some reason, it has taken me quite a while to get to him--or back to him, as the case may be. But it was well worth the wait! Read on, dear patron, and enjoy.|
With The American we get what, according to various sources, was the first of Henry James' great novels. In it, James introduces us to his beloved Paris, and to his obsession with the clash of cultures, herein personified by his hero, one self-made millionaire from San Francisco, Christopher Newman. Newman's intent, on traversing the great boulevards of Paris, was to take in the best Paris had to offer; to so so, he thought, was to buy anything and everything he could wish for, whether that meant buying paintings from lovely, young Parisian women, such as Noémie Nioche, or--ultimately--marrying a lovely, young, Parisian Countess, in the person of Claire de Cintre. Going to Italy for the opera, or Switzerland for the climate, or Paris for French lessons, and fine company, Newman expected the best of everything, and traveled all over the continent's finest countries to get it.
His money and his charm are enough to make him a slew of friends, even among the highest circles; but Newman soon learns money isn't everything. His sights are set much too high; and the highest circles in which Newman travels, in Paris, don't take kindlly to his kind (the nouveau riche), no matter how much money he has to offer. For a time, he makes his way through Madame de Cintre's circles; he is charmed by her younger brother Valentin de Bellegarde; he is promised at least consideration of his suit for Claire, from her mother, Madame de Bellegarde, and her elder brother Henri; he shows them, in turn, the greatest respect he has to offer; they accept him, when he asks for Claire's hand in marriage, they parade him around before all their noble friends. And it seems success is well within Newman's grasp.
But there is mischief afoot. Whether of his own making, by that of the charming and damnable Noémie, or the cunning shrewdness of Newman's ultimate enemies, mishcief and misery, it seems, is to state distinctly that New and Old World, American and European do not mix. When they attempt to, drama unfolds, lurid secrets are revealed, and Newman learns a bitter lesson.
I have read some Henry James, long ago, but this was my re-introduction to his work. I must say, it was quite an introduction! The story, while being in the form of a familiar 19th Century Romance, with all the fluff and bows that go along with the form, was quite different than what I expected--and quite refreshing. Even here, in one of his earliest novels, one can see what James would set out to, ultimately, do to the Novel; and it is a brilliant example! While his prose, at times, is quite difficult, and I must admit, the liberal sprinkling of French terminology had me continually consulting a French-English dictionary, I found The American to be a most worthwhile read. The twist in the tale (I won't tell you what or where) completely knocked me for a loop, and only made the novel that much more enjoyable. I found it to be, as have many others, a great beginning to the career of one who came to be known as the greatest American writer of the 19th Century. Be warned: This is a tough novel, but it is one well worth the time. Do give The American a try. I am sure you will be pleased with the effort.
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