Sunday, November 13, 2011

Library of America--Paste, by Henry James

Photo: "Portrait of Henry James," an oil painting by Joseph Singer Sargent, on James's Wikipedia page.

Nice little story, written very stiffly and badly, of course, by a very Victorian writer who could never seem to get out of his own way.  The language is of the supreme upper echelon of society, as are the mannerisms, which may have turned off the readership masses--if the poorer could afford books at the time, which maybe they couldn't.  In that case, James knew his audience very well and wrote directly to them.

This story is a mirror image of Guy de Maupassant's (righteously) more famous "The Necklace."  In that one--and if you haven't read it, you should; it's short and written better--a young woman, very poor, borrows a necklace from her much richer friend, then loses it after a ball.  Thinking it was real, she and her husband sign their lives away and work to exhaustion for ten years.  Finally coming clean to her friend, she's informed that it was paste (fake) and that she'd made herself even more of a pauper for nothing.  And, if she had just admitted she'd lost it, the friend would have told her.

James's story is about a young woman of better means who is given a necklace by a man of much better means, who tells her it's a fake piece of her now-dead aunt's.  This woman's friend, Mrs. Guy (Get it?), tells her it's real, and says she's a fool for wanting to bring it back to the guy who gave it to her, who has mistakenly thought it fake.  If it's real, you see, that means his aunt had to receive it as a gift from someone not her husband, as he had been very poor.  And this woman had been an actor, which in the story explains the moral situation very well.

So the young woman does the moral thing and tells the guy it's real.  He's aghast and affronted, and says she can't have it back, that he'll get it appraised and tell her that he was right after all.  What he does instead is sell it, because it was real, and the young woman's friend, Mrs. Guy, buys it for, as she says, at a good price.  So the one honest character, the young woman, ends up with nothing to remind her of the dead aunt, and with none of the money that the thing was worth.

I tell you all this to save you from reading the story.  Read "The Necklace," or James' "The Turn of the Screw", which is just as stilted, but much more famous.  As it should be.  Very scary and psychologically chilling.

And I'll leave you with this connection.  After my second deviated septum operation, I was given a bottle of pain meds that are quite popular.  I hate taking pills, and told some friends that I wasn't sure I'd ever take them.  Every single well-to-do or of-average-means friend, in total seriousness, told me to sell them if I didn't take them.  I ended up taking them, as I'd been in a lot of pain, but I've never forgotten their responses.

There's another short story in there somewhere.

Speaking of short stories, I finished one recently, an 11-page zombie story called "Too Dumb to Die."  Yeah, I like the title, too.  ("Hide the Weird" was good, too.)  I'll keep you informed.

P.S.--Okay, while getting a picture for this post, I read a really long article about James on Wikipedia, and I'm forced to admit that my terseness maybe was a bit overwrought about his work.  He obviously wrote some great things, not just "The Turn of the Screw," and I'm going to have to get a copy of his Complete Works.  But I'll be damned if I know how I'm going to get past the brick and mortar of his writing.

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