Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Henry James' time traveling doubles


Henry James embarked on a curious novel of time traveling doubles, The Sense of the Past, but left it unfinished. It held my attention through one of my overnight reading binges. The theme is deliciously creepy and the twist in the tale is well done. 

The protagonist, Ralph Pendrel, is a young independent American scholar who has published one small book, An Essay in Aid of the Reading of History. An aged English relative, reading this before his death, was moved by the author's "ear for stilled voices " to leave him his old London house. Ralph finds this stroke of luck "a violation of the law of prose”; this is "poetry undefiled"  

We feel the pull of the house for this 30-year-old American with a passion for history. "I dream of making it speak" Ralph declares on arrival at Mansfield Place. He wants to "remount the stream of time really to bathe in its upper and more natural waters to risk even, as he might say, drinking of them.” He wants to hear the old stopped clocks ticking again. He feels the house is "a museum of held reverberations". 

We walk the place with him, feeling the staring eyes of the family portraits and then the deeper and creepier mystery of the portrait of a man with his back turned to the viewer, the lone picture in the smallest of three drawing rooms. At 2 in the morning, Ralph enters the room again. The figure in the painting has now turned. And the face is his own. 

We are given to understand, obliquely, that the man in the picture is not only his ancestor but his counterpart or double in an earlier time, as keen to enter the future as Ralph is to enter the past. He steps through the frame and they are together in the same space and time. For a while they travel London together though only Ralph seems able to see his double. We realize, little by little that they are swapping lives. 

Henry James is a subtle seducer. He is a page puller not a page turner. He pulls you in. And slows you down. You can't rush. Either you walk at his pace or you give it up. His command of words doesn't often involve unusual words but using words in unusual ways. The word "congruity", not altogether usual, is used in a most unusual way in an early description of Mrs. Aurora Coyle, the lady Ralph has been courting unsuccessfully for ten years when the story begins. “Beautiful, different, proud, she had a congruity with things that were not as the things surrounding her." Some of James’ sentences sound like philosophy problems as well as grammatical tests: "the only way to not remain is to not go". 

He provides little description of people or places and much less dialogue than we might expect. There is little forward motion. Yet he had me, again. I was reading with an agenda - I wanted to see how he managed the themes of time travel, doubles and haunted houses. As I reached the end of Book One, a natural place to pause, at 5:30 a.m., a sensible time to sleep, I wanted more. I went to bed with the book and reentered the 1710 house on Maitland Square in the grey London light that might better be called shadow, to watch Ralph stare at the utter familiarity of the chessboard tiles of the lobby, so aged that the white squares are yellow and the black squares are blue. 

I looked again, through his eyes, at the painting in the inner room of a youngish man from the age of rakes with his back turned. Ralph indulges in the fantasy that the figure may turn to face him. He thinks of the faithful in an Italian church hoping for the miracle of a sculpted saint or Madonna shedding a tear. On a night of wild rain, he prowls his house and returns to the paneled room  and finds the miracle has taken place. The man in the picture has turned to show his face "but the face - miracle of miracles, yes - confounded him as his own." 

"I am not myself,” Ralph confesses later in the story. We learn that we are dealing with trans-temporal doubles, one obsessed by the past, the other fascinated by the future, who agree to trade places in different times.


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