When it comes to reading Henry James, a reader is either weary of how much she loves his work or frustrated by how much she wants to love his work. One way or the other that reader is most likely exhausted by the end of The Wings of the Dove.
James’ prose is notoriously extensive. He can go on for pages without taking a break for a paragraph, extend a chapter with mounds of punctuation providing the most confusing assembly guide in history, and take hardly a moment for dialogue. These elements combine to make an infuriating read, whether you love the end product or not.
Maybe my biggest mistake was reading two Henry James novels in a row. The mind needs a break from such a dense style of writing. I loved the work he did with The Portrait of a Lady, but this time found his prose as more of a distraction and could not appreciate the two, three, sometimes four or more readings it would take to understand a passage.
Still, with my mounted frustration and relief in finishing, I can’t bring myself to degrade this work. As much as I would like to thrash this novel with criticism of how the superfluous length of the passages separated me entirely from the characters, how I didn’t care for the events at all, how -on multiple occasions- I would pause from reading and yell at the book as if it was James himself, “just say it for crying out loud!”, I cannot help but feel like my dislike for this novel is more a failure on my part than his.
I was still able to appreciate the delicacy that James is able to carry out in his prose. Although outweighed by my frustrations, there is a presence of brilliance in his human insight, in each character constructed like a road map in a foreign language leading only to another map, in the dialogue where the characters place each phrase on a balance making each word they say steady against each word they don’t. There are passages I cannot help but adore.
Perhaps, the greatest downfall of this novel is the way it can marginalize the unprepared reader. It can make you feel a fool for not fully grasping it. It will frustrate you and make you feel inferior. It will make you want to give up, throw it back in the pile of unreads and leave it to be ignored. If you undertake this book, this project, be ready for a challenge or ready give up quickly. As for myself, I am left only with terrifying desire to try to read this novel again and make better sense of it. It’s a torture I can’t help but long for and fear.