Saturday, June 19, 2010

Three of a Kind: Smith, James and Dostoevsky

Without the burden of careful research, I think I'm right on this: what do Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry James and Adam Smith have in common? Answer (I think): they dictated. And I could have answered: it shows. All three, whatever their virtues, have a certain tendency to windbaggism which can be off-putting to at least some potential readers.

The point occurred to me yesterday during a Chez Buce readaloud of D's The Idiot. It's my second time through and I chose it willingly: it's a fascinating, if flawed masterpiece that gives you a taste of the full Dostoevskian agenda. But my, these people can talk. And talk, and talk, and talk. And even if the book ends, you suspect that the conversation never ends:I read somebody somewhere saying that D is the one author of whom you can imagine that the characters were talking before you came into the room, and will keep on talking after you leave. You can easily imagine all this stuff just buzzing out of D's brain--as if he had to get it out before it blew the top of his head clean off.

I'll forgive D because they payoff is so great. My admiration for Henry James has always been somewhat more, ahem, nuanced. I admire Portrait of a Lady and some of the shorter works, but I think that may be the key. I've slogged my way through the late-period heavyweights--Ambassadors, Golden Bowl, Wings of the Dove. I'll concede that they have their merits, but they are all just a bit too much wrapped in an arabesque of self-congratulation, as James suavely undertakes to show you how much more he understands than you do. This, from a man who does not know how babies are made, strikes me as presumptuous. Part of Henry seems to have understood that he needed the constraints of the novella form to keep from going off the deep end.

Adam Smith is perhaps a bit more difficult a case because he is earlier and by any conventional measure less sophisticated--the utterance of a learned, likeable but garrulous old country schoolmaster. I got through every page, but with a crutch: I read it on paper at the same time that I was enjoying (sic, actually) the audio version. But let's admit it: Wealth of Nations is one of those books that would not lose anything by a judicious cut down to 150 pages.

1 comment:

Ed Olivera said...

Louis Auchincloss once told me that Le Maitre dictated his Major Phase novels because he had a amanuensis (female) that he needed at that stage in his life and that she could operate a new contraption called the typewriter, which was about the size of a refrigerator. I withhold comment on your assessment of these magnificent novels.