The 100 best novels: No 36 – The Golden Bowl by Henry James (1904)

Robert McCrum in The Guardian:

The-Golden-Bowl-005There's an old joke (which only makes complete sense in Britain) that there are three, not one, manifestations of Henry James: James the First (The Portrait of a Lady); James the Second (The Turn of the Screw); and the Old Pretender (The Wings of the Dove; The Golden Bowl). As we approach another giant in this series – for some, the only American writer of greater significance than Mark Twain or F Scott Fitzgerald – I've chosen to skip James I and II, and settle on late James, the Old Pretender, and his masterpiece, The Golden Bowl, a novel that takes its title from Ecclesiastes 12:6-7 (“Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern… then shall the dust return to the earth as it was…”).

I've made this choice for three reasons. First, because it addresses James's essential theme, the meeting of two great cultures, English and American, and mixes it with the sinister menace of his middle period. Second, because the novel is so intensely (maddeningly, some would say) Jamesian, often hovering between the difficult and the incomprehensible. And finally, because his last novel places him where he belongs, at the very beginning of the 20th century. The Golden Bowl opens with Prince Amerigo, a charming Italian nobleman of reduced means, coming to London for his marriage to Maggie Verver, the only child of the wealthy widower Adam Verver, an American financier and art connoisseur. The plot then reprises a Henry James short story of 1891 (The Marriages), in which a father and daughter become hopelessly caught up in “a mutual passion, an intrigue”, a complex tale of treachery and betrayal made more complex by the fact that James, who suffered acutely from writer's cramp, dictated it to a typist every morning over a period of 13 months. Not since the blind John Milton dictated chunks of Paradise Lost to his daughters has a prominent writer expressed so much of his vision through the medium of the spoken word.

More here.