Saturday, January 05, 2008

"One smells the thing unprinted"

At the LRB, Colm Toibin considers the first two volumes of a new edition of the complete letters of Henry James (projected to come in at more than 140 volumes!). It's a fascinating piece throughout, but here's an interesting bit from the middle:
He was plagued with constipation. Soon, however, as things began to improve, he told William that he ‘had a movement every day for a month – & at Oxford two daily’. But as soon as he reached the Continent, things grew worse. From Florence he wrote in October: ‘I may actually say that I can’t get a passage. My “little squirt” has ceased to have more than a nominal use. The water either remains altogether or comes out as innocent as it entered.’ Pills he took did not help, he wrote again, they brought ‘a species of abortive diarrhoea. That is I felt the most reiterated & most violent inclination to stool, without being able to effect anything save the passage of a little blood.’ He saw a doctor who ‘examined them [his bowels] (as far as he could) by the insertion of his finger (horrid tale!) & says there is no palpable obstruction. He seemed surprised however that I haven’t piles; you see we have always something to be grateful for.’ At the end of the letter, he wrote: ‘Having opened up the subject at such a rate, I shall of course keep you informed – To shew you haven’t taken this too ill, for heaven’s sake make me a letter about your own health – poor modest flower!’

At this stage Henry James was 26 and his brother 28. They would both live to be old, remaining vigorous, active and healthy all of their lives, dying eventually from the same type of heart disease. In April that same year, in a letter from Malvern, Henry James wrote to William: ‘Of course I have been sorry to think that you have been unable to write before by reason of your back & have greatly missed hearing from you.’ Illness within the James family was like money in some families, or worldly success or religious devotion in others. It was discussed in hushed and reverent tones, and those who did not benefit from it won no brownie points. William and Henry were lucky; they knew how far to go with it, how to refer to it enough but not too much; they understood how much to invent and how much to make of what was real. Unfortunately, Alice, their sister, who all her life made illness into a mysterious fine art, knew simply that she would need to be ill to survive her father’s erratic, chattering presence and her mother’s suffocating and controlling care, but she did not know how to stop it when it was not necessary as her two elder brothers did.

Thus Henry James’s constipation could be described by himself in detail as well as his position as someone who, because of his back, ‘shall certainly never get beyond having to be minutely cautious’. When William wanted to be nasty, as he often did, it was Henry’s back he went for. In June 1869, for example, he wrote: ‘The condition of your back is totally incomprehensible to me.’ But Henry managed always to dramatise his plight, mentioning on his return to Malvern symptoms that were ‘powerful testimony to the obstinacy of my case’ and later his ‘invalidism’, his ‘slowly crawling from weakness & inaction & suffering into strength & health & hope’. When, at one point in his European sojourn, Henry’s general condition seemed to get worse, he wrote to his father about himself as though he were translating from the heightened language of a Greek text: ‘Don’t revile me & above all don’t pity me . . . Dear father, if once I can get rid of this ancient sorrow I shall be many parts of a well man.’ He ended the letter by suggesting that there was a family pool of illness, or a seesaw on which they all sat waiting their turn on top. ‘I have invented for my comfort a theory that this degenerescence of mine is the [the word ‘the’ is then crossed out] a result of Alice & Willy getting better & locating some of their diseases on me – so as to propitiate the fates by not turning the poor homeless infirmities out of the family. Isn’t it so? I forgive them & bless them.’

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