the rory gilmore reading challenge: roderick hudson (henry james)

Note from Annie: For info on the RGRC, read this post. The full list of books I’m taking on for the year (until 9/14/2014) can be found here, along with a regularly updated list of books in progress and books completed.

the author

Henry James – 1843-1916. An American-born British author, known for an impressively prolific career which saw the publication of a crapload of novels, literary criticism, plays, and travel writing.

Some resources for further reading on James:

the book

Roderick Hudson – published originally in 1875, James claimed it was his first novel. (It wasn’t, actually – he wrote Watch and Ward before it, but later disowned that work, for reasons that are fairly apparent on even a casual reading.) A Bildungsroman, the book examines a portion of the life of its titular character predominantly through the perspective of Rowland Mallet, a wealthy, slightly older friend who “sponsors” the budding sculptor and takes him to Rome where, in short order, Hudson achieves both artistic acclaim and jaw-dropping personality defects.

OK, OK, I kid. But really. Hudson’s an entertaining, colorful creature, to be sure. Even as his somewhat straight-laced and much more emotionally mature patron, Mallet, holds his tongue, the artist’s fast-paced rise and emotional fall strike me as entirely the result of an innate weakness of character. He’s cruel, but without malice. The epitome of the self-centered, crazy-making artist, Hudson seemed to me almost from the first introduction to be doomed to live out the quip often attributed to James Dean but which actually first appeared in the 1949 movie Knock on Any Door:

Live fast. Die young. Leave a good-looking corpse.

(Spoiler alert?)

Even so, Hudson isn’t (to me) the most fascinating character of the bunch. That honor must go to Christine Light, a beautiful (we are repeatedly told) young woman whose true nature and character are maddeningly elusive. Which is not to say James doesn’t do a good job illuminating the contours of this woman – she’s just that complex and .. well, odd. Just when you think you’ve got her figured out, something comes out of her mouth that seems simultaneously deeply revealing and thoroughly out of left field.

Besides the emotional crash-and-burn, Hudson has a lot to say about art – the nature of creativity, the tortured psychology of artists. The role of the passionate, living-on-the-edge kind of artist is, of course, Hudson’s. But there are other artists depicted throughout, none of whom reach Hudson-levels of egotism and petulant self-interest.  And one of whom – the affable Singleton – although appearing infrequently, serves as the absolute antithesis of Hudson. Singleton “knows” he’s not nearly as gifted as Hudson, but he’s the one you know will survive and continue to produce works that supercede the ones that came before – who will continue to improve, instead of flaring brightly for a season and then burning himself out.

Does brilliant art require insane levels of self-indulgence and emotional instability?

I don’t think so. I couldn’t want to be a writer if I thought that, I think.

James is thoroughly gifted at evocative passages which paint vivid images of place — various locales in Italy, and in Switzerland as well. I’m really looking forward to reading the travel selections in Complete Works, once I get through a few more novels and a couple of the plays.

Am I a James fan yet? I don’t think so – but I’m on my way, and Roderick Hudson is a much better introduction to the writer’s work than Watch and Ward was, for sure. (I did finish it, and I’ll put it on the list of books I’ve read, but I’m not going to write about it – there’s really not that much to say.)

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