The 100 best novels: #36 – The Golden Bowl by Henry James (1904)

There'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 ofParadise Lost to his daughters has a prominent writer expressed so much of his vision through the medium of the spoken word.

Each reader will take something different from this amazing, labyrinthine, terrifying and often claustrophobic narrative. For me, the dominant theme – very close to James's heart – is the story of Maggie Verver's education, both literal and emotional, and her subtle resolution of an impossible and perhaps dreadful situation. At the end, Maggie has saved her marriage, and her father prepares to return to America, leaving his daughter older, wiser and (apparently) reconciled to her husband. American literature contains nothing else quite like The Golden Bowl.

A note on the text

The Golden Bowl is one of the first truly 20th-century novels: it was never serialised, but first published in New York in December 1904 by Charles Scribner's Sons in two volumes, and then in London in February 1905 by Methuen in a one-volume edition. In 1909, a revised text appeared as volumes 23 and 24 of the New York edition, together with one of James's magisterial prefaces in which, with sometimes tortuous circumlocution, he reflected on the art of fiction as he understood it. Many years before, in The Art of Fiction, a brilliant, almost polemical declaration on behalf of the novel as an art form, he had written "A novel is a living thing, all one and continuous, like every other organism, and in proportion as it lives will it be found, I think, that in each of the parts there is something of each of the other parts." The Golden Bowlsupremely exemplifies this claim, providing a literary texture of staggering complexity and richness.

Three more from Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady (1881); The Turn of the Screw (1898); The Wings of the Dove (1902).
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