On the back seat with Henry James and the rocket men

Consigned to the back seat of the car for a long journey, I was glad to have my Kindle. In anticipation of several hours of boredom I downloaded an assortment of things, including Henry James’ short stories, some classic fiction and  some freebie novel extracts to evaluate. In a moment of nostalgia for adolescence I bought some ‘megapacks’ of old SF stories for 50p a drop. It occurred to me that I needed to find that buzz with reading that I got as a girl, long before I could separate the vellum from the pulp.  As a child I could read anywhere, for hours. There must’ve been something that grabbed me about these stories, given that 12 year old girls were not the demographic of most of the writers.

With Henry I cruised timelessly for a couple of hours. At first, his elegant prose needed a little unpacking for my modern ears. His approaches  – polite, ironic, elliptical, allusive, subtle, quietly dissolving his readers minds into the minds of his characters. His lost worlds now preserved in the amber of history (warming up for the purple prozac of the megapacks). I was replete of reading by coffee time, still lost in the studio (and the head) of a Victorian illustrator. 

A double macchiato later I was ready for the ‘megapacks’. I was dropped into the action, no seduction. It was all on the job training. I was told what to do, I was a space engineer, a moon miner, the pilot of a space ship. I killed aliens and solved problems before my oxygen ran out. I was inelegantly shunted from one scene to another and had some trite moralising about why humans were best whispered in my ear to justify slaughtering an entire race of antagonistic aliens from another galaxy. I found it hard to empathise with the thinly drawn characters, and some of the more obvious themes but somehow, despite some very clumsy writing managed to plough through several stories before the lunch stop.

Some of the stories seemed very dated, partly because of the technology but mostly because they were written with the mindset of people who lived 20, 30, 40 or more years ago. It revealed much about the politics of the time of writing. As a girl, I had read them uncritically, accepting the authority of the author as a child is (was) expected to accept the authority of a teacher. I probably enjoyed them more for this innocence. With Henry James I trust him as a writer, now based on my knowledge and understanding of his capability. As a 12 year-old, I wouldn’t have got very far him even with help. I had no concept of the quality of a writer other than as an entertainer.

Now I am an adult, I question. I must question. It is my mature responsibility to question things and I have acquired some skills and experience in reading so can criticise writing and premises both scientific and moral. It has become automatic. How then to return to that childhood state, allowing myself to be immersed, to suspend my critical excesses to simply enjoy something? Only by making a virtual self – trying to return to my more childish state. A fiction of myself. Here I am rationalising about it. I’ll just read them under the covers with a torch.

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One thought on “On the back seat with Henry James and the rocket men

  1. I loved this post. Found your blog by google searching “reeks of the lamp,” a quote I heard Martin Amis mention in an interview a few months ago. Love your observations regarding Henry James. Embarked on Turn of the Screw after completing Daisy Miller. What an amazing range. It seems like two completely different writers. The pains-taking psychological archaeology of the character is present in both, but the narrators display such a range of perspective and style. Anyway….many thanks for sharing your observations. I savoured every detail of your experience.

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