Sunday 11 November 2018

Poynton, Utz and the Mania for Collecting

I had a James wobble not so long ago. James's last, unfinished novel, The Ivory Tower, in a nice NYRB edition, had been sitting on my shelves for some years, and at last I gave it a try. The first couple of chapters were OK, but then James started introducing characters willy-nilly, and when I'd read a dozen or so pages thinking 'Gussy' was a man, only to find she wasn't, I decided life was too short for what Martin Amis once called the arctic labyrinth of late James.

I don't elsewhere concur with Amis's views on James, but he seems to nail it when it comes to The Ivory Tower. And so? Give up? No! I chose The Spoils of Poynton, an old favourite - and it had only grown richer and more elegant and delightful. Published in 1897, it's a transitional novel, cementing the 'late style' and 'scenic method' that characterise James's last major phase.

Mrs Gereth, a recent widow, must leave Poynton, her home for more than twenty years and a monument to her mania for collecting. Owen, her mild but philistine son, wants to marry the even more vulgar Mona. How can Mrs Gereth save her antiques from the predations of this unsatisfactory pair? Enter Fleda Vetch, dreamy and Jamesian: 'no one in the world was less superficial than Fleda'. Mrs Gereth loves Fleda, loves her with a collector's eye. Fleda in her turn loves Mrs Gereth's old things - and soon loves Owen too. What's more, Owen loves her back, and says he'd be more than happy to break with Mona, if only... But Fleda will not yield. And why? Here rests the pleasure of the text. Is Fleda principled or perverse - motivated by her own mania? It's an ambiguity that is, as David Lodge says in his Introduction to my Penguin edition, irreducible.

Here's Anita Brookner on The Spoils of Poynton:
The best sure cure for homesickness, which can strike at any point on a foreign holiday, is a detective story. I shall unashamedly take Patricia Highsmith, whom I am re-reading, and who does not seem to date in the very least, and hope that Ripley - her amoral character - will give me the independence to sail through any uncomfortable encounter. I shall also take Henry James's The Spoils of Poynton, which is a kind of detective story, and read breathlessly until the new owner of the property is revealed.
'Holiday Reading', Observer, 4 July 1993

One book always leads to another. Poynton is rich fare, and I admit I found myself, midway, picking up something a little lighter - Bruce Chatwin's Utz (1988)I'd love to know whether Brookner read it. Its mittel-European atmosphere would surely have appealed.

I'm always a little slow on the uptake. Of course Utz is, like Poynton, about collecting, so it all in its way meshes together. I have, too, my own fascination in this regard. Take a look at my own modest collection of porcelain, acquired over several years from various locations in Berlin, Munich and Hamburg, and from an excellent place in London's Cecil Court that always makes me think of the little shop in The Golden Bowl:

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