Sunday, September 28, 2014

`Of What Might Still Happen'

The association was immediate and puzzling: When I learned Friday at the conclusion of Rosh Hashana and the start of Shabbes of David Myers’ death, Henry James appeared to me, though not spectrally. James, of course, was not above a good ghost story. I mean in the way the illustrious and humble dead, those dear to us, enter our thoughts unprompted, like good Samaritans. David and I valued James highly. In his assessment of Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, he noted Roth’s allusions to “The Middle Years” and its often-quoted writer’s manta: “Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Provocatively, David ranked The Portrait of a Lady as the second-greatest novel written in English (after Lolita) “since the era of Dickens and Eliot.”

But the James who came to me was mine, not David’s. Henry James is a continent, one we settle incrementally across time, reading and rereading him, weighing our lives against his books. Soon I recognized the late James of “The Altar of the Dead.” He writes of George Stransom, an aging man who, like all of us, accumulates his dead. I’ve known the story for more than forty years and it carries with it the image of a church sanctuary, dark and rustic, illuminated only by votive candles arranged on wooden tiers. I won’t recount the story, but James reminded me of poor dying Stransom, at last contemplating forgiveness for Acton Hague, honoring the dearest of his dead, Mary Antrim, and reconciled to the his nameless fellow supplicant. The story concludes:
“`Yes, one more,’ he repeated, simply; `just one!’ And with this his head dropped on her shoulder; she felt that in his weakness he had fainted. But alone with him in the dusky church a great dread was on her of what might still happen, for his face had the whiteness of death.”

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