Novella: The Altar of the Dead

by look i have opinions

The Altar of the Dead, by Henry James

On and here and also available as an audio book

14,773 words

I read this right after “The Beast in the Jungle” and was a bit meh about it. Stransom’s end seems sort of obvious. I mean, the only other way he could end up would be like the protagonist in “Beast.” The two are very similar: their devotion to something unreal, or only provisionally real, shields them and cuts them off almost totally from reality.

Stransom’s obsession is even more amusingly self-absorbed than those of other James protagonists:

There were hours at which he almost caught himself wishing that certain of his friends would now die, that he might establish with them in this manner a connexion more charming than, as it happened, it was possible to enjoy with them in life.  In regard to those from whom one was separated by the long curves of the globe such a connexion could only be an improvement: it brought them instantly within reach.

The real reason Stransom prefers dead friends to live ones is obvious, though it’s not stated. He knows how to behave around the dead, or rather, he’s free to invent his own rituals without regard for his friends’ feelings or schedules or tastes. He can lavish his loving respect on them without the occasional tedium of having it tested, complicated, reciprocated, unreciprocated, rejected. What’s especially repugnant about Stransom is his self-satisfaction. If he really grieved, in the sense of feeling a loss, he would be easier to take. And in fact he is easier to take when he starts to feel the loss of his friendship with a fellow worshiper.

Question: Did Henry James know his characters were slightly ridiculous? Because they’re very funny, but it’s hard to tell if it’s on purpose. There’s some interview with Edward Gorey where he complains about how boring and absurd James is, and he obviously thought James was being completely earnest, but I can’t help wondering. I’m on record as loving James’ boringness and absurdity. And I haven’t even posted anything about The Aspern Papers yet. I like that book more than any normal person should.