Monday, August 20, 2007

The Wings of the Dove

I was on leave today from work and had the pleasure of doing just nothing at home. So, I picked up a book and had the most blissful day couched on my reading chair devouring Henry James' The Wings of the Dove.

Amongst the classics, Henry James is really not that easy to read. In The Wings of the Dove, the language is rich, the story is subtle, and the psychology is rather complex - all adds up to a beautiful enduring classic. It does not, however, qualify as a "light read." The pace is incredibly slow - deliberately slow, of course (perhaps attributed to the author's manner of speech due to his stutter). It is a novel about decisions, and the development of those decisions constitutes the bulk of the novel. James's prose does lack the terseness of a Hemingway, but the latter writer often fails to capture the nuances that James so elaborately evokes in his careful prose. The effort in savouring this novel is indeed pleasurable and rewarding - it is like reading art and poetry at the same time.

The Wings of the Dove is a haunting classic of a doomed heiress, a duo of scheming lovers, and the drama of desire, betrayal, and tragedy that played out in the splendor of Victorian London. Of the three late masterpieces that crown the extraordinary literary achievement of Henry James, this novel is at once the most personal and the most elemental. James drew on the memory of a beloved cousin who died young to create one of the three central characters, Milly Theale, an heiress with a short time to live and a passion for experiencing life to its fullest. To the creation of the other two, Merton Densher and the magnificent, predatory Kate Croy, who conspired in an act of deceit and betrayal, he brought a lifetime's distilled wisdom about the frailty of the human soul when it is trapped in the depths of need and desire. And he brought to the drama that unites these three characters, in the drawing rooms of London and on the storm-lit piazzas of Venice, a starkness and classical purity almost unprecedented in his work. Under its brilliant, coruscating surfaces, beyond the scrim of its marvelous rhetorical and psychological devices, The Wings of the Dove offers an unfettered vision of our civilization and its discontents. It represents a culmination of James's art and, as such, of the art of the novel itself.

It is indeed interesting to read how James deftly navigates the complexities and ironies of moral treacheries in this novel. He provides opulent settings and rare, ravishing beauty with an almost addictive love angle. Critics have said that The Wings of the Dove is a novel of intimacy and that James has given us passion and love in both its terrible and enchanting forms.

First published in 1902, this rich and intriguing novel has lost none of its fascination and relevance more than a century later.

In 1997, a movie adaptation of the book was made and was nominated for 4 Academy Awards. Helena Bonham Carter was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role as the treacherous Kate.

During a tearing scene of Milly's funeral, you will hear her beloved Merton's recitation of a verse from the Psalm:

"My heart is in anguish within me,
And the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
And horror has overwhelmed me.
I said, "Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest."

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