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The Princess Casamassima is one of James's most personal novels and yet one of the most socially engaged.
Posted August 18, 2002
Henry James can be a difficult writer to read. This is because he demands utmost attention from the reader, which is perhaps a little unfair in this day and age. The Princess Casamassima, however is perhaps the most readable of his works. It is the story of Hyacinth Robinson, a poor/working class bookbinder nee illegitimate offspring of an English Noblemen and a French Prostitute circa towards the end of the nineteenth century London. It traces his relationship with an expatriate American woman estranged from her husband who is an Italian prince and the Anarchic revolutionaries in Europe that were gaining popularity at that time, especially with lower classes and the disfranchised. His discontentment with his station in life, alongwith passionate search for his place in the world propel him into extraordinary circumstances. I read this book after encountering a review by a professor in a local paper who had in the wake of the September 11 bombing, hastily replaced his usual Henry James entry in his Classics course with this novel. After having finished this book I feel passionate enough to announce, that I have to include it with my erstwhile collection of livres extraordinaires; Anna Karenina, Bleak House, The Star Rover, The Trial, Journey to the End of the Night, Laughter in the Dark etc. These are books that actually change your state of consciousness; i.e. reading these books may be dangerous to your complacency about the state of the world. Be warned then, this is one of those books that may leave you a tormented soul, your mind like the waves of a stormy ocean. But then again perhaps it may be necessary to achieve such turbulence before the 'peace that passes all understanding'. And if Nirvana never comes then at least one lived to one's human capacity. But I digress, back to the Princess; if you want categorization then you could say that this is a Political Novel, A Love Story, A Study of the Human Condition but that would be less meaningful than to say that this an entertaining and yet disturbing novel. That this story is highly personal for James wherein the protagonist, Hyacinth, embodies the writer's innermost yearnings both conscious and unconscious lends it a certain authenticity which is rare and the remarkably sympathy displayed by the author towards every character, however lowly, is rarer still in Literature. Most remarkable, given James patrician background, is the realistic depiction of poor sans patronizing. One could very well read this novel in the context of recent terrorist events as an insightful study of what makes an otherwise sane young man take the aforementioned path. And while the creed and doctrines of the novel's protagonist are certainly quite different from his contemporary peers, there is the same idealism, the discontent and the quest for glory that ends dismally but which has its roots not in some spontaneous mutation of the soul but its organic evolvement from circumstance and day to day, even mundane encounters. In a world that offers on the one hand the slow death of the submission to the status quo and on the end the quick violence of lopsided revolutions, and where the very human soul (Or if you are Buddhist, the authentic self), which is diminutive to begin with, is daily diminished in its encounters with the loveless, the possibility of earthly happiness may be only available in one's complete absorption in something genuinely artistic. It would not be to far-fetched to say that in his heart of heart, James too wanted to wanted to blow up a building. But he chooses to be an artist instead...
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