Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Coxon Fund by Henry James

When I was an undergraduate, one of my literature professors spent almost an entire morning discussing the first paragraph of a Henry James novel.  I've forgotten which one it was, but he probably could have done it with any of them.  He was one of those terrific professors who'd read everything in his field, Victorian literature in this case, which kept all of his student furiously taking notes even though very few of us had read the book.  It was one of the longer novels in a class that read a novel a week.  A Victorian novel a week, mind you.

So I didn't go back to Henry James for a very long time, not until a quarter century later when I gave his shorter fiction a try.  Turns out, I love it.

While I can't speak for his novels (I still have not read a Henry James novel) I can confidently state that Henry James is a master of both the novella and the short story.  But The Coxon Fund is not his best work.

In The Coxon Fund, London society discovers a genius in their midst, one Mr. Saltram who has a dazzling intellect.  His dinner table conversation is so full of insight, so erudite and so well presented in such entertaining discourse that he becomes the most sought after house guest of the season.  Since he has neither money nor position of his own, this situation certainly works for him.

The only critic he has, the only one who will say a word against him, is his wife, whom no one will listen to since there is no possibility that the short-comings she points out could really be true; Mr. Saltram is simply too wonderful.

When a group of his admirers sponsors a five lecture series, one which quickly sells out, Mr. Saltram fails to attend the first two, forcing the cancellation of the remaining three.  Though it takes some effort, he is able to work his way back into society's good graces--he appears to have no home of his own so he must continue on as a house guest in some capacity.

He works his way into the life of Lady Coxon who is setting up a fund with her late husbands fortune. The Coxon Fund is to be dedicated to supporting a single great mind, to make it possible for this one man to pursue his great work.   Mr. Saltram seems a good candidate.  If he can have the time to pursue his many ideas, then the world will certainly benefit from his obvious genius.

While I found The Coxon Fund both funny and entertaining there was no Jamesian twist at the end which disappointed me.  Events played out in ways that I more or less expected them to leading to an ending that I saw coming.   It's still a book worth reading.  It's still got plenty to say about the line between making art and freeloading.  And there are plenty of little gems like this one:

We fared in company, and though he had a blue-book in his lap and the open jaws of his bag threatened me with the white teeth of confused papers, we inevitably, we even at last sociably conversed.

Oh, Mr James, you can spend  the season at my house any time.

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