Wassily Kandinsky, Composition IX, 1936.


Excerpt from the presentation of the new edition, just published, of the novel by Henry James

Count Otto Vogelstein is the ideal character for the “international theme” that features in some of Henry James' short stories and novels; he is the foreigner who boards a wooden and metal box to cross the Atlantic and discover differences between Americans and Europeans. From the beginning he has well established the fact that he will arrive in the new land as a student of the customs and psychology of this people, constantly conflicting his views with what he previously knew, that is, with what he knows from his world.

What Vogelstein previously knew is not only marked by his own experiences, but also by those of his ancestors, who left to their offspring more than the title of Count, also a handful of moral notions. Soaked in this weight of the past from which he cannot dissociate himself, Vogelstein tries to understand his objects of study, hardly managing to fit them into a pattern, no matter how hard he tries, categorizing sometimes by “type”, sometimes by “race”.

When he meets Miss Pandora Day during the trip to the other side of the ocean, he is unable to use European assumptions to define the girl who seems to him completely different from all the others he has ever met, not even in similarity to those American girls he was with. he made contact a few seasons before, still in his homeland.

That whole society appears to him in a particular way, and James' pen is astute in painting a nation that is beginning to develop on concepts different from those that governed European relations. Something of the mythology that surrounds “being American” [being American, to be more precise] emerges here, its people, its culture, the psychology of the people who live there, its desire for freedom in a singular way, so well represented by the figure of Miss Pandora Day; the girl who apparently manages everything on her own, even though Mrs. Bonnycastle says that they, of Washington's elite, give her room to grow, to which Mr. Bonnycastle retorts that there is something of the girl's effort.

If Miss Day manages to forge her own ways and succeed in this young nation, abandoning her small town of origin and seeking the erudite airs of big cities and “high society”, there is something of her own effort, but there is also something of permissiveness. who surrounds her. James seems to leave the debates on this point open, so that his reader can immerse himself in the middle of the narrative and on his own follow in the footsteps of the foreigner, discovering who this girl is who enchants the protagonist of the narrative, or rather, the one who opens the paths for the narrative, because without a doubt the protagonist of this plot is Pandora Day.

From the eyes of Count Vogelstein, and from the pen of James, the views of what America produces cannot escape, its open side, Mrs. Bonnycastle (in her name we already find a reference by James to the fact that she is a good hostess) with her open house for all the important people in Washington, even hosting the newly elected president; the gossip of Miss Dangerfield (also in the name already indicative of her personality, a dangerous field), who warns Vogelstein to take some space [away] from Miss Day; the idle blacks, recently freed, who wander along the banks of the river that Vogelstein sails during a picnic with Miss Day.

It is an America, James subtly points out, that makes room for some people, but there are those who remain on the margins – like the butler who attends the door of the house where Miss Day stays for a few days – like the black people seen by the young German who are always in this frontier aspect. Subtlety is one of his trademarks, seeing in a book, in possession of a chair, or in a fleeting gesture of one of his characters the deepest marks not only regarding who that figure is, but also a reflection of the environment he inhabits.

*Yves Sao Paulo is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at UFBA. He is editor of Sisyphus Magazine and author of the book The metaphysics of cinephilia (Publisher Fi).


Henry James. Pandora. Translation: Yves São Paulo. Amazon, Kindle, 2021.


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