Since Henry James’ “The Coxon Fund” is a novella rather than a full-blown novel, this post may be a cheat. On the other hand,the long tale is bound and sold independently as part of the “Art of the Novella” series published by Melville House. New to me, and enticing. Anyway, I read it.
It’s funny. Sometimes I forget this about James: he could be a real bitch. About someone the narrator doesn’t like, he says, “She had arts of her own of exciting one’s impatience, the most infallible of which was perhaps her assumption that we were kind to her because we liked her.” Notice how the sentence requires a moment’s untangling before you appreciate the sting at the end, and remember that a good deal of comedy is in the timing.
Some, though, resides in the premise. Here the butt of the joke is the “magnificent” Felix Saltram, a brilliant talker and thinker, so brilliant that he attracts various unlucky patrons who support him in hopes that he will be able actually to “do something.” Lecture series are organized, but Saltram shows up drunk, if at all. He moves into the home of the nice Mulville family and casually ruins them. The inimitable Jamesian twist is that a rich American invents a fund (as in the title) to support a great thinker. It’s too complicated to explain how, but Saltram’s eligibility for the fund becomes entwined in the marriage prospects of a charming American heiress.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t slapstick and it isn’t first-rate James either. But sometimes — as with chocolate — a little bit of James‘ writing, even if not the best, can be quite satisfying.