The Middle Years by Henry James, 1893
The magic trick:
Presenting a fascinating, if sad, philosophy about writing and mortality
As per usual with James, it’s dense. As per usual with James, it’s psychological. And as per usual with James, it’s endlessly insightful and thought-provoking. “The Middle Years” focuses on a dying author looking back on his career, wishing for more success, yes, but mostly wishing simply for more time to apply what he has learned.
It reminds me of a funeral for a friend I attended a few years ago. I was so struck by the deceased man’s extensive and varied education, his knowledge. He knew so much and was still learning. It was heartbreaking to think that he had spent his whole life perfecting his knowledge base and now it was over; it was all gone. “The Middle Years” recalls that tragic thread that runs through all of our existences, and does so in the compression of a short story. And that’s quite a trick on James’s part.
He had followed literature from the first, but he had taken a lifetime to get abreast of her. Only today at last had he begun to see, so that all he had hitherto shown was a movement without a direction. He had ripened too late and was so clumsily constituted that he had had to teach himself by mistakes.
“I prefer your flowers then to other people’s fruit, and your mistakes to other people’s successes,” said gallant Doctor Hugh. “It’s for your mistakes I admire you.”
“You’re happy – you don’t know,” Dencombe answered.