A Small Boy and Others: A Memoir, by Henry James. New York: Turtle Point Press. 224 pages. $16.95. BUY NOW

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  The modern sentimentalist will be disappointed, however, by the book's lack of emotional information or content. Though we learn how James was first struck by this painting or that piece of theater, how he first met Washington Irving, and how he sneaked out of bed to hear his cousin read the first installment of David Copperfield to his mother, what he essentially gives us are facts about the past and playful musing about the process of memory. Details of a particular afternoon with one of his parents are easy to find, but there is no information here about whether he liked his parents or not, whether he saw any tenderness in them, whether they ever made him cryóthough one does gain the impression around the edges that the attentiveness of James's father had a formative effect on him. His father's "prime horror" was of prigs, and yet James does seem here to be awfully priggish, a fussy and self-obsessed old man. The book has a stale triviality to it. You must enter this book already interested to find much of the information beguiling.

The writing style is typical of the very late James; which is to say that individual sentences are decorated with subsidiary phrases of such number and so elaborately entangled that it is a challenge to locate the subject (which while being the grammatical subject may not at all be the thematic subject of the sentence) and the verb (in which the primary action of the sentence may scarcely lie). Such writing, at once exhilarating in its sheer multiplicity and artistry and stimulating in its depth and profundity, has many virtues attached to it, and yet it is also, if one is entirely honest about this matter, as indeed one would wish to be and as indeed James is able to be, rather irritating and extremely tiring to read, page upon page, when one's poor mind wants simply to extract a narrative, as one might from, for example, Ernest Hemingway and his ilk, those successors of James and Proust who rediscovered the states of apparent simplicity that, though they may be always delusive in language, do make for easier reading simply by their approximation of an impossible but lovely transparency through which events can be seen whole and clear rather than in this perniciously foggy if detailed way that with its subtleties so well suits fiction and so uncomfortably sits on nonfiction, particularly this nonfiction, A Small Boy and Others, with its ostensible focus on solid objects.

Andrew Solomon's most recent book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (Scribner, 2001), won the National Book Award for nonfiction.

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