The Golden Bowl (1904)
by Henry James
Hooooo boy. The Golden Bowl is the beginning of the end for modern literature. I'm just speaking as someone who has basically read every major novel BEFORE The Golden Bowl, including those by Henry James, and The Golden Bowl is by far the most difficult novel to read including every novel written before The Golden Bowl.
The difficulty stems from James' choice to use a quadruple first person narration that switches between perspectives with no central narrator. James used a similar technique in The Ambassadors, published the year before, but there the only narrator is the central character. Here, each member of the two couples at the heart of the book, each take turns making page long narrative statements that rarely reference outside events.
By the end of The Golden Bowl I had gone online several times to read the Wikipedia plot summary but still couldn't follow the narrative. I don't like to simply summarize plot but I feel its appropriate here because even having read the book I wouldn't be able to summarize the plot myself without spending another five hours plus reading it AGAIN. (1)
The Golden Bowl revolves around a father/daughter relationship and their respective spouses: the older husband of the daughter and the younger wife of the father. The intensity of the father daughter relationship "causes" an adulterous affair between the other spouses. Saying that makes the plot sound simple but the reality is that you can read the entire book, as I did, with only having a vague idea about what is going on besides "father/daughter" "adultery" and "London and America."
I'm telling you, I am no pansy when it comes to difficult Novels, but The Golden Bowl really is a bridge too far. If there is a "slippery slope" toward the narrative incoherence epitomized by James Joyce, Henry James is the point where the slope starts pulling the rock irresistibly downwards. I can see how literary academics would positively revel in The Golden Bowl, but I'm at loss to say how anyone could enjoy it.
(1) From the Wikipedia entry for The Golden Bowl by Henry James:
Prince Amerigo, an impoverished but charismatic Italian nobleman, is in London for his marriage to Maggie Verver, only child of the widower Adam Verver, the fabulously wealthy American financier and art collector. While there, he re-encounters Charlotte Stant, another young American and a former mistress from his days in Rome; they met in Mrs. Assingham's drawing room. Charlotte is not wealthy, which is one reason they did not marry. Maggie and Charlotte have been dear friends since childhood, although Maggie doesn't know of Charlotte and Amerigo's past relationship. Charlotte and Amerigo go shopping together for a wedding present for Maggie. They find a curiosity shop where the shopkeeper offers them an antique gilded crystal bowl. The Prince declines to purchase it, as he suspects it contains a hidden flaw.
After Maggie's marriage, she is afraid that her father has become lonely, as they had been close for years. She persuades him to propose to Charlotte, who accepts Adam's proposal. Soon after their wedding, Charlotte and Amerigo are thrown together because their respective spouses seem more interested in their father-daughter relationship than in their marriages. Amerigo and Charlotte finally consummate an adulterous affair.
Maggie begins to suspect the pair. She happens to go to the same shop and buys the golden bowl they had rejected. Regretting the high price he charged her, the shopkeeper visits Maggie and confesses to overcharging. At her home, he sees photographs of Amerigo and Charlotte. He tells Maggie of the pair's shopping trip on the eve of her marriage and their intimate conversation in his shop. (They had spoken Italian, but he understands the language.)
Maggie confronts Amerigo. She begins a secret campaign to separate him and Charlotte while never revealing their affair to her father. Also concealing her knowledge from Charlotte and denying any change to their friendship, she gradually persuades her father to return to America with his wife. After previously regarding Maggie as a naïve, immature American, the Prince seems impressed by his wife's delicate diplomacy. The novel ends with Adam and Charlotte Verver about to depart for the United States. Amerigo says he can "see nothing but" Maggie and embraces her.