My interest in Henry James was re-ignited by the Michael Schmidt magnum opus The Novel, A Biography. It’s also led me back to some other classics which I’ve written about here.
Henry James lived a long life and wrote a lot – in addition to the novels and short stories there were many essays and magazine articles; including what Schmidt describes as one of the great theoretical statements about the novel, in his essay The Art of Fiction from which he (Schmidt) quotes extensively.
James left us with insights into his own fiction through his extensive correspondence and notably in his preface to the New York edition of The Portrait of A Lady which he wrote in 1906. Here he enunciates what is described by Schmidt as his famous “point of view“; readers of a novel are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where one sees fine. Which is what’s so fascinating about the act of reading – responses to novels are so singular, from one person to the next. Which makes recommending what one has enjoyed to another so fraught.
Another aspect of his ‘point of view’ is that he confines every detail of his picture to the range, and also the capacity of the eye fixed on it – to only those things that the characters in the novel can see and know. This has resulted in James being famous for what he leaves out – there are no battles, riots, tempests, sunrises, sex .
The Master, Colm Toíbín
I like Colm Tóibín’s writing very much but since The Heather Blazing, which I loved, have not been overly engaged by his novels. Which is a shame. I like his non-fiction – especially his On Elizabeth Bishop published in 2015 as part of a Writers on Writers series by Princeton University Press. And his essays in the London Review of Books are always terrific. But I was disappointed with this, his latest foray into fiction. I was negative about the whole enterprise to start with – writing a fictionalised account of a life seems on the face of it inferior to a factual biography. But I think I was open to being persuaded otherwise – perhaps not! In any event I found not knowing which bits were true and which flights of fancy irritating. There’s a lot of Henry looking out of windows, observing people from a distance, avoiding intimacy and personal disclosures. I’d rather read a biography – which in effect I did shortly after.
The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
I loved this novel when I read it in my youth – a long time ago. I found my friend and housemate Anna D’s 1975 student identification card lodged about a quarter of the way. It seems she didn’t share my enthusiasm. This is my original copy; the Penguin edition published in 1963 – with the famous preface (referred to above) and containing the revisions made by James in 1906. It was originally published in serial form concurrently in England and America in 1881. I’ve never felt the cover accurately reflects Isabel; to me it’s more like how I imagine her Aunt, Mrs Touchett. It’s a detail from Young Woman In White by Robert Henri, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. These days I have Nicole Kidman in my head although, having re-read the book, I think Jane Campion’s 1996 film is deeply flawed. Not because of Nicole’s performance, rather John Malkovich was too overtly creepy as Gilbert Osmond. I’d forgotten how urbane he was initially and how he was already included, albeit on the fringes, in the Touchett’s social scene. And I’d also forgotten how Isabel had no second thoughts about her rejected suitor, or even imagined Ralph as a possible partner. So the notion she was torn between the three of them is deeply inaccurate. In any event I loved the novel all over again. The writing was nowhere near as dense as the later James’ novels. I read The Ambassadors a while ago and it took me ages to get into the rhythm of those long Jamesian sentences for which his later novels are known. Not so with this, his first and still most famous novel. Isabel is so beautifully realised; full of life and confidence but at the same time an innocent abroad. The characters she attracts are themselves so attractive – apart from the manipulative couple who bring about her undoing – Madame Merle and Osmond. The lives of rich, indolent, expatriate Americans in Europe, the Grand Tours, the salons, the houses and cities are all drawn with just as much detail as required to propel the story. But even without extraneous description of either places or relationships we feel we’ve been to these places – Paris, Florence, Rome – and we understand how Isabel relates to everyone she meets. Everything we are told is so evocative of that time, place and milieu. Wonderful. I don’t think I will convince anyone but it’s certainly worth reading at least once, and even re-reading.
Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, Michael Gorra
I read this as I was re-reading The Portrait of a Lady. Michael Gorra calls his wide-ranging and absorbing book, that novel’s story. In it he was seeking to provide a picture of James’s career between 1878 and 1884, the years for which his own Portrait provides a fulcrum. Gorra visits the places where James actually wrote the novel, describing rooms in Venice and Florence and the place James finally purchased and where he lived until he died, Lamb House in South Essex. He describes James’s inter-actions with family members during this period and his relationships with friends – both American and European, literary and non-literary. It traverses the same history that Tóibín evokes in his fictional version of James’s life. It was interesting to have the facts spelled out and showed that The Master hewed very closely to them. James is a fascinating character and I loved the insights into how he came to write the novel. It was completely absorbing, and a very fine thing to be reading at the same time as the novel; enhancing my appreciation of the story immeasurably. I’m indebted to Twitter which alerted me to it’s existence. The New Yorker twitter account, in memory of James’s birthday on the 15th of April, posted this 2012 review.