The Master and the masterpiece

8th October 2012

While I enjoy – and try to make some sense of – Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone (posts coming soon), let me recommend as warmly as possible two books and two terrific critical articles. The first recommendation is The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, which “the Master” published (in instalments initially) in 1880-81. It hardly needs me to affirm that this is a great, great novel. The second book is the recently published Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece by Michael Gorra. Gorra is an American academic but he writes for the rest of us in an elegant style that effortlessly combines erudition with engagement. I would say this is the best and most rewarding extended work of criticism that I have encountered in a long, long time.

Gorra’s book is a close reading of James’ novel, but it is also a biography, a literary detective story, a travel book and a reflection on what literature can mean in our lives. Its three years or so since I last read The Portrait of a Lady (and it is the novel that I’ve read the most number of times) and Gorra’s prose both brought back the glories of James and his characters and also sent me straight back to the original.

Just as Gorra’s book is a tribute of a kind to James’ masterpiece, so there are now two lengthy journalistic responses to Gorra: Out of the frame by Anthony Lane for The New Yorker (pleasingly, available online outside the subscription area) and – published this last week – Perfuming the money issue by James Wood for the London Review of Books (also unrestricted, at least currently).

Perhaps I should simply say, click across to start reading these – Lane, first, I think, as it has more of the background, and then Wood, but don’t hurry through the latter as its prose is at least as richly rewarding as  the book it is reviewing. But here are a couple of extracts that will perhaps give a better sense of James, Gorra, Lane and Wood.

Near the top of his piece, Anthony Lane quotes from the first chapter of James’ novel, just after the introduction of our complex, contradictory and ultimately conflicted heroine Isabel Archer:

She had been looking all round her again,—at the lawn, the great trees, the reedy, silvery Thames, the beautiful old house; and, while engaged in this survey, she had also narrowly scrutinized her companions; a comprehensiveness of observation easily conceivable on the part of a young woman who was evidently both intelligent and excited. She had seated herself, and had put away the little dog; her white hands, in her lap, were folded upon her black dress; her head was erect, her eye brilliant, her flexible figure turned itself lightly this way and that, in sympathy with the alertness with which she evidently caught impressions. Her impressions were numerous, and they were all reflected in a clear, still smile. “I have never seen anything so beautiful as this,” she declared.

To which Lane adds (and I sympathise):

And I have never read anything as beautiful as that. Decades after I first encountered the passage, it has lost none of its thrill and lustre… So begins The Portrait of a Lady, and its opening chords, quiet as they are, have almost no match in English-speaking literature.

Anthony Lane also has an accurate description of Michael Gorra’s method:

What Michael Gorra has done—and I can’t decide whether it’s modest or brazen—is to make his book almost as tricky to negotiate, let alone to summarize, as James’s… He thinks nothing of leaping from a scene in Osmond’s villa to the Italian journeys of Goethe, in 1786, or from a chapter that ends with James getting down to his novel, in Italy, to a chapter that opens, “With nine months of work on the ‘Portrait’ behind him, James left London.” Some people will find this confounding; a more charitable verdict would be that, in deference to James’s brilliance, Gorra has assumed the role of a professional prismatist. He peers at the book from multiple angles—those of biography, geography, publishing, textual variation, and mild erotic sleuthing, among others—as if hoping to catch it at an unfamiliar slant. No facet must go uninspected.

James Woof is just as enthusiastic about Gorra’s writing as is Lane, but much of his essay in a masterful class on the themes of the novel itself (and yes, these quotes do give away elements of the plot):

What makes The Portrait of a Lady such a strange book is its strongly felt attraction towards sex and its strongly felt recoil from it. [Gilbert] Osmond’s seductive diabolism is surely, in large part, erotic. The very structure of the novel is sickly and voyeuristic; a group of gazers, each with an erotic interest in her, circulates around Isabel. If you were to read the plot through the pornographic optic that it seems almost to dare, you would notice that some of them, like Caspar Goodwood and Lord Warburton, imagine themselves with her. Others, like Madame Merle and Henrietta, would like to watch her with someone else (Madame Merle wants to watch Osmond and Isabel, Henrietta wants to watch Caspar and Isabel).

… and …

The importance of the famous chapter, Chapter 42, in which Isabel sits all night, alone, until the candles burn down to their sockets, and slowly, steadily, confusedly comes to the realisation that her husband hates her, that although he appears to have disdain for the world it is in fact the world that he lives for, that he seems to ‘peep down from a small high window and mock at her’, that he has a faculty ‘for spoiling everything for her that he looked at’: the importance of this chapter of pure interiority is not just that it fulfils a century’s progress in the fictional interrogation and revelation of consciousness, and anticipates, in its formidable systematic microscopy, the next century of such progress – it is that Isabel, conspired against by two people who have forgotten their pasts, recovers hers.

If neither of those passages sends you immediately to the full piece, and then to Gorra (taking in Lane, while you wait for Amazon to deliver your copy) and of course ultimately to James, then nothing further that I can write here will have the slightest impact.

Image: detail of Henry James by Jacques-Émile Blanche, 1908, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.


  1. Paul Tickell says:

    Sorry, John, it’s had no impact whatsoever… As you will have gathered I have insurmountable difficulty reading James. Even the shorter fiction fiction feels like Everest the hard way – and then nothing to see when you get to the top… James Wood’s recent piece on James for the LRB is one reason I’ve just cancelled my subscription.

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