“The Old High Art of Fiction”: Colm Tóibín, The Master

L132AOnce it became more solid, the emerging story and all its ramifications and possibilities lifted him out of the gloom of his failure. He grew determined that he would become more hardworking now. He took up his pen again — the pen of all his unforgettable efforts and sacred struggles. It was now, he believed, that he would do the work of his life. He was ready to begin again, to return to the old high art of fiction with ambitions now too deep and pure for any utterance.

As I finished reading yet another not-very-good novel about George Eliot (Dinitia Smith’s The Honeymoon, review forthcoming), I found myself wondering why she has been so ill-served by later novelists who obviously (judging by their choice of subject) found her very inspiring. But I suppose in some ways it’s a thankless task, deliberately to set yourself against one of the geniuses of your genre: you can’t help but invite comparison, and you have to find a way to be not just connected to your source but also brilliant on your own terms. Naturally, this got me wondering where the good examples are of what we might call “homage fiction” — and this led me to The Master, which has been ripening on my bookshelves for a few years now.

The Master is a book I have long wanted to read, but my intention to actually do so kept getting undermined by my fear that reading it would be like reading the Master himself. He’s a writer with whom I have a vexed relationship: usually when I read him I’m equal parts fascinated and repelled, impressed and impatient. I sometimes feel a bit resentful of him — of his influence on people’s thinking about the art of fiction, for instance — but I love his actual essay on “The Art of Fiction.” Even in my best Jamesian moments, I can’t muster anything like the enthusiasm for him that, say, Jessa Crispin has expressed — I find him too claustrophobic in his meticulousness — but at the same time he’s a writer I can’t resist wrestling with.

I have not so far been a great Colm Tóibín fan either. My only previous experience is Brooklyn, which I also found a bit too perfect, though not so much for any particularly Jamesian qualities as in its replication of its protagonist’s emotional suppression. There’s a fine line between representing and enacting flatness and inertia. And yet even though I was mostly unmoved by Brooklyn, I could tell that Tóibín was a writer to trust — smart, skilled, deliberate. So I hung on to The Master, as if I knew that its day would come!

master2I’m glad it finally did, because I thought it was wonderful. I knew only snippets about James’s biography before, and I’m not at all familiar with his letters or other key sources, so I don’t know how far Tóibín has shaped the story in a distinctive way or how far his Henry is recognizable to people who already knew him well from other versions. But to me, Tóibín’s character was immediately convincing because he was so specific, so somehow complete, not just as a man but (more important, perhaps, in a Jamesian context) as a point of view. The Master read like a novel looking at the world from a very particular consciousness, which of course is the crucial twist James gave to the form himself — not that he was the first to do this, but he developed and concentrated the technique until its very singularity perversely crowded out some of the other things novelists valued (or were valued for). Tóibín’s novel isn’t quite as insular as its inspiration’s can be, but it seemed to me very much a novel of looking, rather than doing: it’s a novel about a man for whom the meaning of an action is more significant than the action itself.

Tóibín does a beautiful job showing how James’s novels arose from that way of being in the world. He doesn’t avoid making the literal connections between biographical events and real-life relationships and James’s plots and character — in his detailed account, for instance, of James’s cousin Minny, resurrected particularly in Isabel Archer:

he had a great mission now to make Minny walk these streets, to allow the soft Tuscan sunlight to shine on her soft face. But more than that, he sought to re-create her moral presence more finely and more dramatically than he had ever done before.

But Tóibín also evokes the creative mysteries that underlie the transformation of life into art: we feel the ideas for new stories glimmer in Henry’s mind before they take any final form, and see them as part of a broader striving to elucidate and connect both people and ideas. His Henry’s mind is always at work, observing details (“Henry noticed how beautiful his shoes were and how slender his feet”), puzzling over nuances, shaping thoughts into the elegantly complex sentences which Tóibín can hardly resist invoking in his own prose (“He dictated with his usual mixture of certainty and hesitation, stopping briefly and darting forward again, and then going to the window, as if to find the word or phrase he sought in the garden, among the shrubs or the creepers or the abundant growth of late summer, and turning back deliberately into the cool room with the right phrase in his head and the sentence which followed until the paragraph had been completed”).

Henry_James_SargentSomething that moved me deeply about Tóibín’s vision is that, as he tells it, there really are costs to such an extraordinarily intellectual life. It isn’t easy to be “one of those on whom nothing is lost”: The Master is suffused with melancholy, and with a strange, contradictory longing for decisive moments that never quite arrive, for connections that are never quite achieved. Every time Henry ventures further out into the world, whether literally or emotionally, just as promptly he retreats. For him, to be fully himself is, paradoxically, to be distant from himself; his best company, it sometimes seems, is his memory, but that is an equivocal solace:

Alice was dead now, Aunt Kate was in her grave, the parents who noticed nothing also lay inert under the ground, and William was miles away in his own world, where he would stay. And there was silence now in Kensington, not a sound in the house, except the sound, like a vague cry in the distance, of his own great solitude, and his memory working like grief, the past coming to him with its arm outstretched, looking for comfort.

The Master overall is a mournful book, as if the great achievements of its protagonist came, in some sense, at the his own expense. But at the same time, Tóibín shows us a Henry who is happiest precisely at that remove from liveliness. I was struck, at the very end, by the unexpected image of young Henry wholly absorbed in David Copperfield, reading, as David himself says, “as if for life.” In some ways it’s hard to imagine a less Jamesian novel than David Copperfield: although both David and Henry find their vocation in writing fictions of their own, David — and Dickens — has a vitality I’ve never found in James. Tóibín’s Henry seems at once wistfully aware that such energetic engagement is not for him and quietly content that it should be so — that he should be, at the end of the day (at the end of his days) alone with his thoughts.

“Not Simple Enough”: Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady


“You seem to have so many scruples, so many reasons, so many ties. When I discovered, ten years ago, that my husband’s dearest wish was to make me miserable — of late he has simply let me alone — ah, it was a wonderful simplification! My poor Isabel, you’re not simple enough.”

I had barely finished reading The Portrait of a Lady when I learned that I had read the wrong book — the wrong version of this book, that is. Immediately following the novel’s last page in my Norton Critical Edition is a “Textual Appendix” itemizing all of James’s revisions between the first edition (1880-81) and the 1908 edition used as the main text for the Norton edition. “Even though more recent critics have acknowledged the revisions to be an improvement,” says my editor, “and numerous editors have tacitly concurred by reprinting the later version, dissenting voices have been raised.” The extensive catalog of textual variants is, in turn, followed by three critical commentaries on the issue of James’s revisions. Here are some excerpts from Nina Baym’s “Revision and Thematic Change in The Portrait of a Lady,” which is the essay that made me wish I’d read the original 1881 version of Portrait instead of the “improved” New York edition:

The revised version is stylistically and thematically closer to his later interests than the early one had been. Its writing is more complex, mannered, and metaphorical. It is thematically less timely and realistic, for its main concern is the private consciousness. In the 19o8 version, Isabel Archer’s inner life is the center of the character and of the novel’s reality. In the early version the inner life is only one aspect of character, which is defined by behavior in a social context. . . .

The 1881 novel was one of an increasing number of works about “the woman question.” The heroine, an appealing young American, wants to live an independent and meaningful life; but she is thwarted. Unlike many works of the period on this theme, The Portrait did not depict Isabel’s desire as unnatural and misguidedly unfeminine, nor did it employ the standard formula of saving her from this delusion by love and marriage. On the contrary, the novel sympathized with her aim to the point of calling both love and marriage into question. . . . The changes of 1908, transforming the story into a drama of consciousness, overlaid and in places obliterated the coherence of the 1881 versions.

Now, I admit I did not patiently follow all of Baym’s specific arguments about particular revisions, or work through the 80 (yes, 80) pages of them for myself — I’m trusting Baym’s overall claim, which suggests (though she doesn’t quite put it this way) that James’s revisions transformed The Portrait of a Lady from a Victorian novel to a modern(ist) one. It’s not that I actively disliked the novel I read, but the 1881 novel she describes is one that I would be eager to put in conversation with other novels I know about “the woman question,” most of which are not quite as formulaic as she suggests — Gissing’s The Odd Women, for instance (1893) certainly calls both love and marriage into question, and even much earlier novels from Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall through Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda offer little hope that marriage is a simple solution to women’s thwarted desires for meaningful lives.

oxfordportraitReading the 1908 Portrait, though, I had found myself wondering where we were supposed to be looking for the causes of Isabel’s catastrophe — besides, of course, to Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle. I think we are implicitly directed to Isabel’s social context by her overpowering sense of what is expected, of what convention demands. But given the greater freedom experienced — socially and emotionally — by so many of those around her, I think we have to conclude that it’s her own sense of duty, her own insistence on what she believes to be honor, that ultimately condemns her. There is something Eliot-like in this, to be sure: what is Dorothea’s obligation to Casaubon, after all, if not an expression of her strong sense of duty and her individual principles, which make betrayal of trust an abomination to her? But James’s attention to the external conditions of Isabel’s life is much less detailed and explicit, and he tells us next to nothing about its historical antecedents: Isabel’s moral dilemma seems much more abstract than any moral crisis Eliot confronts us with. Further, it is difficult  (or was for me, anyway) to discern any principle which James thinks ought to guide Isabel: that inhibition about moving from is to ought (as I think Martha Nussbaum would agree) is characteristic of James, and for some that is part of his appeal, but for me it feels like a loss — or, more accurately, like an artful reticence, as all the emotional weight of the novel’s final chapters surely presses us to feel Isabel’s return to Osmond as a fatal error. Her horror at openly breaking a vow she has made is not supported by anything else in the novel — another way in which the novel’s moral operations differ from Eliot’s, as the true crises in her work usually turn on competing goods, not unmoored error.

In any case, this version of Portrait seemed to me very much a psychological rather than a social novel, a “drama of consciousness,” as Baym says, and while I was often impressed, even overwhelmed, at the subtlety of James’s analysis of motive and perspective, I also found it frequently oppressive: I missed the balance Eliot gives us between the individual and the community, the particular and the general, the instance and the abstraction. Though I hesitate to align myself with the Countess, when I came to her wry comment to Isabel that she wasn’t “simple enough,” I thought: that’s it! that’s the problem with the whole book! It is so subtle — and is life (life as lived, that is, rather than life imagined) anything like that? If we thought that scrupulously about every little thing — if we strove to be, as James  urges in “The Art of Fiction,” “one of the people on whom nothing is lost” — not a nuance, not even a shade of a nuance — we’d never be able to get out of bed in the morning. As I argued in much more painstaking detail in my essay on “Martha Nussbaum and the Moral Life of Middlemarch,” “the reason James’s psychological realism should not satisfy us in our efforts to decide how we should live is that ultimately morality lies in action.” To which, of course, a reasonable response is not only that we are under no obligation to read in the service of morality but that James has no obligation to help us be moral…but the more general point remains: that at many points while reading Portrait I wished for a “wonderful simplification.”

And yet perhaps the earlier version would have given me hardly more satisfaction. Here’s Horace Scudder writing in The Atlantic Monthly in 1882 (and thus, obviously, about the 1881 text):

penguinportraitWhat renders [James’s method] distinct from, say, Thackeray’s method, with which it has been compared, or from George Eliot’s, is the limitation of the favorite generalizations and analyses. If the reader will attend, he will see that these take place quite exclusively within the boundaries of the story and characters. That is to say, when the people in the book stop acting or speaking, it is to give the novelist an opportunity, not to indulge in general reflections, having applications to all sorts and conditions of men, of whom his dramatis personae are but a part, — he has no desire to share humanity with them, — but to make acute reflections upon these particular people, and to explain more thoroughly than their words and acts can the motives which lie behind. . . .

[His work] is consistent, but the consistency is with itself. . . . This self-consistency is a separate thing from any consistency with the world of reality. . . . In Andersen’s quaint story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, a little child discovers the unreality of the gossamer dress, and his voice breaks in upon the illusion from the outer world. Something of the same separation from the story, of the same unconscious naturalness of feeling, prompts the criticism that, though these people walk, and sit, and talk, and behave, they are yet in an illusionary world of their own.

I’m sure nice Mr. Scudder doesn’t mean that when you break the illusion, James’s work is exposed as naked pretension rather than art! Indeed, he’s quite admiring about what it’s like to be inside James’s world. I admire it too: the scene in which the Countess tells Isabel the truth is thrilling, for instance, both because of its psychological acuity and because we’ve waited so long for the dramatic irony to reach its climax, for the gap between our knowledge (and suspicions) and Isabel’s to close. The farewell with Ralph, too, has all the emotional intensity of Dorothea’s climactic visit to Rosamond at the end of Middlemarch, though its revelations and effects could hardly be more different. It may be that we feel moments like this — which are the closest the novel comes to dramatic action — particularly deeply because we have spent so long dissecting and analyzing: at last, there is blood.

In the end (though as always it’s a conclusion that reveals as much about me as about either James or his novel) I sympathize most with Margaret Oliphant’s verdict on The Portrait of a Lady:

It is far too long, infinitely ponderous, and pulled out of all proportion by the elaboration of every detail; but there is scarcely a page in it that is not worked out with the utmost skill and refinement, or which the reader will pass over without leaving something to regret — that is, if he has leisure for the kind of reading which is delightful for its own sake in complete independence of its subject. . . . But nothing so elaborate ever could be real, and the dazzle sometimes fatigues, though the effect is one which cannot be contemplated without admiration.

As she too was contemplating the 1881 version, that probably sets me straight about whether I did in fact read the wrong version: it would not have made a difference, or at any rate not much difference, if I hadn’t read the “more complex, mannered, and metaphorical” 1908 version. The difference is a matter of degree, not of kind. Where does that leave me? Stumped, as usual, I think, by James’s own point (again, in “The Art of Fiction”) that “there are all sorts of tastes,” and mine aren’t altogether Jamesian.

Henry James and “le mot juste”

nortonportraitI feel I owe Henry James a bit of an apology. In my previous post on The Portrait of a Lady I complained that his sentences were irritating. Yet, as several people commented at the time, they really aren’t, or, not much, not in Portrait. (Of course, it’s also possible that, as Dorian predicted, I have become accustomed to their cadence, but Portrait is early enough in his oeuvre that I think it is partly that the worst was yet to come — a theory which my memory of reading The Golden Bowl confirms.) Now that I’m back to the novel again, what I find myself making note of are not places where I tripped over stuttering syntax but moments where I let out a small sigh of satisfaction: that, yes, that word (or phrase or, especially, metaphor) exactly. A few samples:

A young gentlewoman without visible relations had always struck her as a flower without foliage.

To live in such a place was, for Isabel, to hold to her ear all day a shell of the sea of the past.

Every now and then Isabel heard the Countess, at something said by her companion, plunge into the latter’s lucidity as a poodle splashes after a thrown stick.

She mightn’t be inhaled as a rose, but she might be grasped as a nettle.

The flower of her youth had not faded, it only hung more quietly on its stem.

It’s Flaubert, of course, who’s most associated (as far as I know, anyway) with the relentless search for “let mot juste,” and Flaubert is the last writer I can remember reading who provoked this kind of appreciation for his thrillingly precise yet somehow unexpected details. James was a fan of Flaubert, whom he called “a novelist’s novelist,” and both are known as key figures in the aestheticization of fiction, so this similarity isn’t surprising.

Thinking of James and Flaubert together, both writers I can admire but don’t really like, makes me wonder if these marvelous details are symptoms of the problem — my problem, that is. In his essay “How Flaubert Changed Literature Forever,” James Wood discusses Flaubert’s comments on “the monstrous difficulty of writing a sentence. “Style had always been a battle for novelists,” Wood says, “but Flaubert, in his letters at least, turned it into a perpetual defeat.” His writing becomes a site of struggle for a particular kind of perfection, a struggle which is part of how the novel becomes self-consciously artistic and thus great. And yet, Wood proposes, “under Flaubert … the novel’s great expansion was perhaps an expansion into limit”:

When the nineteenth-century novel became madly ambitious to be everything, it began to chastise itself for failing to do everything. Taking everything as its only measure, it became afflicted with a sense of its failure, and began to throw off those ambitions, like a plane dumping fuel, until only one was left: its very essence, style itself. Until Flaubert, the novel had been mithridated in its own unself-consciousness, as an alcoholic thoughtlessly medicates himself; but Flaubert took away its sweet, ignorant poisons.

As so often with Wood, and with any generalization about “the” nineteenth-century novel, I am not entirely comfortable with this account of literary history. Certainly not every novelist threw off every ambition but style — only the novelists in whom Wood takes a particular interest. And Wood’s own metaphors are so hopelessly biased against the novelists who aren’t Flaubert-like in their repudiation of the “ignorant poisons” of everything besides style! I do like Wood’s phrase “an expansion into limit”: it’s just that for me, what he interprets as a sign of progress feels to me, as the reader I am, like a loss, a decline. There’s something claustrophobic about this highly-crafted prose that never rushes, that’s never excitable, that sculpts and places and polishes its pieces so perfectly. I don’t concede that other 19th-century novel(ist)s are formless, but their forms are not (or, not just) verbal, not just stylistic but also spatial, not singular but plural.

It’s absurd, of course, to call James’s prose a “decline,” and in any case I don’t actually want to fall into Wood’s habit of identifying a favorite kind of novel as the best kind: as James himself said (in his Preface to The Portrait of a Lady) “the house of fiction has not one window, but a million.”  I just find myself wishing James would open his window up a bit wider and let some air in! But if you’re that self-conscious, I suppose you can’t take a risk that an errant breeze will shuffle your papers or, worse, carry in some sweet but destructive — that is, distracting — poison. Is oxygen really too high a price to pay for le mot juste?

This Week In My Reading: Scale and Significance

unlessIn a way, this post is also about “this week in my classes,” as it is prompted by the serendipitous convergence of my current reading around questions we’ve been discussing since we started working on Carol Shields’ Unless in my section of Intro to Lit. In our first session on the novel, I give some introductory remarks about Shields — a life and times overview, and then some suggestions about themes that interested her, especially in relation to Unless. One of the things I pointed out is that she also wrote a biography of Jane Austen; in an interview, Shields said “Jane Austen is important to me because she demonstrates how large narratives can occupy small spaces.” We come to Shields right after working through Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, so I also bring up Woolf’s pointed remark: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room.” Both Shields and Woolf are thinking about the relationship between scale and significance, and both of them are drawing our attention to the ways assumptions about what matters — in literature, particularly, since that’s their primary context — have historically been gendered.

Unless itself explores the relationship between scale and significance on several levels. Its protagonist, Reta Winters, is a writer whose first novel, My Thyme Is Up, is light and romantic, a “sunny” book that has won a prize for books that combine “literary quality and accessibility.” Reta has been working on a sequel (with the equally charming title Thyme in Bloom), but over the course of Unless she becomes discontented with it, especially with the happy ending she had blithely anticipated for it. For much of the novel, she is puzzling over what else to do — what other kind of book to write. She grows to dislike her characters as originally conceived: she sees her heroine Alicia as “vapid” and Alicia’s impending marriage as a mistake:

Suddenly it was clear to me. Alicia’s marriage to Roman must be postponed. Now I understood where the novel is headed. She is not meant to be partnered. Her singleness in the world is her paradise, it has been all along, and she came close to sacrificing it, or rather, I, as novelist, had been about to snatch it away from her. The wedding guests will have to be alerted and the gifts returned. All of them, Alicia, Roman, their families, their friends — stupid, stupid. The novel, if it is to survive, must be redrafted.

But how? All we really know is that instead of submitting Alicia to the conventional marriage plot, Reta now wants her to “advance in her self-understanding.”

carol-shieldsReta’s redrafting is disrupted by her editor, an officious American (of course! Unless is a Canadian novel, after all) named Arthur Springer who has even bigger plans for Thyme in Bloom, which (significantly) he proposes she retitle simply Bloom. His idea is that Alicia should fade into the background while Roman emerges as the “moral center” of the novel. This, he insists, is necessary for the novel to graduate from “popular fiction” to “quality fiction.” He also proposes that Reta retreat behind her initials: she will become R. R. Summers (“Winters” is her husband’s surname). This way her new (“quality”) book can’t possibly be associated with her, or with her earlier (“popular”) novel.

Reta sees exactly what’s up, of course: Springer believes that a book’s literary significance depends on its masculinity — that its standing as great literature will increase as it moves away from the world of women. When Reta presses him about what’s wrong with Alicia, his answer is comically symptomatic of the problems much of the novel is about. “I am talking,” he says, “about Roman being the moral center of this book,”

“and Alicia, for all her charms, is not capable of that role, surely you can see that. She writes fashion articles. She talks to her cat. She does yoga. She makes rice casseroles.”

“It’s because she’s a woman.”

“That’s not an issue at all. Surely you —”

“But it is the issue.”

“She is unable to make a claim to — She is undisciplined in her — She can’t focus the way Roman — She changes her mind about — She lacks — A reader, the serious reader that I have in mind, would never accept her as the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art that acts as a critique of our society while at the same time, unrolling itself like a carpet of inevitability, narrativistically speaking.”

“Because she’s a woman.”

Reta ultimately resists both Springer’s exhortations and the “critical voice in [her] head that weighs serious literature against what is merely entertainment.” We are never told exactly how Thyme in Bloom ends, only that “Alicia triumphs, but in her own slightly capricious way.” What we do know is that having discovered her dissatisfaction with a particular kind of conventional woman’s fiction, what Reta imagines doing next is not something on a larger scale or a more overtly grandiose style but something even smaller: “I want it to be a book that’s willing to live in one room if necessary,” she says; “I want it to hold still like an oil painting, a painting titled: Seated Woman.”

One of the questions I asked my class to think about is whether Unless is itself a model for a different kind of fiction, maybe even an example of the kind of book Reta imagines writing — one that insists we find, or at least look for, significance in small things. Reta is “just” a fairly ordinary woman but the things that happen in the novel certainly mean a lot to her, and as she connects the incidents in her life to other events, both personal and historical, private and public, significant patterns emerge. Unless initially seems like a really unassuming book, but by the end that feels like part of the plan: Shields’ novel itself asks us to accept an ordinary woman as “the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art.”

What has been so interesting over the past couple of weeks is how many of the other  books I happen to be reading also either explicitly turn on or implicitly raise questions about the relationship between women and scale and significance, in life and in literature.

derondaOne of them is Daniel Deronda, which I’ve just finished reading with my graduate students. This novel is famously bifurcated between Gwendolen’s story (a highly personal, small-scale drama) — and Daniel’s (which starts out on a similarly domestic scale but opens out into a potentially epic, world-historical story). Is Gwendolen condemned to insignificance when she is left behind to suffer at home while Daniel goes off to (perhaps) found a nation? The literal scale of Eliot’s treatment of Gwendolen is not belittling: she gets at least half the huge novel to herself, after all. Perhaps this novel insists, formally, on an equivalence between two kinds of significance, one of which occupies a small space. Or perhaps what’s significant is Gwendolen’s discovery of her own insignificance. “Could there be a slenderer, more insignificant thread in human history,” asks the narrator,

than this consciousness of a girl, busy with her small inferences of the way in which she could make her life pleasant?—in a time, too, when ideas were with fresh vigor making armies of themselves, and the universal kinship was declaring itself fiercely; when women on the other side of the world would not mourn for the husbands and sons who died bravely in a common cause, and men stinted of bread on our side of the world heard of that willing loss and were patient: a time when the soul of man was walking to pulses which had for centuries been beating in him unfelt, until their full sum made a new life of terror or of joy.

But then Eliot seems to reject that premise:

What in the midst of that mighty drama are girls and their blind visions? They are the Yea or Nay of that good for which men are enduring and fighting. In these delicate vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affections.

Isn’t that belittling in its own way, though? It certainly doesn’t allow “girls” much historical agency.

Then, I’m about half way through The Portrait of a Lady, which picks up on exactly this question of how much that girlish presence matters (James even quotes Eliot’s “delicate vessels” line in his 1908 Preface to the novel). Can so small a thing as the consciousness of a young girl support the whole weight of a novel, James wonders?

“Place the centre of the subject in the young woman’s consciousness,” I said to myself, “and you get as interesting and as beautiful a difficulty as you could wish. Stick to that — for the centre; put the heaviest weight into that scale, which will be so largely the scale of her relation to herself. . . . See, at all events, what can be done in this way. What better field could there be for a due ingenuity? The girl hovers, inextinguishable, as a charming creature, and the job will be to translate her into the highest terms of that formula, and as nearly as possible moreover into all of them. To depend upon her and her little concerns wholly to see you through will necessitate, remember, your really ‘doing’ her.”

Is James issuing a corrective to Eliot’s approach, calling her out, as it were, for lacking the courage or “ingenuity” to let Gwendolen carry her whole novel? But notice that his terms are, in their own way, belittling: “the girl” needs to be “translated” into something higher; she needs the novelist to infuse her with importance. Reading The Portrait of a Lady, I feel conscious of the weight of his novel bearing down on Isabel in a way I don’t feel Daniel Deronda weighing down Gwendolen (and certainly don’t feel Unless impressing itself on Reta). Is it possible that, more than James, Eliot does believe in the significance of her heroine’s “little concerns”?

portraitOUPNeither of these novels, however, whatever their differences, feels in any way light, despite the intimacy of their core casts of characters. It’s the treatment, not the subject, that gives literary significance, isn’t it? Austen’s novels don’t feel trite even though viewed narrowly they are “just” about a handful of “ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses” (in Charlotte Bronte’s words) — because her love stories are also stories about values and class structures and social changes with far-reaching effects. When Isabel Archer accepts Gilbert Osmond’s proposal, it feels large because James has imbued Isabel’s choices with philosophical consequence: her decision isn’t just to marry or not to marry, but about how to use her freedom, and about what to value and how to value herself. These are personal questions but also abstract ones, and so the small space of her individual life occupies a large narrative (by which I don’t mean, though I could, just a long book).

But I’m also reading Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness, and so far it seems to me a small space filled by a small narrative. Its plot and cast of characters are intimate, domestic, insignificant on anything but a personal scale. It reminds me very much of Anne Tyler’s novels, though (so far, at least) it lacks Tyler’s habit of whimsy. I’m enjoying it, and I’m interested in how things will go for its protagonist, but nice as it is, it feels trivial. I think it shows that you can’t just reverse expectations and insist that the ordinary is always resonant with significance. You have to really ‘do’ it, as James says: you have to go all in. You can enlarge the narrative in a lot of different ways: morally, aesthetically, historically, philosophically — but literary greatness still requires some kind of expansiveness, some reaching beyond the particular. Or does it? (If Austen’s own description of her work as “the little bit . . . of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush” really did, unironically, sum up the scale of her novels, would we admire them as much as we do?)

family happinessI have been thinking that this constellation of questions (not really any answers) is relevant to the discussions about why, say, Jonathan Franzen’s novels about family and private life get treated as more significant than some other books that are about similar topics. Gender may well be part of the explanation, but it would be disingenuous to pretend we don’t know that some books by both men and women simply do more with their material than others, and that that scale — the scale of meaning, of treatment — is ultimately where literary significance lies. But this post has gone on long enough without really arriving anywhere in particular, so that’s probably as good a place to stop as any.

Henry James Writes Irritating Sentences

henryjamesWe interrupt our regular programming (specifically, a pending but dispensable installment of ‘This Week In My Classes,’ featuring more moping about how badly Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own always seems to go over with my first-year students, plus some rueful ruminations on my own inability to shut up and let the students in my graduate seminar talk more) for this important preliminary observation about rereading The Portrait of a Lady:

Henry James writes irritating sentences.

Why is that? Or should I say, why do his sentences irritate me so often? Is this (like my tepid response to The Good Soldier) “some sort of Victorianist glitch”? But isn’t James sort of a Victorian? Portrait was originally published in 1880-81, and Daniel Deronda (which started me down this road) was published in 1876. That said, I see that the text of the Norton Critical Edition of Portrait which I’m reading is that of the 1908 New York edition, for which he made, my editor reports, “more than five thousand substantive revisions.” The blame for my annoyance may lie with the nearly thirty years his style had to evolve (or perhaps devolve) beyond its preliminary Victorianism. And in fact the first sentence in the volume that really irked me was from the 1908 Preface to the New York edition:

Trying to recover here, for recognition, the germ of my idea, I see that it must have consisted not at all in any conceit of a “plot,” nefarious name, in any flash, upon the fancy, of a set of relations, or in any one of those situations that, by a logic of their own, immediately fall, for the fabulist, into movement, into a march or a rush, a patter of quick steps; but altogether in the sense of a single character, the character and aspect of a particular engaging young woman, to which all the usual elements of a “subject,” certainly of a setting, were to need to be super-added.

Is it just me, or do you too feel the urge to yell “just spit it out, Henry!” about half-way along? It doesn’t get any better with the next sentence, either:

Quite as interesting as the young woman herself, at her best, do I find, I must again repeat, this projection of memory upon the whole matter of the growth, in one’s imagination, of some such apology for a motive.

Well, you get the idea. For people who like that sort of sentence, that is of course just the kind of sentence that they like — and usually they really really like it. In my long-ago essay on The Golden Bowl, I quoted critic Robert Reilla’s somewhat sarcastic description of the “Jamesian” point of view:

For the Jamesian, the work of James is really above and beyond most other fiction; it is a high palace of art which he enters with genuine reverence, by virtue of those qualities which James himself required of the ideal critic—perception at the pitch of passion, insight that is only once removed from the original creative act.  In James’s work the Jamesian perceives the quintessence of conscious art; he learns to delight in the process of total artistic consciousness presenting, or projecting, vessels of consciousness nearly as full as its own.  And after Bach, who can descend to Strauss, or even Wagner?  For the Jamesian, only James is really satisfactory—other fiction seems fumbling and accidental, or easy and obvious, or simply gross.  The Jamesian nearly always speaks from heights; it is impossible for him not to judge by Jamesian standards, because in order to become a Jamesian he has had to ascend to these standards

It’s true that there’s nothing “easy and obvious” about the sentences I’ve quoted, though whether they are “fumbling” might be in the eye of the beholder.

nortonportraitSo far (a mere 75 pages into this edition’s 490) the prose of Portrait itself is only occasionally as baroque as the Preface, but the sentences do often have a similar halting quality (“he was not romantically, he was much rather obscurely, handsome”). More frequently, they oblige me to start them over because I’ve lost track along the way of exactly what the subject and main verb are:

Altogether, with her meager knowledge, her inflated ideals, her confidence at once innocent and dogmatic, her temper at once exacting and indulgent, her mixture of curiosity and fastidiousness, of vivacity and indifference, her desire to look very well and to be if possible even better, her determination to see, to try, to know, her combination of the delicate, desultory, flame-like spirit and the eager and personal creature of conditions: she would be an easy victim of scientific criticism if she were not intended to awaken on the reader’s part an impulse more tender and more purely expectant.

Actually, that one seemed much clearer as I typed it out than it had when I read it on the page: is there a lesson in that? James exemplifies the “writerly” writer, after all: he has little interest in engaging his reader in that chummy Victorian way.

Still, compared to The Golden Bowl, Portrait is already infinitely simpler — at times, it’s almost epigrammatic in its directness. And yet it somehow radiates artifice, particularly in the dialogue, which sometimes seems almost unbearably stagey:

“Isabel will enjoy puzzling a lord,” Mrs. Touchett remarked.

Her son frowned a little. “What does she know about lords?”

“Nothing at all: that will puzzle him all the more.”

Aren’t they clever? Isn’t he, their author, clever? Now I’m irritated again.

portraitOUPI’m not irritated at Isabel, though. In the Preface James quotes a line from Daniel Deronda that captures the inspiration for his own novel: “In these frail vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affection.” “How absolutely, how inordinately,” he says, these frail vessels “insist on mattering”: what he wanted was to write a novel in which, despite that fragility, the “vessel” would bear the whole weight, without “having [her] inadequacy eked out with comic relief and underplots,” as he notes George Eliot did with Hetty and Maggie and Rosamond and Gwendolen. “Place the centre of the subject in the young woman’s own consciousness,” as he puts it, “and you get as interesting and as beautiful a difficulty as you could wish. . . . So far I reasoned,

and it took nothing less than that technical rigour, I now easily see, to inspire me with the right confidence for erecting on such a plot of ground the neat and careful and proportioned pile of bricks that arches over it and that was thus to form, constructionally speaking, a literary monument.

“Constructionally speaking”? Whatever you say, Henry! But there’s no doubt that it’s an interesting, perhaps even a monumental undertaking, and despite my intermittent aggravation I’m already enjoying both reading and thinking about the novel. At times Isabel does sound very like Gwendolen: “she only had a general idea that people were right when they treated her as if she were rather superior.” She seems much kinder and more open-hearted (and open-minded) than Gwendolen, though: she is accustomed to having her own way and her own opinions, but she shows no hunger for mastery; she would not strangle her sister’s canary bird for interrupting her singing! In fact, she has an almost Dorothea-like desire “to feel the continuity between the movements of her own soul and the agitations of the world.” The brief exchange that seems, more than any other moment, to define Isabel’s character is not irritating but thrilling: “I always want to know the things one shouldn’t do,” she tells her aunt.

“So as to do them?” asked her aunt.

“So as to choose,” said Isabel.