Henry James was a restless, experimental writer who wrote his way to his ideas. I mean experimental in the sense that he had to try an idea out in a story to know how it worked, rather than think it out in advance like a conceptual writer. I know, this is not the usual meaning of “experimental” in a literary context. I should probably find another word.
The move towards The Portrait of a Lady (1882) in the late 1870s was easy to see in his shorter fiction, with characters, plots, and narrative stances moved around until James could decide exactly what would go into his self-consciously designed masterpiece.
What was James aiming at after Portrait? I have no idea. The Bostonians (1886) has a lighter, more blatantly comic feel. In the tales, there are more writers, far more, starting with “The Author of ‘Beltraffio’” (1884), and most famously in “The Aspern Papers” (1888).
I read three recently, “The Lesson of the Master” (1888), “Greville Fane” (1892), and “The Middle Years” (1893), all about novelists who are definitely not Henry James but contain some element of James.
“Greville Fane” is about, I don’t know, Nora Roberts, someone who writes a lot (“She turned off plots by the hundred”) and, although “[s]he had an idea that she resembled Balzac” is essentially a writer of what we now call romances in a variety of European settings. Actually, Greville Fane only writes three books a year, and Roberts has averaged six. I am learning that the Jamesian signature is the phrase “had an idea that.” The conflict between what people are and what they have an idea that they are will fill much fiction.
Greville Fane’s greatest illusions are not about her art, though, but her no good sponging children. This tale is closer to a character portrait than a story. A plausible life.
“The Lesson of the Master” has plenty of plot. Henry St. George wrote three perfect novels – Ginistrella is especially good – early on, but now churns out popular junk, while Paul Overt [!] is a new, young perfectionist. They compete for the affections of a beautiful woman who is a bit of a manic pixie dream girl, awfully perfect. St. George, who is married, scares Overt off by arguing that marriage ruins art. “’Oh, of course, often, they think they understand, they think they sympathize.’” Overt goes on to write a perfect novel, but St. George gets the girl. Was he deliberately clearing the field, or was it a coincidence, an accident of timing (Overt of course has to go to Italy to write a perfect novel).
I left this story amazed that Jamesian without irony call James “The Master.” The Master is artless in his fiction and artful in his deceit. Maybe they are at times ironic.
“The Middle Years” is direct, so direct I must be missing a lot. A novelist is dying. His last book is a masterpiece. He and his doctor, a devotee of his work, discuss whether the writer really accomplished anything. This writer is like James. Each book is really a preparation for the next.
“We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”
Life is our “first and only chance.”
Early in “The Middle Years,” the author, ill, forgetful, begins reading his own new novel.
… what he had chiefly forgotten was that it was extraordinarily good. He dived once more into his story and was drawn down, as by a siren’s hand, to where, in the dim underworld of fiction, the great glazed tank of art, strange silent subjects floated.
I don’t know why James gets so interested in stories about writers.