Thursday, June 9, 2016

Henry James peers into the great glazed tank of art

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.


  1. as you said, juggling ideas around to find out what it is he really wants to say, and what actually words he uses on paper actually mean; i think it's a kind of poetic search, probing his own psyche and the imagination of "others"... no?

  2. The 'stories about writers' I think have always intrigued...writers. Tennyson's 'Lady of Shalott', for example, can be seen as an allegory of the writer's isolation (& sense of loneliness) in order to be able to create - while longing to participate in the world outside. But to participate precludes being able to create. That might explain some aspects of those stories in which writers are advised how to live and write: don't marry. Or is it some disguised mode of exploring (HJ's) muddled sexuality? As you say, Tom, who knows? But he does write strikingly good fiction.

  3. This is also - well, a slightly later "this" - the period when James gets interested in the ghost story.

    The "don't marry" advice is hilarious - purely ironic, even malicious.

  4. Your doubts hurt, they hurt me deeply man.

    Just wait until you read The Birthplace, where the writer in question is Shakespeare (favored by argumentative old gits and obloquious obookis), and the framing of his story (or is it his story itself?) is beyond belief, even for James.

  5. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.

    I have no sense of association between Shakespeare and James. "The Birthplace" seems to be less about Shakespeare than about "Shakespeare."

  6. Well played, sir, well played.

    More seriously though, I think that those trying to spice up James by endowing him with a certain sexual orientation are followers of Morris Gedge: James himself, his family and friends made damn sure that the details of his private life remained opaque to posterity's prurient eyes.

  7. Right, I have no interest in that question either, and my lingering impression from the old Queer Theory battles is that some real damage was done to James in the attempt to make everything not just about homosexuality but about some bizarre fantasy parody of homosexuality - some other concern, political or something, that I never understood.

    My actual working hypothesis is purely about creativity: James had consciously worked towards a masterpiece, and he had achieved it. The new question was "Now what?" One smart way to address the question was to look at - to imagine - how different kinds of writers answered the question.

    But I don't really know that.