The Portrait of a Lady — Henry James

In the preface to the second edition of The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James preempts the criticism around which I would otherwise base this review: ” ‘To arrive at these things is to arrive at my “story,” ‘ [Ivan Turgenieff] said, ‘and that’s the way I look for it. The result is that I’m often accused of not having “story” enough.’ ”

I agree with those unnamed critics.

James may have subconsciously addressed this issue as he wrote or revised the novel; in the fifth chapter of volume I, a guy wanting to impress Isabel—the “Lady” of the title—and his mother worry about their respective impressions on her. Ralph says, “That sounds rather dry—even allowing her the choice of the two countries.” A few paragraphs later, his mother says, “Do you mean by that that I’m a bore. I don’t think she finds me one. Some girls might, I know; but Isabel’s too clever for that. I think I greatly amuse her.” If you’re concerned about being dry or boring, there’s a reasonably high chance that you are, and Ralph’s mother, in defending herself from charges of being boring, could also be implicitly be defending the novel itself from charges of being boring. Alas: if it isn’t boring, I’m not clever enough to realize it.

To the extent The Portrait of a Lady has a plot, it turns on marriage, and though I appreciate that institution’s importance to James’ time, I wrote about its contemporary problems as a driver of modern fiction in the third paragraph of this post on Francine Prose’s Blue Angel. It’s hard to get as excited about it as the characters in The Portrait of a Lady do. Furthermore, I’m sure the novel was relatively progressive and frank for its time, but now it seems reserved and euphemistic. The painful thing about describing its macro flaws is how spectacular and virtuosic many descriptions are. One in particular stood out: “Isabel perhaps took a small opportunity because she would not have availed herself of a great one.” Note the word “perhaps:” James is a master at depicting ambiguity, perhaps explaining why The Turn of the Screw is so exquisite in its depiction of the maybe ghosts, giving such creeping horror and power that I was compelled to keep reading it as if I were the one at the whip of an apparition—or insane. The Portrait of a Lady, however, is too still and reserved, too much like a portrait and containing too little narrative force to keep me attached, despite how often perfect turns of phrase appear in the context of characters who have not done enough to deserve them. There are enough aphorisms for months of daily quotes, but not enough sinew holding them together.

On the other hand, it may be that nineteenth century fiction demands the acceptance or acknowledgement of a set of conventions and writing practices, and I haven’t cultivated the skill to read it. Of pre-1900 writers, Melville is the only novelist who really chiseled a place in my imagination. The others I tend to read only if I have to, and The Portrait of a Lady didn’t change my outlook. It’s also possible that, as William Blake said according to the unreliable source Barney’s Version, “… that What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak Men […] That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care.”

More on How Fiction Works and someone else's review doesn't

In The Australian, a nominal review of James Wood’s How Fiction Works is really a discussion of Wood’s work more generally. It also shows why I shirked writing a deep review of How Fiction Works, as I I have more than a few quibbles:

If Wood doesn’t “get” the overall trick of an author’s writing he tends to dismiss it. This was most evident in his notorious Guardian review (reworked in The Irresponsible Self) of “hysterical realism”, a term Wood has coined to sum up the work of a whole slew of contemporary novelists that includes Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Salman Rushdie and Thomas Pynchon.

Is this an issue of not “getting” the works, or of getting them too well and not liking or caring for what they represent? To me, DeLillo and Pynchon in particular have long been overrated. I remember trying to read them in late school and early college and thinking, “why are these awful writers so highly praised?” At the time I didn’t realize that they were a reaction against earlier literary trends and that they were trying to be stylistically unusual merely for the sake of being stylistically unusual, or for obscure philosophical points without writing actual philosophy. Paul Graham seems to have had a similar experience with actual philosophy. Wood gets this, and probably better than I do, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed the overpraised and under-talented; one thing I very much appreciate about A Reader’s Manifesto is its willingness to engage with writing, rather than politics surrounding writing, or whatever propelled DeLillo to fame.

To return to the review:

While another critic might see the impulse towards jam-packed, baroquely hyperreal novels as a legitimate and thoughtful, albeit varyingly skilful, response to our postmodern world (a mimetic reflection of the different status of information in an age of instant and indiscriminate communication, say, or an attempt to “wake up” a form whose traditional gestures are now the cliched staples of Hollywood cinema) […]

The problem is that these techniques aren’t mimetic: in trying to mimic the supposed techniques that they implicitly criticize, they don’t reflect information, but chaos; they aren’t hyperreal, but fake. And I’m not convinced modern life is so different in terms of “the different status of information in an age of instant and indiscriminate communication.” Information isn’t indiscriminate: I still choose what to read and what to watch most of the time; if I’m exposed to ads, it’s because I choose to be. In some essays, Umberto Eco discusses how he sees ideas and battles from the Middle Ages underlying much of everyday life, and the more I read, the more I tend to trace the lineage of intellectual and personal ideas backwards through time. Although our technological and physical world has changed enormously in the last two hundred years, I’m not sure the purposes to which we put technology and power (conquest, sex, etc.) has much. That isn’t to say literary style hasn’t evolved, as it obviously has, and my preference tends toward novels written after 1900. Ideas have shifted and evolved too. Still, techniques used by modern authors like the hyperrealists just because they can be used doesn’t make them an improvement. Furthermore, not all of Wood’s loves are mine—I just finished Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady and wouldn’t have if I didn’t need to. But I have seldom read a stronger argument for the capital-N Novel than I have in How Fiction Works, and even when I sometimes don’t find Wood persuasive, the power of his argument and depth of his reading always compels me to think more clearly and deeply about my own positions and thoughts.

More on How Fiction Works and someone else’s review doesn’t

In The Australian, a nominal review of James Wood’s How Fiction Works is really a discussion of Wood’s work more generally. It also shows why I shirked writing a deep review of How Fiction Works, as I I have more than a few quibbles:

If Wood doesn’t “get” the overall trick of an author’s writing he tends to dismiss it. This was most evident in his notorious Guardian review (reworked in The Irresponsible Self) of “hysterical realism”, a term Wood has coined to sum up the work of a whole slew of contemporary novelists that includes Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Salman Rushdie and Thomas Pynchon.

Is this an issue of not “getting” the works, or of getting them too well and not liking or caring for what they represent? To me, DeLillo and Pynchon in particular have long been overrated. I remember trying to read them in late school and early college and thinking, “why are these awful writers so highly praised?” At the time I didn’t realize that they were a reaction against earlier literary trends and that they were trying to be stylistically unusual merely for the sake of being stylistically unusual, or for obscure philosophical points without writing actual philosophy. Paul Graham seems to have had a similar experience with actual philosophy. Wood gets this, and probably better than I do, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed the overpraised and under-talented; one thing I very much appreciate about A Reader’s Manifesto is its willingness to engage with writing, rather than politics surrounding writing, or whatever propelled DeLillo to fame.

To return to the review:

While another critic might see the impulse towards jam-packed, baroquely hyperreal novels as a legitimate and thoughtful, albeit varyingly skilful, response to our postmodern world (a mimetic reflection of the different status of information in an age of instant and indiscriminate communication, say, or an attempt to “wake up” a form whose traditional gestures are now the cliched staples of Hollywood cinema) […]

The problem is that these techniques aren’t mimetic: in trying to mimic the supposed techniques that they implicitly criticize, they don’t reflect information, but chaos; they aren’t hyperreal, but fake. And I’m not convinced modern life is so different in terms of “the different status of information in an age of instant and indiscriminate communication.” Information isn’t indiscriminate: I still choose what to read and what to watch most of the time; if I’m exposed to ads, it’s because I choose to be. In some essays, Umberto Eco discusses how he sees ideas and battles from the Middle Ages underlying much of everyday life, and the more I read, the more I tend to trace the lineage of intellectual and personal ideas backwards through time. Although our technological and physical world has changed enormously in the last two hundred years, I’m not sure the purposes to which we put technology and power (conquest, sex, etc.) has much. That isn’t to say literary style hasn’t evolved, as it obviously has, and my preference tends toward novels written after 1900. Ideas have shifted and evolved too. Still, techniques used by modern authors like the hyperrealists just because they can be used doesn’t make them an improvement. Furthermore, not all of Wood’s loves are mine—I just finished Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady and wouldn’t have if I didn’t need to. But I have seldom read a stronger argument for the capital-N Novel than I have in How Fiction Works, and even when I sometimes don’t find Wood persuasive, the power of his argument and depth of his reading always compels me to think more clearly and deeply about my own positions and thoughts.

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