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03.19.08

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Phaedra

The Master

By Michael S. Gant


IT SEEMS SOMEHOW appropriate that the great American novelist Henry James, with his exquisite sensibility, which allowed him to enter, as biographer Sheldon M. Novick writes, "the consciousness of all his characters," should have even anticipated the future, after a fashion, as well as created "memories of passionate moments as if they had been truly lived." He had the prescience to befriend Herbert and Margot Tennant Asquith, the great-grandparents of Helena Bonham Carter, who played one of James' most famous conflicted antiheroines, Kate Croy, in a 1997 film adaptation of The Wings of the Dove. Indeed, film and TV versions of James' novels have done more for his reputation than his several attempts at writing for the London stage ever did for his income (the theater of the day being more lucrative than long, increasingly convoluted novels).

But maybe the Bonham Carter connection was just a statistical inevitability. As Novick chronicles in Henry James: The Mature Master (the follow-up to his Henry James: The Young Master), from 1881 and the publication of The Portrait of a Lady to the author's death, in 1916, James entertained, in his rooms in London and at Lamb House in Rye, southwest of the capital, just about every literary and artistic person worth knowing. In addition to more obvious suspects, like Robert Louis Stevenson (who turns up as a boon companion in just about every literary biography of the late 1800s), we meet novelists George du Maurier (who introduced Svengali in Trilby), H.G. Wells (who turned on James later) and Edith Wharton; poet Ezra Pound; painter John Singer Sargent; and even, oddly, American muckraker Upton Sinclair.

James also maintained intimate relations with a number of handsome, talented young men; more forthcoming than previous biographers on the subject of James' homosexuality, Novick quotes from some very frank personal letters that haven't been widely known until recently. Novick's biography is as much a biography of the age as it is of the author, which would have suited James, who, when he was editing and revising the New York Edition of his works, considered that as a whole they constituted "a vast extended moment in history," just as Balzac's Human Comedy did. James, a wonderful conversationalist and tireless correspondent, worked hard at his social relations, but he never ceased a prodigious writing pace: essays, reviews, plays, indelible short stories and novellas (The Turn of the Screw) and enduring achievements like The Golden Bowl. So accomplished was James' thought process that he could dictate (to a series of hard-working "typists") the most intricate, sinuous sentences and almost never need to rewrite them—although perhaps he should have; Novick quotes Henry's brother William, the famous psychologist and no slouch at rarefied English, mildly complaining about The Ambassadors: "I read with interest to the end (many pages, and innumerable sentences twice over to see what the dickens they could possibly mean)."

Novick also provides fascinating details about the difficulties of earning a living as a novelist in the late-Victorian era, when the gentleman's agreement was giving way to literary agents, and copyright law was in chaotic flux. The Mature Master contains many engaging anecdotes as well as Novick's attempt to grasp the evanescent quality of James' later style, beginning with What Maisie Knew and culminating in The Golden Bowl. "The elements of his description fuse in the reader's imagination," Novick writes, "as an Impressionist's brushstrokes fuse in the retina of an observer, with the force of an immediate impression." In his later works, James developed an increasingly elaborate style that allowed him to express the inner thoughts—tentatively fashioning and refashioning in response to outside experience—of many different characters, even children. Down this way lay the stream-of-consciousness of the modernists. The result, in The Golden Bowl, is dialogue thick with circling metaphors, double negatives and "a cloud of descriptive nouns, adverbs and adjectives" suddenly illuminated with descriptive passages of crystalline precision. Novick's lionized author comes across as almost wholly admirable—he loved dogs and once wrote, in penetrating fashion, about how America's burgeoning imperialism was destroying the nation's selling point as being the only country "with clean hands & no record of across-the-seas murder & theft"—but doesn't stint on some chips in his facade, like a strain of anti-Semitism. In summing up, Novick hits just the right note about why we still read James: "It is a testimony to the accuracy of his observation and the fundamental realism of his method that after more than a century and after profound changes in language, culture and sensibility in the English-speaking world, even in the America whose future he saw and feared, we can enter into and share the lives of his characters, who seem as real as on the day that he first imagined them."


HENRY JAMES: THE MATURE MASTER, by Sheldon M. Novick; Random House; 616 pages; $35 hardback


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