Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Inside a World -- On Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece

by Michael Gorra
Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2012

Michael Gorra reads wholeheartedly. A gifted and thoughtful critic, he here performs what will be, for some, critical apostasy. For his discussion combines close reading, biography of the author in his historical and cultural context, a useful inclusion of relevant scholarship, and his own readerly presence. He writes as a critic, but he brings to his effort the sort of deep sympathy that informed Colm Toibin’s novel, The Master.

The masterpiece Gorra discusses is, of course, Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. Gorra writes from a perspective that draws on and synthesizes his own reading of relevant scholarship. He presumes his audience has read James’s novel, a presumption that because he is not concerned to offer plot summaries allows for the book’s wider range. Similarly, Gorra assumes we also know something of Henry and his famous family. Thus, he omits or lightly glosses as he chooses. (Henry’s famous brother appears, his sister almost not at all.) We do learn of the Florence, Venice, and Rome that James himself saw, knew, and brought to bear in Portrait. We also learn of the London that James knew, of the reasons he went from handwriting to dictating, and of the likely influence that James’s time in Paris. Gorra also contextualizes Portrait within the mores and publishing conventions of his day, and he is especially good at charting how those conventions altered in James’s lifetime – changes that account, in part, for differences James made when he revised Portrait for the New York edition.

Though heavily noted, with nearly 40 pages of such notes at the book’s end, Portrait of a Novel’s greatest genius is Gorra’s own voice, one which is at once well-informed but also deeply humane and above all else thoroughly engaged with a book he so clearly values.

Inevitably though, readers in his audience may well wish he had brought his critical attention more squarely on some aspects of Portrait of a Lady. In particular, Gorra seems not to consider as significant the role that Pansy plays in the marriage plot that informs and constrains Isabel’s choices at the end of the novel. Pansy is, after all, Isabel’s step-daughter. Raised by her father, Gilbert, to be submissive almost to the point of caricature, Pansy yet shows some wish to establish her own life within her own sense of freedom. This wish her father has steadfastly tried to stifle. Isabel understands Gilbert’s arrogance and cruelty better than anyone. Yet in discussing the book’s end (which, as any reader of Portrait will know, is decidedly not a conclusion), Gorra seems to ignore Pansy’s situation and its implications for Isabel. These slide by with hardly a mention.

Still, this is quibbling with a book that has most surely succeeded in immersing its readers inside the world that James knew and that his novel makes. For those already familiar with and compelled by that world, Gorra’s book offers the considerable pleasures of deep company. If at points one wishes to interject a question or offer an interpretation that Gorra seems to overlook, that sort of response is itself a testament to – a response to – his success.