Reviewed by Nicholas Mancusi ’10
Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, by Michael Gorra ’79, is an engrossing, accessible 2013 Pulitzer finalist.
[Biography] Three years after completing his masterpiece The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James published an essay, “The Art of Fiction.” Its claim, considered bold if not silly at the time, was that fiction deserved the same artistic footing as poetry and painting. It’s easy to forget that, at one time, to be a reader of novels was to be seen as unserious (and certainly unmanly) at best, and indolent or gossipy at worst.
James did not completely disagree: His essay makes a compelling argument for why the novel, in its Victorian adolescence, had failed to live up to its potential, and where he thought it could be taken. In James’ lifetime, due largely to his own work, the novel would undergo a sea change. Once staid, self-repressing entertainment, novels became modernist representations of the actual human experience.
In his biography Portrait of a Novel (Liveright) Michael Gorra maps the entire web of experiential circumstance and psychological motivation that led to the publication of James’ most famous work. I use the term “biography” loosely, not because the book doesn’t take seriously the job of accounting for the facts of James’ life, but because it does so much more. The book is part character study, part close reading of the text and part travelogue; it’s hard to imagine an angle that Gorra might have missed. That the book will become indispensable for James scholars is obvious. What’s more impressive is how engrossing it is for those who have read only a little James, or none at all.
Michael Gorra. Smith College photo.
Gorra’s astute observations about James’ work take a backseat to his sensitivity toward the internal machinations of the novelist’s mind. “He can’t help but observe the distinction between that which he knows and that which he can admit that he knows,” Gorra writes. This psychological valence brilliantly mirrors James’ own greatest strength as a writer: his understanding that the motions of the mind are inseparable from the motions of plot. As Gorra weaves his reading of Portrait with his investigation into James’ personal travails, we see ironies emerge from his fiction when plotted against his life. Gorra writes that James, charged with disposing of the effects of a friend who had committed suicide (she had most probably been in love with him; James was most probably gay), made the odd decision to rent a gondola and attempt to sink her dresses in a Venetian canal. The sleeves of the dresses filled with air, resurfacing “like balloons all around him … horrible black balloons.” It could be a scene straight out of one of his stories, the psychological manifesting itself as the physical.
In “The Art of Fiction,” James wrote: “It is still expected, though perhaps people are ashamed to say it, that a [novel] shall be in some degree apologetic—shall renounce the pretension of attempting really to compete with life ... [but] the only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does compete with life.” With this book, Gorra has shown not only how The Portrait of a Lady competed with the life of Henry James but also how they reflected one another, in ways of which James himself might have been only subconsciously aware.