Sunday, December 23, 2007

Henry James: Portrait of a Man


There is a new book out on Henry James. The Times featured a cogent review today by David Leavitt, "Henry James: The Young Master." Sheldon M. Novick is the author of the latest Jamesian analysis whose take David Leavitt finds at times lawyerly.
I find Henry James' work seriously gendered, hence the professional interest in it. What strikes me as odd, however, is the intense interest many theorists have in his personal life, particularly his orientation. Often, he is depicted as frustrated and confused. I can't help but think that this frustration and confusion we read of is nothing else but perhaps engendered by the critics themselves. James was interested in experiencing himself fully in the world. He had many relationships and he did not seem to have been a recluse; he was happy to acutely observe how others lived and consequently write about it. He wasn't just textually active. He was generally active.
Previous books on James seem to spend much textual space on his corporeal predilections and romantic choices. Too much literary obsession gone wasted, in my mind.

The new book attempts to depict a James that fuses both the cerebral and the experiential. The reason why his works are so rich in body metaphors and human sensuality could perhaps be a testament to the author's own authentic experiences. As a letter by James has it:

"We must know, as much as possible, in our beautiful art, yours & mine, what we are talking about — & the only way to know it is to have lived & loved & cursed & floundered & enjoyed & suffered — I don’t think I regret a single ‘excess’ of my responsive youth — I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions & possibilities I didn’t embrace.”

This letter shows a different James, one who was interested in investigating the human experience fully and participating in life actively.

Leavitt suggests that "Novick’s James was an authentic cosmopolite who led a life as emotionally, sexually and financially complex as those of the characters in his fiction." Again, this depiction varies from conventional analyses of the author which have generally referred to the author as psychologically confused, physically inexperienced, and as a result, very frustrated and shy.

Read more here.

8 comments:

Eric said...

Henry James is so beautifully brilliant. I will definitely read this.

Nicki said...

the line between the author's experiential accounts and his fiction is not necessarily a blurry one. i liked leavitt's take too.

Edward said...

Authorial experience counts, of course, but I don't understand why so much attention gets placed on it. Good read. Hope you had a good holiday.

Dave said...

i missed reading new entries the past couple of days but then it dawned on me that it was the holiday..., so, i hope you had a good one. looking forward to the new entry.
-Dave

Xan said...

What Edward said.

Marjorie said...

Henry James is typically regarded as an English author, due to his long-time expat status. However, to me, his writing is very American in its outlook. The perception of Americans abroad, the using and taking advantage of others, sex in high society, and the outside/inside societal themes that prevail are intriguing.

Due to the extensive revisions he made to his work in the early years of the 20th century, of works that he first penned decades earlier, to successfully analyze his work is a tricky business. The detailed depth of his plots and character development, and therefore the analysis of his oeuvre, is linked up with his life due to the privileged status he aspired to. He was a passionate man who came off as a snob. And whenever a writer pours their (bottled up?) passion into their "art," a term he used frequently, honesty prevails.

I think he would agree with Nadine Gordimer's assertion: "Nothing is truer than my fiction." Which is why critics fall prey so often to plumbing the writer's life for private clues to the public texts.

Bri said...

Maggie:
Thanks for the helpful response. Henry James' life should, I think, be kept in consideration but it should not take over the interpretation of the work itself. I can't help but think that the way he lived his life was conducive to good writing.
Also, many thanks for the Gordimer quote. Methinks it will become a high-frequency quote....
'Nothing is truer than my fiction' indeed. Thank you!!

Quiana said...

Thanks for writing this.