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Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece Paperback – August 5, 2013


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Liveright; 1 edition (August 5, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0871406705
  • ISBN-13: 978-0871406705
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #647,075 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review

“Masterly and evocative… offers an exemplary approach to what remains a complex and fascinating subject.” (Colm Toibin - Wall Street Journal)

“It’s hard to imagine, indeed, that there is much illumination still to offer on this particular author, or this particular book. Yet Gorra has produced a welcome new addition to the shelf.” (Nicholas Delbanco - Chicago Tribune)

“Takes the rare but wise decision to approach James through the channel of a single work... In deference to James’s brilliance, Gorra has assumed the role of a professional prismatist. He peers at the book from multiple angles—those of biography, geography, publishing, textual variation, and mild erotic sleuthing, among others—as if hoping to catch it at an unfamiliar slant.” (Anthony Lane - New Yorker)

“The author’s encyclopedic understanding of not only James, but also his influences and contemporaries, offers a thoroughly illustrated and appropriately tumultuous picture of fiction’s awkward adolescence between stilted Victorianism and modernistic messiness. The reader does not have to love or even be particularly familiar with James’s work to enjoy this book; this is as much a story about the creative process itself, or the function of genius, as it is about any particular product.” (Nicholas Mancusi - Daily Beast)

“Both personal and profound. Michael Gorra’s intense focus on a single work reflects his deep curiosity about this novel and displays his loving scrutiny of it. Gorra’s study, while keeping The Portrait of a Lady, its heroine Isabel Archer, and the years of its creation (1880-81) at its center, roams gracefully through James’s life and art.” (Barbara Fisher - Boston Globe)

“Incisive, informative and hugely entertaining. ... [N]ot only instructive and a pleasure to read, but (as Gorra doubtless intended) it also sends us back to James with a deeper appreciation for his literary technique, his painstaking approach to language and style, and above all, the genius and profundity with which he portrayed the characters who continue to populate our imaginative world and accompany us, at home and abroad.” (Francine Prose - The Sunday Times (UK))

“In this innovative biography, written with flair and unostentatious erudition, Gorra tells the life of Henry James through the story of the composition of his novel, The Portrait of a Lady. ... The book reads like an exciting voyage of discovery. . . . Gorra’s highly engaging introduction to James will be most attractive to lovers of literature who want to learn more about the craft of novel writing and will likely send readers back to the shelves to discover James all over again.” (Publishers Weekly)

“Starred review. Gorra’s approach will appeal to scholars, fans of the James family and lovers of important novels and those who create them.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“A revelation: charming, fresh, capacious, a surprise and a delight.” (Brenda Wineapple, author of White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson)

“ Michael Gorra—one of the finest critics at work today—paves a way in this study for a new era in literary criticism, one that combines travelogue, memoir, intellectual history, close reading, and—above all—a profound sympathy for the world summoned by a major author.” (Jay Parini, author of The Last Station)

“...nobody to my knowledge has written more perceptively about The Portrait of a Lady. Gorra's reading of the novel is consistently revealing...Portrait of a Novel is not only instructive and a pleasure to read, but (as Gorra doubtless intended) it also sends us back to James with a deeper appreciation for his literary technique...” (The Sunday Times)

“It is a tribute to his [Gorra's] book that he makes us feel the life, of the book and its characters and its author, so deeply. He earns the right to end with James's wonderful words, There really is too much to say.” (Hermione Lee - The Guardian)

“Michael Gorra...has pulled off an astounding feat...in this impressive study...Gorra goes anywhere that strikes his fancy, and the result is splendid: a book to reread in years to come, a model for what criticism can do when happily married to biography.” (Literary Review)

“...he [Gorra] has written the kind of patient, sensitive, acute study that gifted teachers should write but rarely do.” (London Review of Books)

“...Gorra's marvellous portrait of Portrait…” (Sarah Churchwell - New Statesman)

About the Author

Michael Gorra teaches English at Smith College. His books include After Empire, The Bells in Their Silence, and, as editor, the Norton Critical Edition of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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Customer Reviews

4.9 out of 5 stars
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I wish it had been longer -- and I can't say that about any other book I've read this year!
Henry M. Elson
Michael Gorra has fashioned an extraordinary biography of both depth and nuance by critiquing Henry James' most popular work--Portrait of a Lady.
Laurence R. Bachmann
The two books need to be read simultaneously, a few chapters of the long novel, followed by a few pages of the new biography.
Bruce Oksol

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Laurence R. Bachmann VINE VOICE on September 4, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Michael Gorra has fashioned an extraordinary biography of both depth and nuance by critiquing Henry James' most popular work--Portrait of a Lady. James has been the subject of multi-volume standard bios (Leon Edel's being the most exhaustive) as well as a marvelous, "imagined" life of Colm Toibin's novel, The Master. But I can't recall reading anything as thorough and well-done as Gorra's Portrait of a Novel. It is a riveting and heartfelt "homage" to, in my opinion, one of the greatest of novelists.

It is impossible in a work so comprehensive to know what constitutes a Spoiler Alert and what doesn't--I assume anyone reading a work like this is familiar with the novel and has at least a sketchy idea about his HJ's life. If I am wrong, GO NO FURTHER--the rest of this review will discuss both HJ's life and the plot of the novel.

Many biographers find a parallel in a writer's life to one of the writer's plotlines and have what I call "Eureka!" moments. The chronicler believes they have unlocked some key to the story and unraveled a mystery. Gorra is too nuanced for such easy interpretations. So Portrait of a Novel is happy to point out similarities between Isabel Archer and James' beloved but doomed cousin Minnie Temple. But he also points out the disease that kills Minnie is the one that afflicts Ralph Touchett, coming to the conclusion that no incident or relationship in James' life translates directly into character or plot, but rather they inform and infuse the author's work, influencing and contributing. However it is the craft and creativity that determines the final producti, and James had both in abundance.
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27 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Oksol VINE VOICE on September 1, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Wow, this is so cool.

For fans of Henry James, this is a must. Re-read the first two chapters of Henry James' "Portrait of a Lady." You probably have a copy on your bookshelves; if not easily available almost anywhere for less than $6.00 (soft cover). You can download "Portrait of a Lady" for free on the iPad. I still prefer my paper copy.

Then, buy the new hardcover "Portrait of a Novel," by Michael Gorra. I never buy hard covers, but when I saw it at Barnes and Nobel, I just had to get it, so I ordered it from Amazon.

After reading the first two chapters of the "Portrait of a Lady," read the first few pages of Michael Gorra's book.

You will see what I mean. The two books need to be read simultaneously, a few chapters of the long novel, followed by a few pages of the new biography. It is incredible. Lots of fun.

For newbies to Henry James, one may want to read another biography first, or get a quick overview on Wikipedia, but once you think you have an idea of who Henry James was, get these two books and read them side by side. It is most enjoyable.

By the way, I do not recall ever having read Henry James in high school or college. It was a chance/random comment by a dear friend many years ago (seven to be exact), who mentioned that a high school teacher introduced her to Henry James and and has found him very, very rewarding. That friend is a voracious reader, never went to college, and enjoys Henry James. Wow.

Anyway, you will not be disappointed in "Portrait of a Novel."

"Portrait of a Lady" is clearly biographical. It was published in 1881, eleven years after the "love of his life" (Minnie Temple) died of tuberculosis. She was just 24 years old. An incredible story. It is said she influenced everything Henry James wrote after her death. (See comments below. I edited last paragraph to clear up ambiguity.)

Wow.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Santiago Lafcadio on September 10, 2012
Format: Hardcover
If you think you've read every book about Henry James that you want to read (including Colm Toibin's novel THE MASTER, about whose value I disagree with the author of this one; and Edel's many volumes; and Fred Kaplan's, whose Gore Vidal bio is also splendid), think again.

Michael Gorra's PORTRAIT OF A NOVEL is a revelation, combining, as it does, the biographical, the critical, and the autobiographical (as the author retraces James's footsteps--wait until you see him trying to find the ghost of Henry James amid the ATMs at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence).

Gorra is sensitive and scrupulous (especially in dealing with the apparently eternal mystery of James's sexuality; not its character but its expression, or lack thereof). He also knows how to choose from the immense universe of commentary--and how nice, in this election season, to come upon John Adams, in Gorra's relating him to Henry James, commenting upon there being " 'no special providence for Americans, and their nature is the same with that of others.' " (One wonders whether Gorra was making an unacknowledged comparison to James's own statement that "Americans are...the most self-conscious people in the world, and the most addicted to the belief that the other nations of the earth are in a conspiracy to under value them.")

Gorra is, in a Jamesian sense, in love with his theme. In this, he is more than sufficiently justified.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Cynthia on October 11, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The Portrait of a Lady is my all-time favorite book, and I think it fair to conjecture that it's Michael Gorra's, too. I delighted in revisiting the novel and in touring Henry James' life as the two wove together. Unlike the bulk of academic writing, this book is readable. A gift for those who love The Portrait and Henry James. Highly recommended.
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