30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
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.
This formula allows for wonderful, and individual interpretation, whereby each of us can determine for ourselves just how much influence people like Temple, or Constance Fenimore Woolson, or how much influence James' sexual identity had upon the work. How their lives impacted his--how his choices (and selfishness) impacted them and his work. There is no surety, but the informed speculation becomes as mult-faceted and as filled with possibility as one of James' best novels.
Equally impressive is Gorra's interpretation of HJ's contribution to the modern novel. There is a wonderful explication of the differences between French and British fiction--the former steeped in Naturalism and "unspeakable vulgarity", the latter burdened with happy-ending marriages and "rescues just in time." James blazed a middle trail that from Daisy Miller through the Golden Bowl was never afraid to flout convention or indulge sexual appetite. An interesting, almost paradoxical point of view from a man who was, perhaps a celibate homosexual. But even more important than these themes are the style and the writing James carefully crafted and perfect in his five decades as a writer.
James is among the first of the moderns to seize upon the interior life of a character, and not merely develop it but put it forth as "action." Gorra examines in exhaustive detail Portrait's forever famous Chapter 42--Isabel sitting in front of the fireplace, thinking back and looking forward. It is an examination that is both exciting and makes us appreciate just how marvelously different this and James' other late, great novels would be as a contribution to world literature.
Finally Portrait of a Novel, does something I thought nearly impossible. He discusses the "International" theme for which James was renowned in a way that seems fresh and new. Using Madame Merle's affinity to the Old World as counterpoint to Isabel's Emersonian ideas of independence, Gorra shows how Isabel is not merely duped, but duped again and again. Obviously and cruelly by Mme Merle and Osmond but also by Ralph Touchett who means well but sets Isabel on a path whereby she is used and made miserable. Only when Isabel embraces the truth that she has been deluded and she has not fashioned her own destiny, do the scales fall from her eyes.
I loved too that Gorra doesn't shy away from the fact that so many people intensely dislike James' ending to Portrait Of A Lady, with perhaps a majority wanting something else for the character they have come to care for so much. But he makes the marvelous point that in doing so, James does better than write another wonderful novel--he writes one of the first truly modern novels--one that does actually resemble reality and our own lives--imperfect, unsatisfactory and fraught with conflicts unresolved.
28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
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.)
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on September 10, 2012
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.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2012
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 13, 2012
Although there must be literally hundreds of books on Henry James, this book built around one of the major novels of this author, is charming, succinct and totally engaging. Whether you know the book well, or read parts of it in college long ago, it is a good read.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 6, 2015
A wonderful find for Henry James followers. The book combines biography with a detailed 'portrait' of one of the master's most appreciated and successful novels. We follow the life and the work, not just the story, but the story of its writing and publishing.
Key issues are, obviously, the outsiderdom that James shared with 'his lady' Isabel Archer, the acceptance of a place on the margins, the reluctance to live a 'normal' life, to get married, and so forth. James' homosexuality is traced in his writings and his letters. We follow James' relations with other writers, like the much admired, and criticized George Eliot, and others (Turgenev, Flaubert, Zola, Wilde, Wharton a.o.), not all of them friendly and in praise. And, of course, brother William. The relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolson, which is at the center of Toibin's novel The Master, is given a chapter.
We follow James from America to Paris to London, and we watch his arrival in English society, in step with success of his books. With Isabel and Henry, we travel to Italy.
A part of the 'portrait of a novel' consists in tracing the changes that James made for the great new edition 25 years later. Subtle changes of meaning add up to quite much in details.
We follow James to his success with the portrait, then his period of failures, then his final phase with the recovery of his fictional mastery. The author identifies the struggle for awareness of sexual relations as James' key theme. A theory worth keeping in mind.
The book motivated me to finish my James expedition by closing my gaps, such as The Ambassadors, and possibly his travel books.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on February 15, 2013
This is something new to me in the world of biography - interpretation of a major work of fiction through the lens of the author's life, and not just an encyclopedic recitation of dates and places, but an insightful and in-depth examination of the people in James' life, the places where he met them, and how what they did and said influenced him and in turn his masterpiece. Now include perceptive evaluation and analysis of the evolution of James' own sensibilities for his family, his friends and his country. What finally emerges is as whole and as satisfying an examination of an author and his work as I can possibly imagine. The only way to better such a wonderful combination of biography, travelogue and literary criticism is to weave all these different perspectives into a coherent and progressive narrative that seems so unforced and engaging as to make it seem effortless, and this is exactly what Mr. Gorra has done, and he's done it in spades. If you enjoy Henry James, this is a must-have addition to your appreciation of his work; if you don't particularly enjoy James or don't know him, but you do enjoy wonderful writing, them this is a must-have addition to your library. It will open your eyes to a whole new way of looking at and appreciating a great author and his work. Most highly recommended.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on September 21, 2012
I found the book very well researched and written... especially
since I am very familiar with Henry James' work and with Portrait
especially. Some of the 'new' research added to the understanding
of James' novel.
Recommend it for HJ fans.
on April 17, 2013
This excellent book is a revealing companion piece to Henry James’s A PORTRAIT OF A LADY but is not in itself a thoroughgoing study of the novel. I read it slowly, taking 10-15 page sips, often dazzled by the power of Gorra’s observations written in a prose that has muscle and cadence.
The heroine of A PORTRAIT OF A LADY, Isabel Archer, is described by one of her brothers-in-law as being so original she’s like a creature “written in a foreign tongue.” Today’s readers won’t find her quite so strange; and to be sure, Gorra shows us that the novel is very much about Henry James himself. Gorra supplies profiles of the influential people who were close to the author, details James's work habits, and examines the book’s first appearance in serialized form (and how that might have, and did, affect the length and pace of the book’s all-important final chapters). Living as we do in the post 1990s, we can enjoy a screenwriter’s ability to pare down James’s lengthy work into a two-hour-plus film that covers most of the novel’s tragic dimensions. I’m referring to Jane Campion’s “A Portrait of a Lady,” an extraordinary experience in its own right.
Like the evasive heroine Isabel Archer, Henry James had an aversion to marriage. In fact, he never patronized the institution. Isabel isn’t quite sure what she wants to do with her life and fears that marriage will compromise her freedom. Throughout his life, James had similar misgivings. Though he carried on a close relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolson (a relative of Fenimore Cooper) and was later on attracted to a young Norwegian sculptor (Hendrik Andersen), it’s doubtful that either of these relationships was ever brought to a full physical consummation. The Victorian master who was so accomplished at portraying inner emotions as well as the symbolism of sexual fears, may well have died a virgin.
If there is a flaw in Gorra’s study, it may be found in the few places where the book seems to start and stop and then begin again, mainly because his method is not strictly chronological. However, most readers will agree that this biography of a novel is a five-star effort.
on December 11, 2012
This book is, as its title promises, a detailed examination of a single novel, Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, from every possible perspective: its place and status in James's oeuvre; its relation to its predecessors in the realist tradition and its modernist successors; its connections with James's private life and with the public affairs of the day; above all its analysis of what it means to be American, consciously estranged as James was in some respects from his native land. And it offers a detailed and scrupulous commentary on the novel itself, embedding a shrewd interpretation of the novel's issues in what at times seems close to a mere paraphrase. A friend has complained to me that the book is 'derivative'; and yes, it leans heavily on the researches of others: this is more of a compendium than a work of groundbreaking research. And yet, even James experts may find themselves enlightened by the new perspectives offered by Gorra's comprehensive method. For myself, I enjoyed Gorra's frank personal investment in the novel; he does not scruple to record his own subjective responses to a work he clearly loves and admires. Perhaps not the most dispassionate of academic critiques; but so much more readable for that. As I say, seasoned Jamesians will find much here to interest and delight them; and newcomers will find an invaluable introduction to one of the great English (American!) novels.