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Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece Hardcover – August 27, 2012
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“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. ...Analyzing James’s letters, journals, stories, and travelogues, Gorra traces the author’s life and literary milieu, alternating a reconstruction of his travels with extensive attention to the novel’s composition and reception. The book reads like an exciting voyage of discovery, beginning with James revising his novel 20 years after it was written, and later depicting his blooming consciousness as an author torn between an American and a European identity. 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)
“...Michael Gorra in Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece... 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.” (Rebecca Mead - New Yorker)
“Starred review. Throughout this work of astonishing scholarship, Gorra directs our attention to the quotidian life of James (and his remarkable family), his composition of the novel (which first appeared in serial installments in the Atlantic here and Macmillan’s Magazine in England), the significance of the events and characters in the story, and the influence of the novel on the subsequent fiction of James and others…. Gorra’s approach will appeal to scholars, fans of the James family and lovers of important novels and those who create them.” (Kirkus Reviews)
“Michael Gorra has...created a book that is an adventure from beginning to end.... There are places... where Gorra gets so close to the making of Portrait of a Lady, he actually crosses over from literary history into the interior of James’s consciousness. The interior world that Gorra imagines, and that we come to inhabit, is so plausible, so true to life, that his Portrait of a Novel becomes a novel―a masterpiece of critical imagination.” (Alice Kaplan - The Best American Poetry blog)
“Masterly and evocative… In his Portrait of a Novel, Michael Gorra also offers an exemplary approach to what remains a complex and fascinating subject.” (Colm Toibin - Wall Street Journal)
“...Michael Gorra in Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece... 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 - 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)
“Portrait of a Novel does a great deal to explain why James’s book should have proved so timeless, so timely, and so enduring. Incisive, informative and hugely entertaining, Michael Gorra’s ‘tale not of a life but of a work’ is at once a brisk, compressed biography of James... [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))
“One of the many pleasures of Michael Gorra’s book is that he too has loved this novel since he studied it in college, and wants to share his passion for it. He has also taught it for many years, at Smith College, and he has written the kind of patient, sensitive, acute study that gifted teachers should write but rarely do.” (James Wood - London Review of Books)
“A new and interesting approach to writing about Henry James… Although an academic, Michael Gorra does not write like one…[An] excellent book.” (Joseph Epstein - The New Criterion)
“An entertaining and highly personal account of an artist’s struggles with his greatest creation, charting the rhythms, people and places of James’ working life. Gorra brilliantly reshapes the story of James’ consummate story… To call Gorra’s work a detective story; or a diary of literary tourism, as he visits James’ temporary European homes in Italy, England and France; or even an intimate biography of a writer’s secret development―all this only hints at the grand spectacle and suspense Gorra builds as he reveals the self-proclaimed Master at work, refashioning his legacy, rewriting his literary will, bequeathing to generations of writers the great gift of the primacy of character over plot. Portrait of a Novel thus ranks alongside Mario Vargas Llosa’s examination of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary as an inventive watershed in literary criticism… Gorra’s exquisite commentary on James’s ageless masterpiece may be as close as we get to a last word on the Master and his lonely obedience to his Muse. It is a word worth savoring.” (Arlice Davenport - Wichita Eagle)
“One of the many merits of Alan Ryan’s monumental new history of political philosophy is that it restores our enthusiasm for politics.... Mr Ryan’s historical approach helps us at the very least to look at our problems from new angles, and at best to harness the help of history’s sharpest minds in producing policies.... an impressive achievement: an enjoyable mental workout and an admirable monument to a lifetime of academic toil.” (The Economist)
“An elegant testimony that [Portrait of a Lady] can stand up to endless re-readings, accommodating you as you age.” (David Yaffe - The Chronicle Review)
“Marvellous… James’s sensibility suffuses [Gorra’s] language, creating a book that feels not unlike reading James: stately, reflective, nuanced and wise.” (Sarah Churchwell - New Statesman)
“Portrait of a Novel is an opening shot in a revolution, an intrepid attack on the ceremonies of academic criticism... Not only a gift to non-specialist readers, who have been starved of literary discussion. It is also a troop movement in a campaign to wrest authority over criticism from the academic interpreters.” (D. G. Myers - Commentary)
“James has become a solidly major figure, one of a handful of Big Names, as Michael Gorra’s thorough, level-headed new book, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, suggests. A scholarly (or fanatical) love letter, it reads like a biography of Portrait of a Lady―its gestation, development, reception―or perhaps a well-researched novel about Henry James that favors the early period.” (Leo Robson - The Nation)
“I wish I could give this sublime marrying of the art and the life 10 stars…Gorra is a delightful guide through James’s world, tracing the American’s steps in Florence, looking over the Arno from the point that James did, or mounting the stairs of his home in Rye. His investigations never detract attention from his subject, but he permits the admittance that he sheds tears at Isabel’s final scene with the dying Ralph. At literary festivals throughout the country, readers always ask writers how they write. This books tells us, but never was demystification such an enjoyable and inspiring experience.” (Lesley McDowell - The Independent)
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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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.)
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.