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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)
“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 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)
“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)
“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)
“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)
“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
Nonetheless, this jacket copy does rightfully state that PoaN, which is about the influences and activities in James’s life as he wrote THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY, does combine criticism, biography, and travelogue (a cribiotrav!). And, the jacket copy does acknowledge that James already has had many distinguished biographers, who Michael Gorra does graciously reference.
Anyway, no expert here; but PoaN does read like something new and does give readers like me, who are impatient with James’s style of prolixity and fastidious nuance, incentive to reread some of his novels. Even so, I am not sure my opinions will change, since the first sentence of TPoaL, which is often cited as great, is, for me, an excruciating fly-in-amber: “Under certain circumstances, there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”
There are 24 chapters in PoaN. For this reader, the very best of these is “The Roccanera”, where Gorra makes his case that James is “the bridge” between literary eras. This chapter, btw, is largely a discussion of Chapter 42 in TPoaL. There, the ruthless and cunning Gilbert Osmond (an evil name, or what?) has requested that his wife Isabel Archer… well, never mind; but the point is that Osmond’s proposed gambit leads Isabel to question her life's choices and sense of self. In doing so, James writes a stream-of-consciousness tour de force that exceeds 40 pages.
Observes Gorra: “No writer in English had yet offered so full an account of the inner life, and in remembering this chapter for his preface [to THE ART OF FICTION] he allowed himself, for once, to make an unqualified judgement—'It is obviously the best thing in the book.'”
Other terrific chapters in this cribiotrav are: “Her Empty Chair”, which discusses the oeuvre and legacy of George Eliot; “Mr. Osmond”, which shows how a small genius for domestic arts can obscure wickedness; “The Magazines”, which explains how publishing operated in James’s era and how he made a living; and “Working in the Dark”, which follows James’s disastrous attempt to make money as a playwright.
Gorra is obviously a James enthusiast. Even so, he recognizes that James lost some lucidity and some of his readership after writer’s cramp—a repetitive motion injury—forced him to begin to dictate his novels. He observes: “…starting the practice somewhere in the middle of WHAT MASSIE KNEW… Dictation made concision impossible, and the speaking-voice lead him into syntactic complications….” Here, for example, are a few lines from THE GOLDEN BOWL, a late work:
“It wasn’t till many days had passed that the Princess began to accept the idea of having done, a little, something she was not always doing, or indeed that of having listened to any inward voice that spoke in a new tone. Yet these instinctive postponements of reflection were the fruit, positively, of recognitions and perceptions already active; of the sense above all that she had made at a particular hour, made by the mere touch of her hand, a difference in the situation so long present to her as practically unattackable. This situation had been occupying for months and months the very center of the garden of her life, but it had reared itself there like some strange tall tower of ivory, or perhaps some wonderful beautiful but outlandish pagoda, a structure plated…”
Not for every taste, no? But thanks to Gorra, I’ll soon read about Isabel and try what is probably James’s greatest novel.
Rounded up and recommended.
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.