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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