October 25, 2014

Culture Vulture

I know a column about the life of Henry James is not something you would expect to find in a magazine such as this, but he is so crucial to understanding the art of literature and the craft of writing that he's like Elvis Presley-the master of his form.

In fact, he is called the Master, in the same way Elvis is called the King. He took writing to a new place; and a knowledge of his life and work is well worth a little study, just as a study of Elvis would be.

Henry James was the Ultimate Observer combined with the Ultimate Explainer. First he saw the whole picture, "the pattern in the carpet," with each little piece playing its part. Then he would explain how a careless word could reverberate 20 years later, destroying the pattern while simultaneously making it clear. He explained what was in people's souls, in a depth that makes him seem God-like to other writers. He could explain this so well, in fact, that he couldn't stop himself; and that's why his later novels are virtually unreadable. One gets bogged down in the sentences. But the early ones... they're as good as it gets.

His life, on the surface, was dull. He wrote in the morning, dictating to a typist, then got a little exercise in the afternoon (long walks and bicycling), then went to a party or out to dinner. He talked to people a great deal, usually celebrated and important people, but he had the reputation of being just the tiniest bit pompous. Today he would be called detached. His books did not sell particularly well, and he worried about it. If he had a sex life with either sex there is no evidence of it; in fact, it is generally assumed that he died a virgin. These days he is diagnosed as a severely repressed homosexual; behind his back friends would giggle at the thought of him actually kissing someone. E. M. Forster called him a big purple porpoise.

But James's inner life-that's another story. There are two new novels that imagine it very successfully, each complimentary to the other rather than competitive, and read one after the other, they are so illuminating that, put together, they are my favorite books of the year.

Author, Author by David Lodge is the more accessible of the two and the more fun. It focuses on the major crisis of James' life, his excursion into the world of the theater. He thought he might make money from it; it was the screenwriting of its day. His first play, an adaptation of his novel The Americans, was, as they say, a good first try; and he put all he learned from that production into his next, an original idea about a Catholic aristocrat circa 1780 who had to chose between entering a monastery or marrying to carry on the family line. The play was called Guy Domville and was such a flop (and for all the wrong reasons: One of the actresses wore a hat with egret plumes which jiggled constantly, much to the amusement of those in the cheaper seats) that James was booed off the stage when he came out to take the traditional "Author! Author!" bow.

Once, on the theory that James' plays had been misjudged and might actually be literary masterpieces if you used the right hats, I sought them out. I found a library big enough to actually have bound volumes and checked one out. After all, they're by Henry James, how bad can they be? Well, they were awful-stilted, illogical, lifeless-and, in a strange way, rather inspiring to fledgling writers.

Author, Author is essentially a story about a guy who gets his feelings hurt. But since the guy is Henry James and the setting is 1890s London, the capital of the world, with appearances by Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and John Singer Sargeant (and don't forget Mr. and Mrs. Smith, James' drunken servants), the result is a wonderful novel, all the more extraordinary because it is all true. Lodge goes deep into James' personality; and while we will never know what exactly was there, his interpretation has the solid ring of truth.

The Master by Colm Toibin is the more sophisticated of the two books, a little "artier" but also a little more affecting. Guy Domville is touched on, but the focus here is James' relationship with his family and friends. His brother was the famous psychologist William James; and his sister Alice has, since her death, attracted considerable attention by feminists as the best example of a brilliant woman so stifled by her time and place that she literally took to her bed and died. Between the two of them they provided James with much grief, not to mention material.

Friends included Constance Fennimore Woolson, an American lady novelist who had designs on something more than a platonic frienship with James. When she flung herself in a suicidal leap from the window of a Venetian palazzo he felt so guilty that he had what seems like a nervous breakdown. Later we meet the gorgeous Henrik Andersen, a Norwegian-American sculptor, young and ambitious, upon whom James developed a major crush, hands-off of course (except for certain clasping moments of greeting and farewell that were then dreamed over for years to come). The saddest part of the book is James' slow realization of what a terrible artist Andersen is. The passion slips away the more James looks at the awful sculptures.

Author, Author and The Master will likely make you thirst for the real Henry James but please-proceed with caution. If you pick up the wrong one to start with-say, The Europeans or Wings of the Dove-you, with your modern attention span, may soon throw in the towel. I suggest you go back to Washington Square, one of James' earliest novels. It's about a rather ugly heiress who is swept off her feet by a handsome young man who is clearly after her money. Her father steps in, and no one quite gets what he or she wants or deserves. Washington Square is one of those perfect novels-simple, easy to follow, building to an emotional wallop, yet sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, particularly the scenes with the spinster Aunt Penniman. It was made into a famous movie for which Olivia De Havilland won an Oscar, and remade again with Jennifer Jason Leigh in a rather inferior version that is redeemed by the presence of Maggie Smith as Aunt Penniman, the role she was born to play.

Or you might begin with The Aspern Papers. That's where I started. It's the story of a minor academic, a "literary snoop" who tracks down the ancient mistress of a Byron-like literary figure, who is living in a decaying mansion in Venice with her plain and unlovely niece. Can he get his hands on the old lady's correspondence with the legend? It will make his career if he can.

The Aspern Papers is so good that I stole the whole thing for my first novel. I changed the location to Los Angeles and switched the poet to President Warren Harding. But the characters and choices they must make are pure Henry James. Every writer owes the Master a debt, but mine is bigger than most.

Robert Plunket, author of My Search for Warren Harding and Love Junkie, is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and other national publications. 

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