Reviewed by Alan Hollinghurst
New York Review of Books
The writer of a two-part life who calls his first volume Young So-and-So faces a problem of tact and aptness when it comes to the second. Sometimes the life itself provides an elegant answer: Young Melbourne grew into Lord M., Young Thomas Hardy was followed by Thomas Hardy's Later Years, quietly eloquent of a career that flourished into his ninth decade. Sheldon M. Novick called the first half of his biography of Henry James, going up to 1881 and the publication of The Portrait of a Lady, The Young Master, a term whose resonances he seemed not quite to hear: Did James not struggle for mastery, by a prolonged, unresting process of discovery, or was Master, like Melbourne, a sort of feudal title? Since then, for eleven years, The Old Master has loomed; but in the event we have The Mature Master, not exactly an idiomatic expression, except perhaps in the world of S&M -- a suggestion which even Novick, the advocate of a new, sexier James, might shrink from.
Novick's ambition in these books has been to see James afresh, to replace the "querulous old maid" of Leon Edel's five-volume biography, published between 1953 and 1972, with "the active, passionate, engaged man his contemporaries knew." Like many such revisions, this entails a drastic caricature of the earlier work -- "Instead of James's life," Novick claims absurdly, "Edel wrote of the unconscious, impersonal machinery of the Oedipal conflict" -- and a somewhat wishful or idealized notion of what is replacing it.
Still, he has a point: social attitudes and academic orthodoxies have changed, and the strongly Freudian view adopted by Edel is no longer fashionable (that "Mature" may be a riposte to the Freudian idea of James as animated by unresolved infantile crises). Much new material has become available. The amount of material is in fact overwhelming: the more than ten thousand extant letters, for instance, though available in scores of different selections, are still largely unpublished. The immediate question is whether this material supports a view of the writer as less detached, less fearful of intimacy, than the so-far-dominant Edel account. The larger question is whether this is the most important question.
Novick's first volume caused a bit of a kerfuffle with its reading of a passage in James's late journals that refers, rapturously but cryptically, to his "initiation première" in Cambridge and in Ashburton Place during "the 'epoch-making weeks' of the spring of 1865!" -- a subject James described as "for fatal, for impossible, expansion." No such restrictions need apply to the biographer, however, and Novick did expand it, stating his belief, not founded on any solid evidence, that at this time James had had sexual relations of some kind with Oliver Wendell Holmes (who was the subject of Novick's first, much lauded, biography). Slate magazine put Leon Edel himself on the case, and there followed a hot-tempered and unavailing correspondence, Novick attacking Edel in a very personal way, while another recent biographer of James, Fred Kaplan, struggled to keep things reasonable and friendly. Under pressure, Novick said he felt James had "jacked off" the future justice. Whether or not this would have been an "epoch-making" event in James's life, it was a first in James studies; though all Novick's conjecture really did was to remind us that in so private an area of any subject's life we are unlikely ever to know the facts -- and James's sexual life was much more private than most.
What was much more disconcerting than such claims, which were blown out of proportion in the critical response to the book, was Novick's model of the fiction-making mind, outlined in his preface and underlying his whole approach to writing James's life. It is one in which the armature of a story, perhaps one of those "données" James typically picked up from dinner- table conversation, is "clothed" in the writer's "vividly recalled memories." The elements of invention and fantasy, of the receptive artist's subtlety of intuition about characters very different from himself, are never considered. I'm simplifying slightly, but Novick's position seems to be that if James describes something convincingly, he must have experienced it himself. Novick made it his purpose from the start to explore the connections between James's lived experience, stored as memories, and the experience of his characters.
This is certainly an interesting field of speculation, but it is fraught with dangers. An imponderably intimate matter is all too easily submitted to a kind of practical demonstration, an equation of lived and imagined experience which is not only too bold in itself but which slights James as an artist.
The matter relates (again, intimately) to Novick's vision of James's private life; in his attempt to be nice to James as a man, to give him a larger share of ordinary human happiness, he reads back from the fiction into the undocumented areas of the life. Looking at James's fictional love scenes, he asks, "Why should we suppose that he accomplished so many miracles of imagination?" Think of that glib and belittling question being asked of any other great novelist. A much more pertinent question would be why we should suppose that he didn't. It is principally because of James's miracles of imagination that we are interested in reading about him at all.
Novick's model of an easy traffic between real life and the fictional page involves him in another recurrent equation. "Handsome Ned Abbey would serve as the model for Nick Dormer in The Tragic Muse"; "to play the part of the good heroine, Maggie Verver, James cast his dear old friend Lizzie Boott"; "Roger Fry appears as the art critic 'Hugh Crimble'"; there is a "prose portrait of Mary Temple in The Wings of the Dove." There are elements of truth in all these assertions, but as assertions they are fundamentally inartistic, and when Novick presses his portrait idea to suggest a conscious involvement by a real person he goes too far: Paul Zhukovsky "sat for his portrait as Gilbert Osmond"; "Mrs. Wyndham...would sit for her portrait as 'Julia Dallow.'"
Sometimes, it is true, James caused puzzlement or offense by something unignorably close to portraiture: Olive Chancellor and her young ward Verena Tarrant in The Bostonians were seen at the time as objectionably close to Annie Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett, and Miss Birdseye to be modeled all too recognizably on the veteran abolitionist Elizabeth Peabody. Novick interestingly explains these matters, but to the exclusion of any clear or balanced account of the novel as a whole, toward which he acts more as a prosecuting than a defending counsel. "In the end," he sums up, "it was perhaps the best novel James had yet written...but as social commentary it was a failure."
Novick is always interesting about the business side of James's life, his variable income from family property, his arrangements with publishers in Britain and America, the often anxious disparities between what he earned and what he needed to earn to support his well-staffed homes in London and in Rye. He never earned much, and his boldest attempts to do so, such as his forays into playwriting and the collected New York Edition of his works, were the least successful. To his brother William and his wife Alice, Henry no doubt seemed unworldly to the point of incompetence, and Novick quotes a wonderful letter to Alice about the acquisition of Lamb House in Rye, his home for the last sixteen years of his life, a plan on which she and William had poured cold water: "I do, strange as it may appear to you, in this matter, know more or less what I'm doing," James writes indignantly, though he goes on to admit that the purchase, clearly one of those almost dreamlike inevitabilities that occur once or twice in people's lives, "launches me on a sea -- a torment -- of sickening nervosity."
The technical details of the sale are typical of the welcome glimpses Novick adds from new sources and new angles. But the note of torment is relatively rare. The well-meaning desire to normalize James is only made possible by a continuous draining out of his inner life, so that the sense of what has been added to Edel and Kaplan is often outweighed by a gaping sense of what has been subtracted. Novick's "passionate," "engaged" James is a far blander figure than Edel's more complex, feeling, and troubled James. The word "happily" recurs and recurs in Novick's pages; it is almost his default adverb, giving a rather unvaried picture of high spirits and readiness to oblige, as if these were James's default emotions. James was clearly, in his idiosyncratic way, an enchanting person, whom one would have loved to know and to get a letter from. "Henry James...very affectionate," wrote Arthur Benson, after an early meeting, "I love him very much." Hugh Walpole said that as well as being on occasion bored or frightened by him, he was "altogether enslaved by his kindness, generosity, child-like purity of his affections, his unswerving loyalties, his sly and Puck-like sense of humour." This loving and sociable James should certainly be celebrated, but not at the expense of the suffering and struggling James.
Novick has a way of suppressing difficult feelings, alluding to them only in retrospect, if at all. Take the death of James's mother in 1882, followed within a year by that of his father. Of the latter, Novick says that "neither the accounts of others nor the record he kept in his own journal suggests that he felt the same profound grief and loss that had followed his mother's death"; that "profound grief and loss" take you by surprise, and if you flick back ten pages or so to Mary James's death you find no allusion at all to these devastating emotions. Indeed the only documentary account of it that Novick cites is from a letter by Henry's youngest brother, Robertson, who says that "Harry...had a passionate childlike devotion to her." Harry's own voice is eliminated from the story.
Or take the case of a pivotal event in his career, the first night of his play Guy Domville in London in January 1895. Edel, in his biography and in his introduction to the published play, brings out unforgettably James's tension as the premiere approached, his handwriting almost illegible with nerves, his inability to watch the performance and his contempt for the Wilde play that he went to in a nearby theater instead, his consequent ignorance of the laughter and heckling Guy Domville was subjected to, and then his pain and confusion when he was booed and shouted at by part of the audience, an experience he described as "the most horrible hours of my life." Edel shows that Edmund Gosse's account of finding him "perfectly calm" the next day must be treated with caution, but Novick uses it as his clinch-ing evidence that James quickly got over the experience, and his skimpy and quite undramatic two pages on the subject give no sense of the great inward convulsion and reorientation that this humiliating event brought about in James's life. Perhaps Novick doesn't believe it did, but to anyone who knows Edel's biography the idea will not lightly be overruled.
Or take the New York Edition, in which, at the end of his career, James gathered and intensively rewrote all of his novels and stories that he thought worthy to be so preserved, and wrote a set of prefaces to them that are an unprecedented synthesis of memoir, theory, and manifesto. This was an immense labor, of a highly interesting and problematic kind, but Novick gives us no glimpse of the processes involved, and only when it's nearly over alludes in passing to "his frenetic activity, his concentrated agonies over the New York Edition." If the subject of a biography is suffering concentrated agonies, you really need to know about them.
But Novick is rather down on the prefaces; of that to Roderick Hudson, which contains James's very pertinent observations on the relation of fictional form to lived experience, he laments that "there were no personal revelations to add spice to the preface," and in general regrets that
the prefaces give no hint that the sensations James describes of being loved by a young man, evoking tastes and odors, the sensation of an embrace, are reconstructed from memory. James speaks only of the solitary act of composition and not of the memories with which he clothes his work.
One can only say that even if James's account of Caspar Goodwood's final kiss in The Portrait of a Lady were based on his own experience of being kissed by a man, it is inconceivable that he would have said so publicly, any more than any other gay writer of the early 1900s would.
Novick's assertions about sex in the fiction are both overemphatic and undersupported. In his first volume he suggested, rather revoltingly, that James's late novels "seem to drip with sexuality," and in the intervening years the drip has swollen to a torrent: though The Ambassadors merely "trembles with sexuality," The Golden Bowl is "drenched in palpable sexuality," the late novels as a whole are "drenched in erotic feeling," and indeed by the end it turns out that all the novels and stories to which James wrote prefaces are "drenched with sexuality." When James's letters to Walter Berry are also said to be "drenched in sexuality," you get a clear sense of a writer who has fallen prey to an arresting but not very helpful catchphrase.
The sexual atmosphere of James's late books is undeniably far stronger than in the earlier ones, and the unprecedented complexity of their telling, as Novick rightly says, draws us as readers into erotic speculation of our own. But not only erotic. In company with the characters themselves, we subject the whole fabric of personal relations described in the books to a kind of textual analysis. It seems horribly indiscriminate to label this state of fine-spun conjecture and enhanced interpretative possibility a drench.
Novick devotes a fair bit of space to an attempt to explain the workings of James's difficult late novels; though he can be hard to follow in his own way, and sometimes produces a subtheoretical mash. Of Lancaster Gate, where Mrs. Lowder lives in The Wings of the Dove, he writes, "This wider realm is a marketplace of commerce and newspapers, of boulevards and public parks." You sort of see what he means, and the sort of critical books he's been reading, but the sentence doesn't itself make sense (show me a marketplace without commerce, or indeed a marketplace of boulevards).
Quoting the passage where Millie Theale, in Regent's Park, absorbs the news that she has a fatal illness, Novick describes it as "a flurry of mixed metaphors and colloquialisms, seemingly artless, the vocabulary of a young American woman"; then says that "an odd simile" (Millie imagines throwing away an ornament from her dress and picking up a weapon instead) "expands...into a complex image," and he proposes that "the image of scattered solitary figures seated on benches is as powerful in its way as that of 'Dover Beach'"; but in the next paragraph he asserts that "there is no striking phrase or metaphor that one can extract." These statements cannot all be true, and Novick is wrong to say that the passage is "a flurry of mixed metaphors"; mixed metaphors are solecisms, like putting one's shoulder to the grindstone, whereas what James very characteristically gives us is a kind of evolving metaphor, through which (as Novick justly says) "a living mind feel[s] its way into simplest and greatest truths." There was something worth saying here, but none of the terms used is precise enough to do justice to James's writing; the flurry and the mix are all Novick's.
But elsewhere he is often a halfhearted advocate of James's work, apparently untouched by the poetry and originality of the materials he's handling. He sums up The Spoils of Poynton as "a melodramatic potboiler." His account of James's highly structured dialogue-novel The Awkward Age is one of several he writes in the past tense, to convey a sense, presumably, of how it might have struck a contemporary -- "The dialogue was realistically full of gaps and jumps...so that a reader was obliged to struggle through each conversation" -- but offers no more detached appraisal of it. "The Aspern Papers" is treated in the most perfunctory fashion, as "a cruel joke" about "people who were still living," since James's tale of an unprincipled literary sleuth was suggested by the real story of a man called Silsbee who had tried to buy Shelley's papers from a woman friend; anyone who hadn't read James's tale would take away from this account no idea of its intellectual interest, or indeed of its being a coruscatingly brilliant work of art. (Edel, in contrast, devotes two beautiful and responsive pages to it.)
Perhaps it is because of Novick's distaste for the Freudian reading of James's life that he doesn't even mention a great late story, "The Jolly Corner," with its determined stalking, in a deserted old New York townhouse, of the maimed alter ego the Europeanized protagonist had left behind. Something of this kind must surely explain, too, the cursory account given of two late works on which Novick drew very usefully in his first volume, the autobiographies A Small Boy and Others and Notes of a Son and Brother: books that originated in a plan to write a memoir with letters of his brother William, but that became overwhelmingly a memoir of himself.
Novick devotes one page to the writing of the first of these difficult but luminous books; the second is merely said to have been written and to have appeared, but nothing whatever is said about it, not even the interesting fact of James's having significantly rewritten his brother's and father's letters, explaining, when his nephew Harry protested, that he had needed to make them "engagingly readable and thereby more tasted and liked." But then the psychological tensions between Henry and William, so important to Edel's interpretation, are much less apparent in Novick's, and seem, on an occasion like this, to have been smoothed away.
When Novick strays off James himself he can be worryingly wrong. Attempting to situate The Portrait of a Lady "securely among the best novels then being written in English," he claims that in 1881 "Thomas Hardy had finished his major work," when in fact all of it -- The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure -- lay in the future. He also says that the Portrait is "a step above James's earlier novels" such as The Bostonians, which wasn't to appear till five years later. What do they do, you often wonder, the editors and proofreaders, the friends and colleagues who "read and commented on successive drafts"?
Evoking James's outings to the theater with Jocelyn Persse in 1906, Novick says that James met "some of Persse's friends, among whom was a young writer named Evelyn Waugh." Waugh was by no means a late starter, but he was only three at the time, and wasn't to publish his first novel until twelve years after James's death. Waugh himself would have been surprised to learn that the Lygon Arms at Broadway in Worcestershire was named for "the vanished Lygon family," since the Lygons were still flourishing conspicuously at nearby Madresfield Court, Lady Mary Lygon was a close friend of his, and the family are well known to have had a part in his invented Flyte family in Brideshead Revisited.
But Novick gives little sense generally of James's bearings in contemporary English literature, and his relationships with writers of the next generation whom he did know, such as Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, are not described at all. There is a quick glance at his impact on the Cambridge generation that became the Bloomsbury group, but the account of Rupert Brooke merely repeats the clichés of the "golden youth" and blurs the facts. (Novick writes that in the early stages of the Great War Brooke "published a book of war sonnets, and in a passion James read it"; in fact, Brooke wrote only five war sonnets -- which came out in the periodical New Numbers in December 1914.)
When it comes to James's intense, doting friendship with young Hugh Walpole, Novick gives you no sense, beyond an opening mention of "his first novel" (title not given), that Walpole was a writer, and that James's tender and excruciated criticisms of his books would lend their relationship its characteristic comedy. The mixture in James's relations with Walpole of openhearted adoration with an unappeasable critical eye is passed over; of Walpole's second novel, Maradick at Forty, James wrote to the young author:
The whole thing is a monument to the abuse of voluminous dialogue, the absence of a plan of compo-sition, alternation, distribution, structure.... And yet it's all so loveable -- though not so written. It isn't written at all, darling Hugh --
With the equally adored young sculptor Hendrik Andersen, who was planning a visionary World City to be adorned by his own appallingly bombastic sculptures, James was provoked to even fiercer expostulations, and wildly funny they are, though Novick, who does quote one of them, is never very alive to James's exquisitely intelligent humor.
The letters to these young men are obviously significant in Novick's interpretation of James as a man of passion. They are extraordinary in their fervor, and in a peculiar sense of license, as if James were pressing and exploiting language to the limit of social acceptability. This language can be emphatically, almost stiflingly physical, and James asked to be thought of as "a lover" on more than one occasion; but the images of the letters are not generally sexual, but monumentally static, frozen embraces, however warm-hearted. Novick writes of James's "lascivious" invitations and "overnight encounters" with Walter Berry, which are loaded terms, not quite supported by the admittedly extravagant figurative language of the letters. When James writes to Andersen, "I draw you close, I hold you long," Novick says this is "a reminiscence of their embraces," as if the baroque code of the letters were a verifiable guide to what actually happened. Well, maybe the enraptured sixty-year-old novelist had spent some time squeezing the humorless young sculptor, but one can't help feeling that the biographer's imagination must allow for things not happening, whatever his keenness to believe they did.
Above all the letters are adventures in language, and it is language that one would want to concentrate on -- the extraordinary, unexampled web of words, the endlessly extensile filament of syntax that James spun around himself, and in which he lightly and caressingly and testingly caught his whole world. Novick gives little idea of James as a talker, a natural rhetorician who brought everything and everyone under the flexible control of his intensely personal style. His practice, in the last two decades of his life, of dictating almost everything he wrote, to the stimulating click of the typewriter, means that there is an unparalleled continuity of effect between his published writing, his private writing in letters and journals, and the accounts we have of his conversation. The integrity of the effect is dominating and Johnsonian, though its character is not; it is unclassical, tantalizing, "the whole process of his thought, the qualifications, the resumptions, the interlineations...laid bare," as Arthur Benson recalled of James's talk: "It was like being present at the actual construction of a little palace of thought, of improvised yet perfect design."
In the end -- by which I really mean soon after the beginning -- you are faced with a problem that can affect literary biography more sharply than other kinds: a writer is writing about a writer. One sensibility is at the mercy of another in a shared medium. No one would want a life of James written in Jamesian. But something sharp-eared, responsive, and self-aware should ideally show itself in the biographer's style and approach, as it generally did in Leon Edel's, whatever his personal and historical limitations.
James's own characteristic style combines extravagance with precision in a unique way. He could give facetiousness and pain almost shocking coexistence in a single phrase: returning from Italy in 1899, he wrote,
I crawl, depleted as to purse, wan though bloated as to person, back to my little hole in the sand at Rye, there to burrow & burrow during an indefinite future.
Comic self-deprecation cannot hide the bleakness that haunted James's later life. The brilliant moment in the sentence is the repetition of "burrow," a note of madness and despair, the burrowing less the artist's retreat into his work than the digging of his own grave. Quoting this remarkable sentence, Novick actually says, "James's return from Italy was even more of a letdown than usual"; and then thoughtfully summarizes: "James himself after his long journey was tired, overweight, and worried about money." It is one of many moments in the book when you want simply to be left alone with the Master's voice.
Alan Hollinghurst was born in 1954 in Gloucestershire, England, and attended Magdalen College, Oxford. He is the author of the novels The Swimming-Pool Library, The Folding Star (shortlisted for the Booker Prize), The Spell, and the forthcoming The Line of Beauty, as well as of a translation of the play Bajazet by Racine. A former staff member at The Times Literary Supplement, Hollinghurst is a frequent contributor to that and other publications, including The Guardian. Hollinghurst's fourth novel, The Line of Beauty, won the Man Booker Prize in 2004. He lives in London.
Books mentioned in this post