Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A hundred years after his death, the marvel of Henry James remains.

From The New Statesman:
...Why, you might wonder, did James not just stick to the independent, elastic, prodigious novel? That was the chink in his chauvinism: not an insistence that there were places the novel couldn’t go, but an openness to the virtue of non-fiction. Unlike Shields and Knausgaard – “just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous”, he writes in book two of My Struggle – James saw possibilities and not an ultimatum. He turned to non-fiction despite his belief in the supremacy of the novel, and he returned to the novel for the same reason. In 1915, in a letter to Wells, he wrote: “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance . . . and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” And the 1908 letter where he placed “creative” between inverted commas also expressed the feeling that he “could really shed salt tears of impatience and yearning” to get back to novel writing. 
For all the difficulties that the novel posed, there was one practitioner who offered James hope of a resolution: Balzac, “the father of us all”. After despatching Tolstoy and Thackeray in his preface to The Tragic Muse, James talked of his delight in “a deep-breathing economy and an organic form” – terms that encode his belief in a fusion of the novel’s warring priorities. This is what Balzac had achieved: a “solidly systematic” literary composition, combined with “free observation” and “personal experience”. And in The Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors, James felt that he had managed the same. Others agreed. In his essay “Henry James: an Appreciation”, published in 1905, Joseph Conrad, who along with Ford Madox Ford sought to emulate Jamesian form, noted that the reader is “never set at rest” by his novels. “His books end as an episode in life ends. You remain with the sense of the life still going on . . .”

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