"PEOPLE ARE MADE BY PLACES," so said the great traveler Graham Greene. It doesn't take much twisting around to recognize that the inverse is also true, that people are unmade by places. Finding themselves in a new land, they realize that what they were accepting as the universal default is merely a local eccentricity, that the habits and routines they invested time and energy maintaining have little value when displaced. That their normal settings need to be discarded, because they have become a hindrance.
Once that process of unmaking begins, it never quite completes. Left in the middle ground somewhere, no longer a product of your origins yet unable to be newly made in the shape of your new home, either, you end up — for lack of a better word, and there really should be a better word — an expat. And not even repatriating will ever make you the same again.
The problem with writing about Henry James is that everything has already been written. That is one reason more people are writing about Henry James the person these days — Henry James the homosexual, Henry James the virgin, Henry James the pederast, Henry James the impotent — than Henry James the writer. What could possibly be left to say about Henry James the writer? It has all been laid out, his novels, his theatre work, his stories, his essays have all been picked apart. He is The Master. He possessed genius unparalleled in his time. The end.
Every time I think I am having an original thought about Henry James it turns out I am mistaken. Those precise, twisted father-daughter relationships in Washington Square and The Golden Bowl, that is ... oh really? 2,512 results on Questia already? Well, how about that section in The Tragic Muse when ... okay, well fine. I guess I'll just fuck off then.
So I do not envy Michael Gorra's task of trying to find a new way to write about Henry James and his beloved Portrait. His biography of that work, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, tries to avoid many of the pitfalls of biography, and Henry James's biography in particular. For the most part, he leaves James's willy out of the conversation, and that is a relief. And he is aware enough to largely avoid the biographer's weakness for trying to find real life counterparts for every fictional character, or echoes of imaginative incidents in the writer's personal experiences. He wisely admits the limitations of such an approach, writing, "Searching for some putative original allows us to see what was in fact created; the difference between the fictional page and the gravel of documentary truth can stand as a guide to artistic practice." When Gorra does go looking for the gravel of documentary truth, he is looking mostly at the cities and places that housed James and his creativity as he worked on his book.
Where he loses me is in his attempt to universalize his own reading experience, his pained reluctance to dip into the first person singular. He fills in the blank of the readers' emotional responses, telling us how the reader responds to each movement, each character, each exhalation. Here, "the reader" is anxious. Here the reader longs for Isabel to do x. Here the reader is doodling dogs wearing sunglasses in the margins of her book, as if we weren't all coming to Portrait of a Lady as entirely different people, bringing our bodies and experiences and little plastic ...read more