I’ve just started reading The Portrait of a Lady. My intention was to make it a read-along, with an announcement and all that, but I won’t make it official now. I’ll be happy if you join though. Even if you come across this blog for the 1st time searching for something else (say, Audrey Hepburn), you’re welcomed to join too.
The introduction in my copy is written by Roger Luckhurst. Look at the 1st page. After introducing The Portrait of a Lady as 1 of the key novels in English literature and mentioning some of its admirers such as Graham Greene, John Updike, Harold Bloom, etc. he says this:
“All of this ought to suggest excitement, a sense of getting to grips with 1 of the masterpieces of literature, but it is also, let’s confess, a little bit intimidating too. It is not so much a question of whether it will measure up to the weight of expectation, but whether we will measure up to it.”
“In a novel that focuses so much on defining character through moral and aesthetic discrimination, will we be found wanting if we struggle with it? Some have. It can certainly take a while to adjust to James’s difficult style, but if the reader has patience, the novel opens up a brilliant sense of capturing the complexity of being human. The aim of this Introduction is simply to offer some routes through the massive edifice of Portrait with a view to helping the reader appreciate just why it is such an important work and why it repays the time you have to invest in it.”
I didn’t read the whole introduction, not because I had a problem with it, but because I usually don’t, and Luckhurst’s introduction began with a spoiler alert. Still, is that the way to write about a novel? A reader may open James’s novel not feeling intimidated, but would feel that way reading those lines. Mixed in that “warning” is also some kind of reproach, for people who don’t, can’t appreciate it. To be fair I don’t disagree with Luckhurst—there are many kinds of readers, some readers lack the skills or approach a book the wrong way and fail to realise that finding a book boring doesn’t mean that it is bad and their own lukewarm reaction is because of themselves rather than the book. Yet telling the readers beforehand that the style is difficult and some may struggle and we must ask ourselves whether we measure up to it, isn’t that a bit problematic? I’m not sure.
To digress a bit, the other day I watched Tokyo Story. I didn’t get it. I mean, I got what it’s about and what it’s meant to say and that it’s good, but I didn’t see how it’s the greatest Asian film of all time and 1 of the greatest, most perfect films ever made. Is the world divided into Kurosawa people and Ozu people, like Fellini people vs Antonioni people, Tolstoy people vs Dostoyevsky people? Whilst it isn’t my taste, I’m not incapable of appreciating and liking something subdued, nuanced, subtle—On Golden Pond is great, The Best Years of Our Lives is great, Okuribito is great, etc. Watching Tokyo Story, I was rather underwhelmed. It’s like that time when I watched Late Spring, which I appreciated even less because of my ignorance of Japanese culture and the significance of the Noh scene. I read reviews and nodded, right, Japanese culture, right, marriage and the 2 generations, right, the vase, right, Ozu’s signature low angle and static camera, right, ordinary lives, right, tradition vs modernity, season vs sexuality… but where’s the greatness? The fault is obviously mine—Ozu simply happens to be very different from the directors I like, such as Billy Wilder, Federico Fellini, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sidney Lumet, Elia Kazan, early Zhang Yimou, the Coen brothers, Stanley Kubrick… But perhaps there is hope, as I like Wong Kar-wai. I must see more.
How do you feel about Ozu?
Anyway, back to The Portrait of a Lady. I’m reading it. You’re welcomed to read it together with me. I’ll write about James’s book when I have something to say.