Saturday 31 October 2015

Silence in The Portrait of a Lady

Tom has just written about dialogue in The Portrait of a Lady
There is lots of dialogue in it, perhaps too much, but do you realise how much of James's novel is also about things that are left unsaid? I'm not thinking of those moments where the characters sit alone and think; I'm referring to those scenes where a character is having a conversation with someone else and wants to say something but doesn't/ can't, or those scenes where a character wants another character to say something but it doesn't happen. Other writers do this too, sometimes, but it's more remarkable in The Portrait of a Lady, because the characters' silence has reasons, purposes and effects (as in Tolstoy's A History of Yesterday).
Madame Merle is silent because she's cunning, because she has schemes, because she has a secret. Gilbert Osmond is silent because he's a selfish, dominating, cold-hearted man who sometimes chooses not to tell things to his wife. Lord Warburton is silent because he's aware of propriety and because Isabel doesn't allow him to speak of his love. Caspar Goodwood is silent because he's anxious and uncertain about Isabel and has to control himself (though later he has an outburst and asks the question he has meant to ask- whether she's unhappy). Edward Rosier is silent also because he's much in love and agitated as a consequence, but unable to speak. Pansy is silent because she's submissive and unwilling to disobey her papa.
Even Henrietta Stackpole, who we know is not afraid of talking and speaking her mind, has an important moment in which she leaves things unsaid- she deliberately comes to Rome, with Caspar, to see how Isabel's doing, but when knowing, she doesn't speak of it and sends him tracts and stuff, which she knows he doesn't need.
There are 3 especially good scenes in which James's art is in letting the characters leave things unsaid.
1/ Pansy:
"On the evening I speak of, while Lord Warburton sat there, she had been on the point of taking the great step of going out of the room and leaving her companions alone. I say the great step, because it was in this light that Gilbert Osmond would have regarded it, and Isabel was trying as much as possible to take her husband's view. She succeeded after a fashion, but she fell short of the point I mention. After all she couldn't rise to it; something held her and made this impossible. It was not exactly that it would be base or insidious; for women as a general thing practise such manoeuvres with a perfectly good conscience, and Isabel was instinctively much more true than false to the common genius of her sex. There was a vague doubt that interposed—a sense that she was not quite sure. So she remained in the drawing-room, and after a while Lord Warburton went off to his party, of which he promised to give Pansy a full account on the morrow. After he had gone she wondered if she had prevented something which would have happened if she had absented herself for a quarter of an hour; and then she pronounced—always mentally—that when their distinguished visitor should wish her to go away he would easily find means to let her know it. Pansy said nothing whatever about him after he had gone, and Isabel studiously said nothing, as she had taken a vow of reserve until after he should have declared himself. He was a little longer in coming to this than might seem to accord with the description he had given Isabel of his feelings. Pansy went to bed, and Isabel had to admit that she could not now guess what her stepdaughter was thinking of. Her transparent little companion was for the moment not to be seen through."
Those 2 last sentences are so good. As I wrote in a comment on Tom's blog, Pansy bothered me a bit at the beginning- her passivity and submissiveness was too much emphasised, her talk sounded odd, she was too much like a doll, but this scene and a few others give her life.
This has the same effect as Rosanette's silence in Sentimental Education
2/ Pansy's parentage- the secret:
"'... As for her veritable mother—!' But with this Pansy's wonderful aunt dropped—as, involuntarily, from the impression of her sister-in-law's face, out of which more eyes might have seemed to look at her than she had ever had to meet.
She had spoken no name, yet Isabel could but check, on her own lips, an echo of the unspoken. She sank to her seat again, hanging her head. 'Why have you told me this?' she asked in a voice the Countess hardly recognised."
Countess Gemini doesn't say, and Isabel doesn't ask if she guessed right, but that is enough. The pathos is created by their not speaking.
3/ The conversation between Ralph and Isabel in chapter 45.
"... It was the first time she had alluded to the need for help, and the words shook her cousin with their violence. He gave a long murmur of relief, of pity, of tenderness; it seemed to him that at last the gulf between them had been bridged. It was this that made him exclaim in a moment: 'How unhappy you must be!'
He had no sooner spoken than she recovered her self-possession, and the first use she made of it was to pretend she had not heard him."
Isabel doesn't speak because she is proud, because she has ignored everyone and made a mistake, publicly, and wants to hide her misery from everyone. Ralph can't speak because she doesn't. It's difficult.
"Her mask had dropped for an instant, but she had put it on again, to Ralph's infinite disappointment. He had caught a glimpse of her natural face and he wished immensely to look into it. He had an almost savage desire to hear her complain of her husband—hear her say that she should be held accountable for Lord Warburton's defection. Ralph was certain that this was her situation; he knew by instinct, in advance, the form that in such an event Osmond's displeasure would take. It could only take the meanest and cruellest. He would have liked to warn Isabel of it—to let her see at least how he judged for her and how he knew. It little mattered that Isabel would know much better; it was for his own satisfaction more than for hers that he longed to show her he was not deceived. He tried and tried again to make her betray Osmond; he felt cold-blooded, cruel, dishonourable almost, in doing so. But it scarcely mattered, for he only failed. What had she come for then, and why did she seem almost to offer him a chance to violate their tacit convention? Why did she ask him his advice if she gave him no liberty to answer her? How could they talk of her domestic embarrassments, as it pleased her humorously to designate them, if the principal factor was not to be mentioned? These contradictions were themselves but an indication of her trouble, and her cry for help, just before, was the only thing he was bound to consider."
"Ralph took an inward resolution that she shouldn't leave him without his letting her know that he knew everything: it seemed too great an opportunity to lose."
He doesn't say that he knows, he says something else, but it's enough.
Knowing that Ralph knows, and upon him telling her to be frank, Isabel doesn't speak:
"But she made no reply; she only pulled her hand out of his own, which he tried still to hold, and rapidly withdrew from the room."
This is 1 of the most beautiful and excellent scenes in The Portrait of a Lady. They can't speak despite understanding each other. Yet they understand each other despite not speaking. 
James might not be very good at dialogue, but he knows sometimes the inability or refusal to speak is just as good as speech at conveying characters and relationships, and he makes use of it. And it's poignant. 


Update later in the day: 
As I read on, I found a marvellous passage: 
"... So Madame Merle went on, with much of the brilliancy of a woman who had long been a mistress of the art of conversation. But there were phases and gradations in her speech, not one of which was lost upon Isabel's ear, though her eyes were absent from her companion's face. She had not proceeded far before Isabel noted a sudden break in her voice, a lapse in her continuity, which was in itself a complete drama. This subtle modulation marked a momentous discovery—the perception of an entirely new attitude on the part of her listener. Madame Merle had guessed in the space of an instant that everything was at end between them, and in the space of another instant she had guessed the reason why. The person who stood there was not the same one she had seen hitherto, but was a very different person—a person who knew her secret. This discovery was tremendous, and from the moment she made it the most accomplished of women faltered and lost her courage. But only for that moment. Then the conscious stream of her perfect manner gathered itself again and flowed on as smoothly as might be to the end. But it was only because she had the end in view that she was able to proceed. She had been touched with a point that made her quiver, and she needed all the alertness of her will to repress her agitation. Her only safety was in her not betraying herself. She resisted this, but the startled quality of her voice refused to improve—she couldn't help it—while she heard herself say she hardly knew what. The tide of her confidence ebbed, and she was able only just to glide into port, faintly grazing the bottom.
Isabel saw it all as distinctly as if it had been reflected in a large clear glass. It might have been a great moment for her, for it might have been a moment of triumph. That Madame Merle had lost her pluck and saw before her the phantom of exposure—this in itself was a revenge, this in itself was almost the promise of a brighter day. And for a moment during which she stood apparently looking out of the window, with her back half-turned, Isabel enjoyed that knowledge. On the other side of the window lay the garden of the convent; but this is not what she saw; she saw nothing of the budding plants and the glowing afternoon. She saw, in the crude light of that revelation which had already become a part of experience and to which the very frailty of the vessel in which it had been offered her only gave an intrinsic price, the dry staring fact that she had been an applied handled hung-up tool, as senseless and convenient as mere shaped wood and iron. All the bitterness of this knowledge surged into her soul again; it was as if she felt on her lips the taste of dishonour. There was a moment during which, if she had turned and spoken, she would have said something that would hiss like a lash. But she closed her eyes, and then the hideous vision dropped. What remained was the cleverest woman in the world standing there within a few feet of her and knowing as little what to think as the meanest. Isabel's only revenge was to be silent still—to leave Madame Merle in this unprecedented situation. She left her there for a period that must have seemed long to this lady, who at last seated herself with a movement which was in itself a confession of helplessness. Then Isabel turned slow eyes, looking down at her. Madame Merle was very pale; her own eyes covered Isabel's face. She might see what she would, but her danger was over. Isabel would never accuse her, never reproach her; perhaps because she never would give her the opportunity to defend herself." 
Ah... The aesthetic bliss, the tingle along the spine! 
The other day I was thinking of Jane Austen and Tolstoy as the masters of subtleties- how they notice and capture all the little details, the nuances of feeling! And now it turns out Henry James's just as good. Almost.

Friday 30 October 2015

Metaphors in The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady has interesting and intriguing metaphors. Generally the metaphors and images and associations are not "random"- they recur and recur throughout the novel. Most interesting are the architectural metaphors all over the place.
In 1 of the 1st chapters, Henry James describes the Touchetts' house:
"A beautiful collie dog lay upon the grass near his chair, watching the master's face almost as tenderly as the master took in the still more magisterial physiognomy of the house; and a little bristling, bustling terrier bestowed a desultory attendance upon the other gentlemen."
Later he describes a villa, where we see Osmond and Pansy for the 1st time:
"The house had a front upon a little grassy, empty, rural piazza which occupied a part of the hill-top; and this front, pierced with a few windows in irregular relations and furnished with a stone bench lengthily adjusted to the base of the structure and useful as a lounging-place to one or two persons wearing more or less of that air of undervalued merit which in Italy, for some reason or other, always gracefully invests any one who confidently assumes a perfectly passive attitude—this antique, solid, weather-worn, yet imposing front had a somewhat incommunicative character. It was the mask, not the face of the house. It had heavy lids, but no eyes; the house in reality looked another way—looked off behind, into splendid openness and the range of the afternoon light..."
Houses are like souls, and souls are like houses. 
Look at this line about Isabel:
"Her imagination was by habit ridiculously active; when the door was not open it jumped out of the window. She was not accustomed indeed to keep it behind bolts; and at important moments, when she would have been thankful to make use of her judgement alone, she paid the penalty of having given undue encouragement to the faculty of seeing without judging."
She thinks of Ralph:
"... Isabel often found herself irritated by this perpetual fiddling; she would have liked to pass through the ante-room, as her cousin called it, and enter the private apartments. It mattered little that he had assured her they were a very dismal place; she would have been glad to undertake to sweep them and set them in order."
He thinks of her:
"His cousin was a very brilliant girl, who would take, as he said, a good deal of knowing; but she needed the knowing, and his attitude with regard to her, though it was contemplative and critical, was not judicial. He surveyed the edifice from the outside and admired it greatly; he looked in at the windows and received an impression of proportions equally fair. But he felt that he saw it only by glimpses and that he had not yet stood under the roof. The door was fastened, and though he had keys in his pocket he had a conviction that none of them would fit."
"... She would keep the gate ajar and open a parley; she would certainly not allow number three to come in..." 
Architectural metaphors are everywhere- there is one even when Osmond speaks of Goodwood: 
"... It would have been an excellent thing, like living under some tall belfry which would strike all the hours and make a queer vibration in the upper air. He declared he liked to talk with the great Goodwood; it wasn't easy at first, you had to climb up an interminable steep staircase up to the top of the tower; but when you got there you had a big view and felt a little fresh breeze..." 
In Osmond's case, he and his house are one. For example, Isabel ponders about him: 
"... She had taken all the first steps in the purest confidence, and then she had suddenly found the infinite vista of a multiplied life to be a dark, narrow alley with a dead wall at the end..." 
"She had not been mistaken about the beauty of his mind; she knew that organ perfectly now. She had lived with it, she had lived in it almost—it appeared to have become her habitation." 
The association becomes more prominent: 
"She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation. Osmond's beautiful mind gave it neither light nor air; Osmond's beautiful mind indeed seemed to peep down from a small high window and mock at her." 
James's also fond of garden metaphors: 
"... Her nature had, in her conceit, a certain garden-like quality, a suggestion of perfume and murmuring boughs, of shady bowers and lengthening vistas, which made her feel that introspection was, after all, an exercise in the open air, and that a visit to the recesses of one's spirit was harmless when one returned from it with a lapful of roses. But she was often reminded that there were other gardens in the world than those of her remarkable soul, and that there were moreover a great many places which were not gardens at all—only dusky pestiferous tracts, planted thick with ugliness and misery..."
This garden image is used later: 
"Her mind was to be his—attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer-park." 
Pansy is a flower. Isn't Rosier, too?
James uses the house vs soul comparison as the central, overarching principle for the whole novel, which unites everything. Then he creates individual images and associations for the characters. James, who I generally don't think is a visual writer, describes Osmond's sister: 
"The Countess Gemini simply nodded without getting up: Isabel could see she was a woman of high fashion. She was thin and dark and not at all pretty, having features that suggested some tropical bird—a long beak-like nose, small, quickly-moving eyes and a mouth and chin that receded extremely. Her expression, however, thanks to various intensities of emphasis and wonder, of horror and joy, was not inhuman, and, as regards her appearance, it was plain she understood herself and made the most of her points. Her attire, voluminous and delicate, bristling with elegance, had the look of shimmering plumage, and her attitudes were as light and sudden as those of a creature who perched upon twigs."
I like that a lot. Countess Gemini is a bird. Madame Merle, who is in some ways her foil, is also a bird. "Merle" is French for blackbird and idiomatically "un fin merle" means a deep or cunning person.
Our heroine Isabel Archer is a ship. Of her, Ralph says to his father:
"I should like to put a little wind in her sails."
Later he says:
"She has started on an exploring expedition, and I don't think she'll change her course, at the outset, at a signal from Gilbert Osmond. She may have slackened speed for an hour, but before we know it she'll be steaming away again." 
Henrietta Stackpole is strongly identified as a newspaper-woman.
"... She rustled, she shimmered, in fresh, dove-coloured draperies, and Ralph saw at a glance that she was as crisp and new and comprehensive as a first issue before the folding. From top to toe she had probably no misprint. She spoke in a clear, high voice—a voice not rich but loud; yet after she had taken her place with her companions in Mr. Touchett's carriage she struck him as not all in the large type, the type of horrid "headings," that he had expected..."
Most of the time she's described as exploring, observing and recording things for her newspaper, making notes, writing articles, reading news, selecting and sending tracts... The images of her doing things for or related to newspapers stick to her and define her the same way Pansy's constantly linked to the image of making tea. When Countess Gemini meets Henrietta:
"It was as impossible to imagine her ever vaguely sighing as to imagine a letter posted without its address."
And when Osmond speaks badly of her, he says:
"Do you know what she reminds me of? Of a new steel pen—the most odious thing in nature. She talks as a steel pen writes; aren't her letters, by the way, on ruled paper? She thinks and moves and walks and looks exactly as she talks."
Another characteristic in Henrietta that is often stressed is her modernity. Modern woman. Modern type. Look at this simile:
"Her remarkably open eyes, lighted like great glazed railway-stations, had put up no shutters..."
She is (the negative side of) modernity as Osmond is (the bad things about) traditions. This man, on his part, is strongly identified as a collector. Not an artist, though he paints, but a collector. Paintings, sculptures, coins, medals, ceramics, fine stuff. He's not the only art collector in The Portrait of a Lady, but it's most emphasised in his characterisation. He sees his wife as nothing but another object, a part of his collection. 
We should note, however, that Edward Rosier and Ralph Touchett also collect, and their attitudes towards their objects extend into their relationships- if the former loves a woman as pure, small, delicate and vulnerable as his china, the latter, kind and generous as he is, loves Isabel but conceals his feelings (until later) and only looks at her and wants to shape her as though she's a painting. Ralph is kind, Osmond is a villain; Ralph gives Isabel money and therefore freedom, Osmond takes both from her; the contrast is clear, but in a sense they have 1 thing in common- both forget that Isabel's a human being.
I'm enjoying the novel now a lot more than I earlier did. 


Here are Tom's posts about Henry James's book:

Wednesday 28 October 2015

The Portrait of a Lady: more on time, and more on characters

Last week I wrote about time in The Portrait of a Lady. I've been reading, and thinking more about it. Henry James skips a few things, then comes back to them later. For example, we don't see how Osmond proposes and how Isabel considers it and how she agrees to marry him, only how she defends her own decision, but after a while we're given insight into her "logic" when she accepts Osmond. Or, there's a flash forward- all of a sudden we find Isabel and Osmond 3 years later. However after some time, following her consciousness, we start to have an idea of what has happened over the past 3 years and how they've been doing as a married couple and why it's not a happy marriage though on the surface there seems to be nothing.
This has 2 effects. 1, we don't see things as they happen- we see them in Isabel's recollection, i.e. entirely from her point of view.
2, as I wrote last time, the jumps in time throw us into the middle of events, which makes us react the way the characters react- shocked as Caspar Goodwood is when he hears of the coming marriage, or uncertain about the state of the marriage as Lord Warburton is when he visits the Osmonds after a while. This is like what George Eliot does on the 1st page of Daniel Deronda. She doesn't introduce any character- right away she throws the readers into the middle of a gambling scene, starting with Deronda's musings about Gwendolen. If the story had been told chronically, our perception would have been different, because then we would have known Gwendolen. That beginning forces us to wonder about her and feel curious about her, exactly the same way Deronda does.
Regarding the characters, my feeling now is now a lot more positive than it was 2 days ago. Why? I've been reading the novel in a slightly different way.
Here is an excerpt from James Wood's How Fiction Works:
"... it often seems that James's characters are not especially convincing as independently vivid authorial creations. But what makes them vivid is the force of James's interest in them, his manner of pressing into their clay with his examining fingers: they are sites of human energy; they vibrate with James's anxious concern for them.


James is really suggesting that he has not yet formed his character, that she is still relatively shapeless, an American emptiness, and that the novel will form her, for good and ill, that Europe will fill in her shape, and that just as these 3 waiting, watching men will also form her, so will we, as readers. [...] And what, James asks, will be the plot that poor Isabel will have written for her? How much will she herself write it, and how much will be written for her by others? And in the end, will we really know what Isabel was like, or will we have merely painted a portrait of a lady?

So the vitality of literary character has less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence and even plain plausibility- let alone likeability- than with a larger, philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character's actions are profoundly important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters. That is how readers retain in their minds a sense of the character 'Isabel Archer', even if they cannot tell you what she is exactly like. We remember her in the way we remember an obscurely significant day: something important has been enacted here."
I have, in some sense, stopped trying to define and describe Isabel. I have definitely stopped measuring her, as a character, by the characters of Tolstoy, Jane Austen or George Eliot. I accept her, you may say, and at the moment it appears to me that the best thing in the novel is the Osmond- Isabel- Warburton- Pansy- Ned Rosier conflict. It is good because James deals with subtleties and captures the nuances of feeling; because it gives depth to Pansy, who hitherto has been a submissive, mindless girl who speaks in a strange way and seems like a doll; because it presents Warburton in a new way with his hopeless devotion and silly attempt; because it, above all, reveals Osmond's character and the state of their marriage, the power game, the conflicts, the misunderstandings, the suspicions, the lack of love, the distance between husband and wife. Then her own mental struggle gives life to Isabel- she thinks, wonders, considers, hesitates, suspects, worries, investigates, debates, convinces others, convinces herself, acts, reacts, steps forward, steps back, wavers, contemplates, fears, doubts, changes her mind, makes a step, defies. In her doubt of Warburton's feelings for Pansy, there is sensitivity or perceptiveness, but there is also some vanity and jealousy, if jealousy is the word for how we feel when the person who has declared their love for us, whom we take for granted, suddenly shows an interest in someone else, even though we don't intend to have a relationship with them. 
Another brilliant thing about The Portrait of a Lady is how James develops the relations between Isabel and Ralph. Look at that scene in chapter 45, when Isabel visits the sick, dying Ralph to ask him about Warburton and Pansy. His sensitivity and understanding. The hopeless distance, the difficulty of straightforwardness, the inability to express sympathy. Her pride. His pain. The brief uncovering of her mask, her brief moment of vulnerability. His inability to break through the walls she has built around herself. That is a beautiful scene. Between them is a great distance because of his love and her pride, and her marriage to Osmond, but they have a closeness, an understanding and sympathy that cannot be found between Isabel and Osmond. It is moving. 
I still don't have a clear, definite idea about Isabel's character, but, even if the portrait is impressionistic, it's no longer my concern. I accept her existence as I accepted Daisy Miller's.

Monday 26 October 2015

The Portrait of a Lady: the characters and the author's sex

It is perhaps considered backward and narrow-minded, even sexist, to speak of the gender of a writer and of their creations, as though the differences between men and women are unbridgeable, as though writers are generally unable to portray convincingly characters of the opposite sex. I should look at the characters, the individuals, you may say. Why should gender be more significant than race or culture or class, you may ask. I don't think writing characters of the opposite sex is more difficult than writing the point of view of someone of another race or from another culture or another class, but there are still differences between men and women- I don't mean stereotypes like men are rational and women are emotional, or men like sports and women like fashion, or such bullshit, I mean, whether it's because of brains or genes or upbringing or the environment or personal experiences or everything, there are differences between men and women in thinking, observing people, perceiving the world, reacting to things, in concerns and interests, in habits, and so on. Charlotte Bronte doesn't see men, for example. Her male characters don't have the same vividness and vitality as her female characters (even though, as Virginia Woolf says, we don't read her for psychological insight, we can see Jane Eyre, Lucy Snowe, Shirley Keeldar, Caroline Helstone), and when she attempts to write from a man's point of view (Louis Moore) in Shirley, it's a total failure. 
Now, on chapter 42, I'm thinking about the characters in The Portrait of a Lady and the author's sex. 
In his review of Middlemarch, Henry James complains that Will Ladislaw is a woman's man. I don't quite know what that means- how often do you find characters as excellently portrayed as George Eliot's Casaubon and Lydgate? But let's say the problem with Will is that he's a woman's man, I think the problem with Gilbert Osmond is that he's seen by a man. Perhaps that isn't it. All characters in The Portrait of a Lady seem vague, abstract, blurry, unclear. There is too much analysis; too much confusion. James, I'm afraid, doesn't quite capture the voices of his characters, when writing dialogue and when entering his characters' consciousness. There is lots of dialogue, but the dialogue doesn't seem real; one asks oneself if anyone speaks that way and thinks not; his characters' ways of speaking are strange. There is lots of- what? interior monologue? stream of consciousness?, but something is off, James doesn't get the "inner voice" of his beings; one looks at what he's doing and thinks he can't compare to Jane Austen and her mastery of the free indirect speech. All characters are vague. Yet I still feel that the problem with Osmond is that he's seen by a man. He is a villain, a bad boy of sorts; I compare him to the bad boys written by women- Jane Austen's Willoughby and especially Henry Crawford are utterly charming, Charlotte Bronte's Rochester, in spite of everything, can be fascinating, but it's hard to see how Osmond can charm Isabel Archer. An Osmond seen by a woman may let the readers see how a woman falls for him despite her earlier determination to be single, despite him having nothing whatsoever. Seen by a man, he is, as Walter Allen has put it, robbed "of a certain sexual magic". 
Am I being unfair to James? Perhaps I am. Because now I will venture to say, I'm afraid that the problem with Isabel may be that she's written by a man. Take the chapter I'm reading. Putting aside Caspar Goodwood, a woman who rejects a man for not feeling interested in marriage and for not knowing him well and then goes for someone only to find herself in an unhappy marriage is less likely to have the thought process as James describes Isabel as having, than to reconsider the man, see him differently and wonder what might have happened if she had chosen him. She doesn't have to love him or think highly of him, she doesn't even have to regret her decision, but the experience of marriage and the realisation that she has been mistaken in choosing her current husband would make her see that man in a different way, even if it's a slight difference, and would force her, at some point, to imagine a different path, a different scenario. We see that in Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. Of course people are not the same, we think and act and react in different ways- I'm talking about what seems to me likely, and natural, though if you keep pushing I could be at a loss for words and end up saying it's personal. Maybe it is personal- all I can say is that Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, no matter how irrational and stupid and frustrating, never seem contrived and unnatural, and many other female characters by Tolstoy such as Natasha, Marya, Sonya, Hélène... are natural, vivid and full of life (except the bit about Natasha's changes in the epilogue), and Isabel is not only blurry and hard to describe but also a bit unnatural now and then, the the-author-doesn't-understand-women kind of unnatural. 
However, as written in an earlier post, the vagueness of Isabel is interesting and apparently deliberate, which invites us to be involved in the painting of her, in the solving of the puzzle named Isabel Archer. Others see her and try to read her and have their own theories about her and plans for her; others try to shape her the way they see fit; but she is never seen, even by the readers; she is larger than those perceptions and interpretations and discussions, larger than those theories and plans, larger than them all. Is that what James Wood say, in How Fiction Works? That she exists in spite of the abstractness, in spite of the lack of definition and depth, in spite of the inability to say exactly what she's like? Because she vibrates only because of James's anxious concern for her? 
The question is whether she is seen by James.

Wednesday 21 October 2015

The Portrait of a Lady: time

After about 300 pages of foreshadowing... bang! there comes the news of Isabel's marriage to Gilbert Osmond. We all know what to expect, but it still comes as a surprise, even a shock, because of its suddenness, because of the feeling that it's all said and done, unchangeable, irreversible. How does Henry James achieve that? By taking a leap in time, by skipping the "necessary" scenes; by throwing us right in the middle of a scene that makes us as shocked as everyone else in the novel that knows Isabel. When Isabel communicates the news to other characters, she does so also to the readers. At the same time, whereas George Eliot focuses on the thoughts of Dorothea and Gwendolen before their marriages to Casaubon and Grandcourt respectively, to delve into their aspirations and motivations, to understand why they do what they do, Henry James doesn't show us what leads up to that final yes. Instead, he's interested in how Isabel reacts to people's reactions and defends her own decision, before others and in her own mind. There we have her reasons, but they are defences, justifications.
Then he makes another jump. George Eliot goes slowly, skipping nothing. We witness Dorothea and Gwendolen contemplate the proposals in their minds and say yes, we walk with them as they innocently enter their miserable marriages, we're with them after the wedding, when their eyes start to be opened. James gives us none of that. I'm on chapter 38 at the moment, and Osmond doesn't do anything specific that proves him a monster, but there are hints, lots of hints, here and there. Again there's a feeling that we're thrown into the middle of something, that we're late, that we miss out on details and don't quite know what's going on except a feeling that it isn't good. The uncertainty is suggestive. Usually, if my knowledge of 19th century novels is worth anything, when there is a jump in time, there must be a paragraph or 2 summarising the general incidents. In The Portrait of a Lady, there is nothing. It makes us not know what to expect, it causes a feeling of dread, terror.
Regarding Isabel, there is a sense of incompleteness in the character. A vagueness, abstractness. Not fully fleshed out, if readers judge Isabel by the standards by which we praise Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary. But it's this quality of vagueness that invites us to participate in the reading, drawing, understanding of Isabel, that makes us involved, that creates in us the urge to figure her out, label her, shape her, put her into some neat box, like other characters do. It may be frustrating, it may cause a faint sense of dissatisfaction, but somehow it's fascinating. The other characters are spectators, and so are we.
Let's see what she's going to do.

Updates: The Portrait of a Lady and other things

Apologies to everyone I've been "ignoring" lately. I've been busy, with studies, work (4 days a week) and personal matters. Many things happened- misfortunes rarely come singly, indeed. I twisted my knee or something about 2 weeks ago and got a limp, screwed up at work last Friday, got involved in some work drama (South Korean TV series style), and as though that's not enough, my laptop hasn't worked since Friday (I'm on campus at the moment). No need to worry though, I'm fine, and there will be brighter days.
Regarding The Portrait of a Lady, I'm behind almost everyone else in the read-along I organised myself.
Here are Anne's thoughts on it:
Tom and perhaps Himadri are ahead of me, but they haven't written about the novel.
Caroline is behind, having read about more than 10 chapters.
Matthew perhaps has given up on Henry James:
Not part of my read-along, but Stefanie has just read The Portrait of a Lady and written a review:
I of course have to share this hilarious post, in case anyone hasn't seen it:
And here is a review by Danielle, who read the novel along with Stefanie:
It's probably not as "positive" as the earlier post:
I also found, among others, 2 interesting articles.
In the 2nd article, Michael Gorra (author of Portrait of a Novel) argues that The Portrait of a Lady is the great American novel.
So that's it. How are y'all doing?

Sunday 11 October 2015

Sweet Charity

Sweet Charity helps one appreciate better the original Nights of Cabiria.
By that, I don't mean that Sweet Charity is inferior- of course it is, we're dealing with Fellini here. What I mean is that the sentimentality of Bob Fosse's film marks the clear contrast between the original film and the remake and makes one realise how cool and controlled Fellini is, how he keeps everything subdued and subtle and refuses to settle for some cheap sentimentalisation of a character that is easily exploited that way. Take the scenes before the push, and Charity's cries of happiness. Take the "fickle finger of fate" scene- Charity pours out her heart to the famous actor. Take the scene where she blurts out before her co-workers that she has been in the closet the whole time. Take the scene where she comes to an office and asks for "a nice job" and says no to all the skills the man enquires of her. Take the sequence where she cries tears of joy "someone loves me". It's all sentimentalised and exaggerated, there is too much talk, everything is spelt out when something should be withheld and just suggested. The chief difference between Nights of Cabiria and Sweet Charity is that Fellini knows when to stop, what to show and what not, and when the pathos is enough, there's no sense of exploitation, Fellini produces a beautiful and haunting work; whereas Fosse keeps pushing and pushing until the emotions ring false and we turn numb. The same can be said of the difference between Giulietta Masina and Shirley MacLaine. The Shirley MacLaine that is touching enough, realistic and unsentimentalised, in Billy Wilder's The Apartment, is not to be found here. Whilst Giulietta's Cabiria is tough, and has to toughen herself up because of her working environment and experience, Shirley's Charity is sweet, too sweet. Whilst Cabiria struggles to hold back her tears, Charity cries and cries, so often that at some point I no longer care for her sorrows. Cabiria has the strength, and the pride, that Charity lacks- her life is a mess, she is often in despair, she yearns for a way out but can find nothing and keeps trusting the wrong people, but Cabiria doesn't want to be pitied. Because she rejects pity and stresses on her independence and wants to stand on her feet, we find ourselves with her, feeling for her and believing in her. In spite of everything, she will stand up and will be OK. Charity may sometimes pretend to be tough and turn to lying as a defence mechanism, but in general she begs, and cries, and seeks pity, so at some point it's no longer moving.
Having said all that, I find it unfair not to praise the sequence "Rich Man's Frug". It is, without doubt, the best dance number in the film. Look at Suzanne Charney, the lead. Wonder at the choreography. I can watch this over and over again. 

Or the "If They Could See Me Now" number, especially the part with the hat, from about 1:45:

Sweet Charity, in short, is to Nights of Cabiria what Nine is to . As a musical, it is enjoyable, with some excellent and entertaining dance numbers. As a remake, it is a reminder of how much superior the original was, how wonderful, how perfect, and a reminder that Fellini's films cannot be viewed once. 

Saturday 10 October 2015

The Portrait of a Lady: the signs

As I'm reading The Portrait of a Lady (behind almost everyone else in the read-along I organised myself), a question arises: Would I have seen what I saw if I had not known beforehand?
E.g.: That Isabel Archer would make a terrible mistake and end up badly?
Yes. Right from the start we have been told that Isabel lacks experience and guidance, asks if life is like books, and has her own theories about life. We don't need to have read about the novel, nor to have read some other work by Henry James, such as "Daisy Miller", to see that Isabel has an innocence and naivete that would make her fall victim to something, someone.
Not only so, there is lots of foreshadowing.
In chapter 15, Ralph says:
"There's no more usual basis of union than a mutual misunderstanding."
He later says in the same chapter:
"What I mean is that I shall have the thrill of seeing what a young lady does who won't marry Lord Warburton."
Then Isabel remarks:
"I don't understand you very well but I do so well enough to be able to say that if you look for grand examples of anything from me I shall disappoint you."
In chapter 16, Isabel tells Caspar Goodwood:
"... I try to judge things for myself; to judge wrong, I think, is more honourable than not to judge at all. I don't wish to be a mere sheep in the flock; I wish to choose my fate and know something of human affairs beyond what other people think it compatible with propriety to tell me."
"You're so kind as to speak of being afraid of my marrying. If you should hear a rumour that I'm on the point of doing so—girls are liable to have such things said about them—remember what I have told you about my love of liberty and venture to doubt it."
Caspar says:
"One would think you were going to commit some atrocity!"
To which she responds "Perhaps I am. I wish to be free even to do that if the fancy takes me." And then says:
"And remember too that I shall not be an easy victim!"
In chapter 19, Madame Merle says:
"I'm glad you've done nothing yet—that you have it still to do. It's a very good thing for a girl to have refused a few good offers—so long of course as they are not the best she's likely to have. Pardon me if my tone seems horribly corrupt; one must take the worldly view sometimes. Only don't keep on refusing for the sake of refusing. It's a pleasant exercise of power; but accepting's after all an exercise of power as well. There's always the danger of refusing once too often..."
And in chapter 23, Ralph ponders:
"Meanwhile he was quite willing to admit that the conversation of the elder lady was an advantage to the younger, who had a great deal to learn and would doubtless learn it better from Madame Merle than from some other instructors of the young. It was not probable that Isabel would be injured."
Those are just some random examples. Even though Gilbert Osmond doesn't appear till about half of the book, before that Henry James drops lots of hints and suggestions that point to only 1 thing: Isabel will contradict herself and something bad is about to happen. As James takes a long time to prepare the readers for that "something bad", he pushes it even further than the way Tolstoy uses foreshadowing in Anna Karenina. At the same time, as Barbara Hardy has written, James holds fast to the principle of relevance and most of the narrator's comments and most of the conversations (when Isabel's the participant or the subject) are about a couple of core ideas: that Isabel is young, natural, artless and inexperienced, that she doesn't want to marry, that she has ambitions and wants to be free, that she may have some means but may make a bad mistake, that people want to see what she will do. On the 1 hand, we see other characters attempt to read her and figure her out and create theories about her and shape her the way they see fit, which suggests that she's larger and more complex than all that. On the other hand, there is a vague impression that the portrait of Miss Archer is not a complete study of all of her facets and complexity, but merely a portrait of a young lady that lacks experience and insight and, because of that, will make a mistake.
Regarding the connection and comparison between James and George Eliot, who was it that told me James rewrote Daniel Deronda the way it should have been written and thus The Portrait of a Lady was created? That reminds me of what I wrote the other day about James and Turgenev. Tom wrote a comment that forced me to question myself what I really meant. I still don't know what I meant. However, I now see what Tom meant. James doesn't withdraw- he sometimes passes by and shows his face, makes some remarks, refers to Isabel as "our heroine", draws our attention to this, to that, etc.
The Portrait of a Lady seems less like James's attempt to correct George Eliot than James's dialogue with George Eliot, specifically Daniel Deronda. If Gwendolen suddenly loses almost everything, Isabel inherits a fortune. If Gwendolen is poor and Grandcourt is rich, Isabel is rich and Osmond is poor. Or put it this way, if Gwendolen is a victim because of her poverty (otherwise she wouldn't marry Grandcourt), Isabel is a victim because of her wealth. Does the inversion mean that James wants to say, a woman in a patriarchal society has many disadvantages and limitations imposed on her and often suffers, whether rich or poor? Or does he argue against female writers critiquing gender inequality and lack of opportunities for women, by showing that the Touchetts provide Isabel with the means to do whatever she likes and yet she gets nothing out of it? No, forget that, I'm going too far and that's not the way to read a novel. 
Perhaps in a few days I will retract everything I wrote in this post. Who knows. I'm on chapter 26.