Saturday 28 November 2015

Ellipses in The Portrait of a Lady- is James "evading the personally impossible" and "disguising a deficiency"?

Speaking of the ellipses in the narrative of The Portrait of a Lady, Michael Gorra believes that Henry James simply avoids what he can't well describe.
"... A novelist's 'individual technique', in Graham Greene's words, 'is more than anything else a means of evading the personally impossible, of disguising a deficiency'. Lesser writers never recognize their limitations. Many great ones stumble over something a hack might do with ease..."
James isn't interested in courtship, but he needs to marry off his heroine not at the end of the book, but now, he "needs to cover that territory, and will do so without entirely meeting its difficulties".
"... Some of his best early stories- tales like "Madame de Mauves" or "The Last of the Valerii"- depict the drama within marriage, the drama of those who are already locked together. James was also known for his reluctance to end his books with a wedding, and his imagination is persistently drawn to the moment of refusal, to events that don't happen. In his later work he would write about passion with a depth and precision that he could not as a young novelist command, but he would never be comfortable in showing the drama of acceptance. Tolstoy could do that, and Trollope. Not James..."
Earlier, Gorra has written about James's homosexuality, choice of bachelorhood, and relations with certain men.
He's very likely to be right. He's the James expert- who am I to contradict him? So far I have only read The Portrait of a Lady and a collection of 4 stories. 
What I think is that, even though Gorra can be right, whilst reading the novel I didn't think that James was staying out of an unknown, unfamiliar territory. He makes a choice, and it works. Of course, other writers tackle it differently- we have seen George Eliot do it; we can imagine how Tolstoy would do it. But James makes his choice, and I feel it's the way things should be done. Its effects become its justifications (without making one feel there have to be justifications). 

Thursday 26 November 2015

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Isabel Archer

In Portrait of a Novel, Michael Gorra examines the sources of inspiration for Isabel Archer. 
1 is George Eliot, of course, specifically her heroines Dorothea Brooke and Gwendolen Harleth. The Portrait of a Lady is Henry James being inspired by but resisting and reacting to Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda.
Another is James's cousin Minny Temple. Intelligent, natural, playful, free-spirited, "modern", vivacious, audacious, mischievously irreverent, frank, reckless... Look at this passage I found in James's Notes of a Son and Brother
"She was absolutely afraid of nothing she might come to by living with enough sincerity and enough wonder; and I think it is because one was to see her launched on that adventure in such bedimmed, such almost tragically compromised conditions that one is caught by her title to the heroic and pathetic mark. It is always difficult for us after the fact not to see young things who were soon to be lost to us as already distinguished by their fate; this particular victim of it at all events might well have made the near witness ask within himself how her restlessness of spirit, her finest reckless impatience, was to be assuaged or 'met' by the common lot..." 
That sounds like Isabel, and at the same time reminds one of another character by James: Daisy Miller. 
More interestingly, Gorra argues how Isabel can be seen in terms of Emerson, in the sense that Isabel's insistence on independence and the freedom to choose, even to choose wrongly, seems to echo Emerson's ideas of self-reliance. She isn't as free as she imagines herself to be, and she isn't free because she's a woman, because she inherits a fortune, which is both a blessing and a curse, because she is theoretical and fancies herself heroic, because she knows what she doesn't want but not what she wants, because she doesn't know enough about the world. Her idea of her own freedom is abstract. 
Here I have Henry James's Selected Literary Criticism. Look at this passage from his essay "Emerson": 
"The plain, God-fearing, practical society which surrounded him was not fertile in variations: it had great intelligence and energy, but it moved altogether in the straightforward direction. On 3 occasions later- 3 journeys to Europe- he was introduced to a more complicated world; but his spirit, his moral taste, as it were, abode always within the undecorated wall of his youth. There he could dwell with that ripe unconsciousness of evil which is 1 of the most beautiful signs by which we know him. [...] He knows the nature of man and the long tradition of its dangers; but we feel that whereas he can put his finger on the remedies, lying for the most part, as they do, in the deep recesses of virtue, of the spirit, he has only a kind of hearsay, uninformed acquaintance with the disorders..." 
Later in the same essay, writing of Emerson's insensibility to the works of great novelists, James says: 
"... Hawthorne's vision was all for the evil and sin of the world; a side of life as to which Emerson's eyes were thickly bandaged. There were points as to which the latter's conception of right could be violated, but he had no great sense of wrong- a strangely limited one, indeed, for a moralist- no sense of the dark, the foul, the base. There were certain complications in life which he never suspected. One asks one's self whether that is why he did not care for Dante and Shelley and Aristophanes and Dickens, their works containing a considerable reflection of human perversity..." 
I can see how Isabel Archer, who shows the problems with self-reliance, can be read as James's response to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Through You, a short animated film

Through You from il Luster on Vimeo.

Sunday 22 November 2015

"Music to Watch Girls By"- Andy Williams

The boys watch the girls while the girls watch the boys who watch the girls go by
Eye to eye, they solemnly convene to make the scene
Which is the name of the game, watch a guy watch a dame on any street in town
Up and down and over and across, romance is boss

Guys talk "girl talk", it happens everywhere
Eyes watch girls walk with tender lovin' care

It's keepin' track of the pack watching them watching back
That makes the world go 'round
"What's that sound?" each time you hear a loud collective sigh
They're making music to watch girls by

Guys talk "girl talk", it happens everywhere
Eyes watch girls walk with tender lovin' care

It's keepin' track of the pack watching them watching back
That makes the world go 'round
"What's that sound?" each time you hear a loud collective sigh
They're making music to watch girls by

The boys watch the girls while the girls watch the boys who watch the girls go by
Eye to eye, they solemnly convene to make the scene

La, la, la, la

Thursday 19 November 2015

Stevenson: No art can successfully compete with life

From "A Humble Remonstrance" (a response to Henry James's "The Art of Fiction") in R. L. Stevenson on Fiction
"... No art — to use the daring phrase of Mr. James — can successfully “compete with life”; and the art that seeks to do so is condemned to perish Montibus Aviis. Life goes before us, infinite in complication; attended by the most various and surprising meteors; appealing at once to the eye, to the ear, to the mind — the seat of wonder, to the touch — so thrillingly delicate, and to the belly — so imperious when starved. It combines and employs in its manifestation the method and material, not of one art only, but of all the arts, Music is but an arbitrary trifling with a few of life’s majestic chords; painting is but a shadow of its pageantry of light and colour; literature does but drily indicate that wealth of incident, of moral obligation, of virtue, vice, action, rapture and agony, with which it teems. To “compete with life,” whose sun we cannot look upon, whose passions and diseases waste and slay us — to compete with the flavour of wine, the beauty of the dawn, the scorching of fire, the bitterness of death and separation — here is, indeed, a projected escalade of heaven; here are, indeed, labours for a Hercules in a dress coat, armed with a pen and a dictionary to depict the passions, armed with a tube of superior flake-white to paint the portrait of the insufferable sun. No art is true in this sense: none can “compete with life”: not even history, built indeed of indisputable facts, but these facts robbed of their vivacity and sting; so that even when we read of the sack of a city or the fall of an empire, we are surprised, and justly commend the author’s talent, if our pulse be quickened. And mark, for a last differentia, that this quickening of the pulse is, in almost every case, purely agreeable; that these phantom reproductions of experience, even at their most acute, convey decided pleasure; while experience itself, in the cockpit of life, can torture and slay.
What, then, is the object, what the method, of an art, and what the source of its power? The whole secret is that no art does “compete with life.” Man’s one method, whether he reasons or creates, is to half-shut his eyes against the dazzle and confusion of reality. The arts, like arithmetic and geometry, turn away their eyes from the gross, coloured and mobile nature at our feet, and regard instead a certain figmentary abstraction. Geometry will tell us of a circle, a thing never seen in nature; asked about a green circle or an iron circle, it lays its hand upon its mouth. So with the arts. Painting, ruefully comparing sunshine and flake-white, gives up truth of colour, as it had already given up relief and movement; and instead of vying with nature, arranges a scheme of harmonious tints. Literature, above all in its most typical mood, the mood of narrative, similarly flees the direct challenge and pursues instead an independent and creative aim. So far as it imitates at all, it imitates not life but speech: not the facts of human destiny, but the emphasis and the suppressions with which the human actor tells of them. The real art that dealt with life directly was that of the first men who told their stories round the savage camp-fire. Our art is occupied, and bound to be occupied, not so much in making stories true as in making them typical; not so much in capturing the lineaments of each fact, as in marshalling all of them towards a common end. For the welter of impressions, all forcible but all discreet, which life presents, it substitutes a certain artificial series of impressions, all indeed most feebly represented, but all aiming at the same effect, all eloquent of the same idea, all chiming together like consonant notes in music or like the graduated tints in a good picture. From all its chapters, from all its pages, from all its sentences, the well-written novel echoes and re-echoes its one creative and controlling thought; to this must every incident and character contribute; the style must have been pitched in unison with this; and if there is anywhere a word that looks another way, the book would be stronger, clearer, and (I had almost said) fuller without it. Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing and emasculate. Life imposes by brute energy, like inarticulate thunder; art catches the ear, among the far louder noises of experience, like an air artificially made by a discreet musician. A proposition of geometry does not compete with life; and a proposition of geometry is a fair and luminous parallel for a work of art. Both are reasonable, both untrue to the crude fact; both inhere in nature, neither represents it. The novel, which is a work of art, exists, not by its resemblances to life, which are forced and material, as a shoe must still consist of leather, but by its immeasurable difference from life, which is designed and significant, and is both the method and the meaning of the work..."

Saturday 14 November 2015

Jane Campion's take on Henry James

Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady is a film adaptation that I don't recommend to those who haven't read the novel, who may be confused about what's going on; nor to those who have read and not enjoyed it, who aren't likely to appreciate Henry James better; and perhaps not to those who have read and loved the novel either, who may be bothered by the omissions and the miscasting.
Adapting James is difficult- much of his greatness is in dealing with nuances of feeling, with words unspoken and feelings unexpressed. Much is lost when brought to the screen. 1 of the best parts of the book, Isabel's dilemma regarding Warburton and Pansy, is simplified, whilst many of the characters, already impressionistic in James's book, are flattened. Worse than that, too much is left out, glossed over- of course omissions there must be when a novel's turned into a film, but in this case they make it hard to understand for people unfamiliar with the story.
The good thing about this film is that it's not a lazily faithful adaptation. Jane Campion doesn't merely turn words into images, she takes James's material and does something interesting with it- her film is an interpretation. It is bold from the start, as we hear the voice of some girl describing the feeling of the moment just before being kissed, which isn't in the book, and as the names start to appear, we see several young women, young modern women around Isabel's age, dancing, swaying, looking at the camera. Then there's a close-up of Nicole Kidman's face as Isabel Archer. The scene is of Warburton proposing to her, which means that Campion cuts everything before that moment including character introductions. That juxtaposition heightens the comparison/ contrast she wants to make between Isabel and modern young women of the same age.
Another bold move is that Campion sexes up the story, mostly through 2 fantasy sequences. The 1st one is when Goodwood touches Isabel's face, and she fantasises about her suitors. What does it mean? That she fears the erotic? Or that she does want Goodwood and/or Warburton but, at that point, still chooses her freedom and independence? The 2nd fantasy is about Osmond. This is an interpretation of the original book- Isabel is sexually attracted to him. Campion also makes other changes regarding the villain- there's a scene in which he holds Pansy in his arms and caresses her in a way that seems to suggest incest and molestation; he becomes more malevolent, and violent, as he physically attacks Isabel whilst still talking in his soft, icy cold voice. Sadly, this is where the problem lies- for the role of Gilbert Osmond, Campion casts John Malkovich. He plays well a villain, a psycho of sorts, with good manners, and his voice is perfect- soft, thin, low, languid, drawly, simultaneously soothing and menacing. But his looks are wrong, and it is hard to see how Isabel rejects 2 men but accepts him. Though I admittedly can't see John Malkovich without seeing Lennie Small, Mitch Leary or Marvin Boggs and didn't even believe in his Vicomte de Valmont (Dangerous Liaisons), looking through several reviews makes me feel less alone- many critics are also unconvinced. Why Isabel chooses Osmond in the novel can be interpreted in multiple ways, it's a combination of factors rather than a single reason. By sexing up the story, Campion offers an explanation, a simplified one, and to make it worse, the simple answer is not convincing.
The choice of Barbara Hershey for the role of Madame Merle is, too, problematic. There is a hardness on her face that causes distrust right from the start, and even though Campion lets us identify the villains and their relations before Isabel does, it's not easy to see how Isabel's charmed with and drawn to Madame Merle. That I say as someone that has read James's novel. A person who hasn't can't see Isabel's adoration of and confidence in Madame Merle, which later reduces the effect of the revelation that in the book shocks and shatters Isabel (it is this shocking news that acts as a catalyst for her defiance). On the other hand, Campion and Hershey make her more of a tragic figure, more manipulated than manipulative. That's an interesting change. As Madame Merle becomes more tragic, Osmond becomes a bigger villain.
In short, this is an unsuccessful adaptation, but an interesting one. Perhaps that is a good enough reason for one to watch it. 

Paris terror attacks

My heart goes out to the people of France and everyone affected by this terrible tragedy. 

Thursday 12 November 2015

The 2 Portraits

Others have moved on, I'm still writing about The Portrait of a Lady. As my loan expired, I returned my copy of the novel and got hold of another one, a Norton edition. The preface begins with:
"Although there is only 1 novel by Henry James called The Portrait of a Lady, we have what amounts to 2 separate Portraits. The 1st appeared in 1880- 81 and the other, with extensive retouching, was unveiled over a quarter century later in 1908."
This version includes in its appendix all the textual variants plus 3 essays discussing the 2 Portraits. Here are the key points:
1/ "The Painter's Sponge and Varnish Bottle" (F. O. Matthiessen):
- The 2 words "picturesque" and "romantic", used freely and loosely in the 1881 version, are struck out and replaced with others in the 1908 version.
- The word "vulgar" appears more often.
- More concrete. James endows "his dramatis personae with more characterising images".
- "From his initial description of her in the house at Albany, he wanted to emphasise that she was less mistress of her fate than she fondly believed". Changes "young girl" to "creature of conditions".
- The 1908 Isabel is "far less concerned about happiness than about enlightenment and freedom".
- Heightens Osmond's "thoroughly studied effect" and interrelates his character with his surroundings.
- Stresses Osmond's "utter dependence on art rather than on nature".
- Madame Merle's surface becomes less transparent to Isabel.
- Madame Merle's no longer endowed with "a certain nobleness" but with "a certain courage", not with "geniality" but with "grace". In 1881, she plays Beethoven; in 1908, she plays Schubert.
- The interplay between Isabel and Warburton, when he comes back after her marriage, is made more subtle.
- In 1908, suggests Pansy's trapped state from the outset. "Instead of saying that Pansy entertained Isabel 'like a little lady', James wrote that she 'rose to the occasion as the small, winged fairy in the pantomime soars by the aid of the dissimulated wire'."
- In the scene of Ralph's death, James deepens the emotional tones.
- The Countess becomes a more lively mixture, with the bird-motif.
- Nearly all the lines in which she tells Isabel of the liaison are rewritten. James also builds up the contrast between the 2.
- In the 1881 version, Countess Gemini also says that Madame Merle grows more ambitious (to explain why she doesn't marry Osmond). In 1908, she goes on "she had never had, what you might call any illusions of intelligence", meaning that Isabel has. "That gives the final twist to the knife".
- James sharpens Goodwood's "indomitable energy". 1 way is through the recurrent images of armour. He rewrites the final scene between Goodwood and Isabel, and makes us feel "her overpowering sensation of his physical presence".
"That conveys James' awareness of how Isabel, in spite of her marriage, has remained essentially virginal, and of how her resistance and her flight from Caspar are partly fear of sexual possession."
- The last scene is changed, but it doesn't mean James changes his mind. He only clarifies his meaning.
- "Isabel's link with humanity, if not through sin- unless her wilful spirit counts as such- is through her acceptance of suffering. The inevitability of her lot is made more binding in the revision."
- "Through Isabel Archer [James] gave 1 of his fullest and freshest expressions of inner reliance in the face of adversity".

2/ "The New Isabel" (Anthony J. Mazzella):
- "The Isabel Archer who faces her destiny is not the same young woman in both versions, nor is the quality of her destiny the same. She may travel the same road in each case, and meet people with the same names; but the road has different landmarks and the people are different travellers- more keenly felt, more sharply felt, more fully realised- and other than what they were." 
- "A major element in the refinement into another character is an emphasis on her freedom and vulnerability". James uses the images of the bird and the greyhound. 
[I have written that Countess Gemini and Madame Merle are birds. So is Isabel.
Caspar thinks about her: "He had never supposed she hadn't wings and the need of beautiful free movements..." 
Ralph says "Spread your wings; rise above the ground." 
Mrs Touchett says "Now, of course, you're completely your own mistress and are as free as the bird on the bough..."] 
- James stresses more strongly Isabel's fear of limitation.
- Stresses more strongly the freedom money can bring. "... Warburton remarks that Touchett should not chide him for being rich because, in the 1st version, 'you are so ridiculously wealthy', and in the revision, because 'you have- haven't you?- such unlimited means'." 
- A heightened sense of danger Isabel faces in the future. 
- "When Warburton proposes, the later Isabel, unlike the earlier one, has a sense of being trapped". Her relationship with each of her suitors in the 1908 version reinforces her sense of the danger surrounding marriage. Violent images. A sense of being trapped is also more emphatic in the later Isabel when she meets Osmond. 
1881: "There was something rather severe about the place; it looked somehow as if, once you were in in, it would not be easy to get out." 
1908: "There was something grave and strong in the place; it looked somehow as if, once you were in, you would need an act of energy to get out." 
- "The later Isabel is shown as being afraid of the erotic...". There is "a disturbing erotic ambience which pervades the revised novel"; the sexual connotation is reinforced. 
- In the 1881 version, when Isabel objects to Warburton's advances, he vows to remain silent. In the 1908 version, he says "I'll keep it down. I'll keep it down always." Sexual innuendo. 
- Many revisions show that Isabel's afraid of Warburton's masculinity. Goodwood also "represents a threat to her sense of freedom". 
"... the hidden basis of her concern: for the early Isabel it is a dislike of personal aggression; for the later Isabel it is a fear that her freedom will be lost through erotic possession. The later Isabel fears a limitation of her freedom in yielding to Goodwood because, as the revisions reveal, she feels that she would yield to him fully as she would to no one else." 
- The kissing scene is rewritten.
- "James suggests that, at heart, what Isabel fears is a loss through the erotic of a special freedom- the freedom of the mind to function unimpeded. [...] She is not afraid merely of the erotic experience itself but rather its tendency to diminish the life of the mind. [...] She exists supremely on the level of pure mind, and the erotic would destroy that existence." 
- The 1908 Isabel "experiences life through a significantly expanded consciousness". Also, "she is aware of nuances, she responds more fully, her mind is more striking, her range of interest more broad". Osmond "sets more chords of consciousness vibrating in the 2nd Isabel than in the 1st". 
- The response of the 2nd Isabel to Madame Merle is more finely intellectual, whilst her response to money becomes strangely sensuous.
- Isabel's love for Osmond is revised. "Thus, entering into the 2nd Isabel's consciousness is the awareness of being helpless when possessed by another and of losing one's freedom of mind when 'charmed' or bewitched." 

3/ "Revision and Thematic Change in The Portrait of a Lady" (Nina Baym): 
- The writing becomes more complex, mannered and metaphorical. 
- James gives the 1908 Isabel acute, subtle consciousness and a rich mental life but "effaces the original main quality of her character, emotional responsiveness", makes her life intensely in the mind rather than her feelings and thereby "deprives her of some of the appealing spontaneity, vivacity and activity in the 1881 character". 
- "Early Isabel is trapped by her simplicity; late Isabel must be the dupe of her subtlety". She is exalted, less a fool than a saint. 
- 1908 Isabel: more observant, less active, more intellectual, less emotional. 
- As Isabel is made more acute and subtle, "Madame Merle and Osmond lose such good qualities as they possess in the original, and are turned into wholly devious and shallow people". Their characters are blackened. They become more complete performers. The revisions "deprive them of substance and transform them into empty shells". The 1908 Isabel is "a worse judge of people", at the same time, "she is more stiff and self-righteous in her mistake". 
- Ralph isn't played down, but other characters are flattened. 
- Grotesque exaggerations destroy Countess Gemini's humanity. 
Before she tells Isabel about the liaison: 
1881: Isabel thinks she's going to say something "important". 
1908: Isabel thinks, for the 1st time, she's going to say something "really human". 
- Henrietta: sillier, harsher, more unpleasant, more vulgar, more stupid. 
- "The point of the 1881 description is to demonstrate that Henrietta is not a stereotyped female journalist, unsexed and unkempt. She is pretty, decorous, and ladylike. The later images stress her modernity and brashness, turning her into a different cliché- the tough, efficient career girl. Removing the element of softness and personal understatement of Henrietta's character, James makes her loud, overbearing, and obnoxious." Cheapens the character. 
- "Since both Warburton and Goodwood are highly eligible as husbands, the reader may feel that Isabel's solution would have been a different marriage rather than none at all. Critics have mostly believed that Isabel ought to have married and take her severely to task for failing to fall in love with 1 or the other, dividing into camps according to whom they favour. But the formula proposes love as invariably saving by making young women invariably love wisely, and this is 1 falsehood James is exposing. [...] Many of the critics have just the attitude that disturbs Isabel in her suitors: the presumption that because an offer has been made, she is obligated to accept it or to have an excellent reason for turning it down. Neither Warburton nor Goodwood can accept the idea that she refuses them because she is unwilling to accept any mode of existence that is not self-expressive." 
- "It does not matter that the forms of Goodwood's and Warburton's lives are good, and that a woman might live happily and usefully within them. They require the woman to be a satellite in someone else's solar system, and Isabel claims the right to be her own sun". 
However, "brought up female, she has no idea what she might 'do' to be independent. The word does not translate into action." Protected and insulated background, lack of training and discipline, romantic temperament encouraged by circumstances. 
- Isabel thinks Osmond more free because he's "less obviously a product of environment than Goodwood and Warburton". 
- "Since Isabel did not freely choose him but was manipulated into the marriage, she is absolved from the moral obligation to suffer the results of her own decision." She "increasingly realises the groundlessness of all the reasons she can advance to stay with him". 
- The loss of the child is plotted to give her free reins to leave Osmond. 
- Henrietta is evidence that "James does not want to say that independence is metaphysically incompatible with love and marriage [...] Isabel's disappointment in her friend for showing such weakness is only an extension of her own disillusionment. James's idea, however, seems almost to be that the real possibilities of love and marriage are to be experienced only by those who do not depend on them to give life meaning." 
- "James sympathises with Isabel's ideals, deplores the external obstacles that thwart them, and still objectively shows how much the obstacles are internal, in Isabel's inadequate preparation for and understanding of the life she thinks she has chosen". 
- "The matrix of values which radiates out from 'independence' in 1881 centres in 'awareness' in 1908, with attendant dislocations of emphasis. Awareness in 1881 is a means towards the end of an independent life; in 1908 the independent life is attained only in awareness- the 2 things are almost identical. The only possible independence is the independence of perfect enlightenment. Consequently, Isabel is no longer perceived as having failed, and, not having failed, she has no limitations or shortcomings of thematic consequence." 

Saturday 7 November 2015

Walter Allen on George Eliot and Tolstoy

In his book George Eliot, Walter Allen quotes W. J. Harvey as saying, whilst comparing Daniel Deronda to Anna Karenina, "One cannot imagine George Eliot encompassing either Levin's simple joy at being alive and in love or the complex intensities of Anna Karenina's passion". He goes on to write "In the same way, Middlemarch is not only much smaller, much more restricted, than War and Peace as a panorama of life in history, it also lacks entirely the simple, sensuous, almost animal joy in being alive that permeates Tolstoy's novel." 
Later he writes:
"... V. S. Pritchett has said, 'There is no real madness in George Eliot', meaning by madness the sense of the forces of the irrational, the daimonic, the incomprehensible in men's lives. This is to say that, for all her profound reverence, she is never a religious novelist; and the reality of sexual passion is also foreign to her. Her view of life was unswervingly and all the time a moral view, and nothing that existed outside the moral view, that could not be netted by it, existed for her. The loftiness of the moral view she held cannot prevent us from thinking that there is a great deal in life that cannot be adequately explained or illuminated by it. The world is not primarily, as it too often seems in her novels, a gymnasium for the exercise and development of the moral faculties. Her picture of life, then, is more limited than her most fervent admirers are always willing to admit." 

Wednesday 4 November 2015

Literature teaches us to notice

From How Fiction Works by James Wood:
"Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, whereas literature teaches us to notice [...]
This tutoring is dialectical. Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practise on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on. You have only to teach literature to realise that most young readers are poor noticers. I know from my own old books, wantonly annotated 20 years ago when I was a student, that I routinely underlined for approval details and images and metaphors that strike me now as commonplace, while serenely missing things which now seem wonderful. We grow, as readers, and 20-year-olds are relative virgins. They have not yet read enough literature to be taught by it how to read it."

Tuesday 3 November 2015

Chơi lên trăng (Hàn Mặc Tử)

Tôi đi trong ánh sương mờ 
Tìm con trăng lạc ngoài bờ bên kia 
Xứ yêu bát ngát, tôi lìa 
Dò xem ý tứ ban khuya, tôi liều 

Tôi gò mây lại 
Tôi tìm sao bay 
Gió nào tràn ngập xứ này 
Và tràn ngập cả những ngày xa xôi 
Không trào nước mắt không thê thảm 
Tôi dọa không gian, rủa tới cùng 
Tôi khát vô cùng 
Tôi riết thời gian trong nắm tay 
Tôi vo tiếc mến như vo lụa 
Cất tiếng cười ròn xao động vùng mây. 
Tôi nhập hồn tôi trong khúc hát 
Để nhờ không khí đẩy lên trăng 
Để nghe tiếng nhạc Nghê Thường trổi 
Để hớp tinh anh của nguyệt cầu 
Và để thoát ly ngoài thế giới 
Để cười, để trững, để yêu nhau. 

Lên chơi cung Quế lần đầu 
Ôi phép lạ, ôi nhiệm màu 
Vườn tiên sáng láng như lòng người thương.

Hàn Mặc Tử

Sunday 1 November 2015

The greatness of The Portrait of a Lady

1/ Tom has been writing about James's technical innovations in The Portrait of a Lady: the filmic equivalents and the time shifts. I've also written about time here and here.
2/ To see more clearly what James's doing in the novel, let's compare it to Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. Isabel has traits of Dorothea Brooke and Gwendolen Harleth. Gilbert Osmond is "the apotheosis of dryness", like Casaubon and Grandcourt. Middlemarch has a Sir, The Portrait of a Lady has a Lord. In both novels, Rome is a place of misery. And so on. The similarities, the inspiration are easy to see. It's what James does differently that has my interest.
In a post written about 3 weeks ago, I wrote:
"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."
If Grandcourt's former lover tries to separate Gwendolen from him, Osmond's former lover brings him and Isabel together. If Grandcourt dies and thereby frees Gwendolen, the one that dies in The Portrait of a Lady is not Osmond but the person that is kindest to Isabel.
3/ Whereas Daniel Deronda has 2 strands of stories (that only touch) and Middlemarch has 4 plots, James's novel has only 1. Not only so, James narrows his focus to a single character. The whole novel revolves around the question "What will she do?". Other characters are satellites, or worse, furniture. The Pansy sub-plot almost develops into another plot, but after a while fades again into the background, and after all its main function is still to contribute to the portrait of Isabel Archer.
4/ The novel is less about characters than about their feelings and relations and interactions.
5/ James skips scenes and deliberately doesn't present Isabel's crucial moments of decision. He's indirect, we have to put things together. It bothers some people, but not me. I celebrate it.
6/ James doesn't only write what is said; he draws our attention to what is left unsaid.


Though in the end Isabel's still shrouded in mist, that is we still can't say what she's like or why so many men fall deeply and passionately in love with her, she seems so alive and vivid and real. The furniture are brought to life now and then, James gives them some humanity even if he doesn't consider them important (compare to the attention and efforts Tolstoy gives to many supporting characters that don't have much to do with the plot). As the story comes to what is not a close, the readers are left wondering what decision Isabel will make, but I also find myself wanting to know what happens to Goodwood after he meets Henrietta, to Henrietta after she's married, to Mrs Touchett after Ralph dies, to Warburton after he's married, to Pansy after Isabel takes her choice, to Madame Merle after she leaves for America...
I don't quite know how James manages it- how he creates such odd characters, not fully fleshed out, in such an impressionistic manner, and yet still makes me care for them as though they're not his puppets.


I didn't "get" James right away. It took me some time, feeling frustrated and wondering about the slow pace and abundance of dialogue and vagueness of character, but things changed after a while, or maybe I did. I must thank my reading of "Daisy Miller" and some short works, which helped me going. Some writers suit you right away, captivate you, impress you, move you; some others require you to bend, to turn into a different shape, but when the result is satisfying, the effort is worth it. What I most admire, and like, is how James deals with subtleties. I think of Joseph Epstein's praise "James seems to me the most artistically intelligent, the most subtle, finally the greatest American writer." I have seen some of that in "Daisy Miller", but it's too short a work, there's not enough space. James can do much more in a long, vast work like The Portrait of a Lady. He understands pride and the stubborn determination to repress one's feelings and wear a mask before the world. He understands pain and agitation and yet the inarticulateness, the difficulty in expressing one's feelings. He knows the inadequacy of words and the distance between 2 human beings, as he sees the walls we build against each other. He knows disillusionments, disappointments, regrets. He sees naivete. He sees evil. James's best in those scenes where the characters face each other and can't, or don't, speak. So close, and yet so far. It seems like he wishes to remind us how difficult it is to understand a human being and predict their actions, and at the same time, how small, frail and lonely we all are.