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. 

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