BOOK REVIEW / The historian of homelessness: Barbara Everett welcomes a new, coherent Life of Henry James, the lonely novelist with a formidable social existence: Henry James: The imagination of genius - Fred Kaplan; John Curtis pounds 25

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The Independent Culture
TWENTY years ago Leon Edel brought out the fifth and last volume of his Life of Henry James. The whole massive enterprise, 20 years in the making, is not without faults, touched throughout by humourlessness, self-importance and heavy-handed psychologising. Nevertheless, the biography earns its now agreed classic status. It illuminates a great tract of late 19th-century literary life on both sides of the Atlantic; moreover, and perhaps against expectation, it provides wonderful reading.

To rival Edel requires a bold man. Bold is the word, as it happens, for Fred Kaplan's Henry James: The Imagination of Genius. The book's subtitle is possibly even too bold and flashily forceful, and doesn't mean much - Kaplan is not primarily concerned with James's imagination, and gives little direct attention to defining his genius. But the book itself is excellent. Less than half the length of Edel's Life, not much more in fact than a quarter of a million words, it gains coherence from abbreviation. No sense of omission is likely to be felt; the large pages are packed and dense to a degree, exact chronologies occasionally getting confused in the process. James's own social engagements and visits and travels are of a pressure and intensity to leave a reader not needing more.

Kaplan's gift is to impose on these rich and strong materials a general character quite unlike his predecessor's. Edel inherited from an older school a narrative style of sympathy, of humane wisdom. Kaplan is faceless (though far from unpolished), with a speed and cogency that feel very appropriate to the 1990s: the tone is abruptly intelligent, cool and tacit but not unfeeling. It is this very impersonality that makes us seem to have come, by the end, very close indeed to Henry James.

Or at least to one image of James - who is revised, as biographies do revise their subjects. By and large, Kaplan's Henry James is a powerful, ironic master; an image stamped on the book by the superb dust-jacket photograph, new to me (Kaplan's illustrations are mainly superior to Edel's). High-browed and bulky-bodied, at once intimate and decidedly social, the eyes reflectively gauging the scene, the fist loosely grasping a cigarette: this is the elderly Edwardian James, looking formidable.

Henry James, of course, was formidable. Kaplan opens with the 21-year-old writer beginning his first story as the Civil War draws to a close. In the 50 years that followed, James wrote - through a career that was largely an experience of failure, despite a certain worldly grandeur - more than 20 novels, more than 100 stories, a dozen plays, scores of essays, a number of travel books, biographies and memoirs; and in his spare time, thousands of letters.

Most of this work is of superlative quality; I myself find no fiction-writer more endlessly re- readable than James. If Edel and Kaplan have produced two notable yet very different biographies within a relatively short period, then the explanation is in part James's own generous brilliance. Kaplan's Life has real intellectual energy; but it has to be added that it derives wit and vitality from its paraphrase of the James papers within it.

Henry James's letters are the ground-base for a biographer for several different reasons. The James family was of outstanding intellectual distinction; and the second son, Henry, though ranked by the family far lower than William (his elder brother and later a distinguished philosopher), was plainly the ablest of all of them. His intelligence was quiet, absorptive, observant, and was conditioned by his upbringing. The five James children spent their youth being trawled from the East Coast of America to Europe and back again by their peripatetic philosopher-father, the unemployed son of an Irish millionaire settler, and a self-educating free spirit who really felt at home nowhere.

Once fully grown, Henry James Junior had the same difficulty in deciding where to settle himself in Europe, so long as it was distant enough from his much-loved and dominating family. He finally chose London (and later Rye), largely for the linguistic ease of England. But the important thing, as he wrote himself, was 'not to live, in short, where one does live'. Just as he lived most in writing, even in letters to friends, so did his truest sense of place depend on distance from it, absence from the remembered scene.

James's essay on London in English Hours was written (symptomatically) in Italy. He travelled incessantly. And, on rather the same principle, he socialised exhaustively. In his time, he knew all of literary Europe. In his first season in London, while he was still gathering materials, he dined out every night for months. The letters (and the fiction, and the biographies in their turn) are a record of this glittering social existence - just as they also record his awareness of the poorest in London, and his calm belief that a social revolution would pull down (and with some justice) the whole great structure.

Kaplan writes, reflecting James's own dry sense of his paradoxical position: 'He had no doubt that London in 1883 was the best place to experience his homelessness . . . His excursions into English social life and his meetings with Victorian literary giants were simultaneously dull and fascinating.' The crowded pages of this life render with some precision this complication of the dull and the fascinating.

But if James had confined his novelist's imagination to the purely social, his work might have suffered the fate of, say, Meredith. Even in the earliest work, the theme of the inter-relations of Americans and Europeans transforms itself - as when Isabel Archer sits all night thinking by her dying fire - into much more private, much lonelier conditions.

Behind the social figure was a man definitively withdrawn, generically solitary: who owed (as Kaplan suggests) his elaborate speech-formations to a conquered earlier stammer. In old age, not long before he died, he wrote to his dead brother's widow concerning his loved nephews, a curiously touching and desperate word: 'Tell them to follow, to be faithful, to take me seriously' (not in Kaplan, but quoted in Edel). Henry James's lonelier self always disbelieved that life could take him seriously: and the writer's peculiar reputation in life and death suggests that there will never be a majority of readers willing to do just this.

This private Henry James, whom Conrad named the 'historian of fine consciences', Kaplan communicates less well. In a sense the biography of the inner man has to be the fiction he writes. An actual biographer is more at home with the public life, and will tend to categorise and melodramatise finer feelings. Rarely other than shrewd and mature, Kaplan nonetheless over-colours, slightly distorts; the buzz-word of this Life is 'homoerotic'. Lucidly noting that 'James did not think of himself as a homosexual', Kaplan (with some justification) carries on regardless, describing the painful story 'The Pupil' thus: 'Pemberton falls in love with the son of an American family living abroad.'

'The Pupil', whose hero could hardly be farther from falling in love, is about the pathos of childhood, the hardness of heart of Bohemians, about kindness betrayed and pity used and played on, about the impossibility of not selling out or being sold out in the life of feeling and of principle. Kaplan writes well about the way in which James transformed his 'homelessness' into internationalism, a place in the world of art. He handles less understandingly the principled strength that James derived from his lifelong work as an observer of human relations.