Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, By Michael Gorra - Paperbacks of the Year review


I wish I could give this sublime marrying of the art and the life 10 stars. This is very much a writer’s biography, and an absolutely gorgeous demonstration of how to frame a narrative begins, appropriately enough, with the framing by Gorra of the author, Henry James: “Many years later he would remember the way the book had begun. He was old then, and in England ....” It’s a description that mirrors beautifully the framing by James himself of the entrance of his great heroine, Isabel Archer, in The Portrait of a Lady, as “the girl in the doorway”.

Isabel was painted “in a doorway” poised as she was, like James, between the “old” world of Europe and the “new” world of America. James was the bridge between the Victorianism of George Eliot and the Modernism of T S Eliot, and Gorra charts the progress of this novel as James created the psychological novel, experimented with what his brother, the psychologist William James, would come to call “stream of consciousness”, used European locations such as London, Florence, and Rome to critique an old world order and, finally, brought us to understand what real evil could be. Not so much the destruction of a personality but the manipulation of it for one’s own ends.

Gorra is a delightful guide through James’s world, tracing the American’s steps in Florence, looking over the Arno from the point that James did, or mounting the stairs of his home in Rye. His investigations never detract attention from his subject, but he permits the admittance that he sheds tears at Isabel’s final scene with the dying Ralph. At literary festivals throughout the country, readers always ask writers how they write. This books tells us, but never was demystification such an enjoyable and inspiring experience.