Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Leon Edel's "Henry James: The Conquest of London 1870-1881"

There is a certain exhilaration in seeing Henry James move, seemingly inexorably, to the success of Daisy Miller, and the even greater achievement of A Portrait of a Lady. James turned out to be a shrewd entrepreneur of his genius, earning a living on his literary labors, writing less journalism as his fiction commanded higher prices, and so becoming independent of his family at Quincy Street, Massachusetts, as he tried New York City, then Paris, and finally London. 

In Paris, James did not think very much of the circle around Flaubert, which included writers like Maupaussant and Zola, and they did not embrace the American either. His deepest literary friendship was with another expatriate, Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, whose realism James admired enormously. The Russian was about twenty years older than James, and so was a kind of brother-and-father substitute for the lonely bachelor living on his own. 

James was a very professional writer. Mornings dedicated to writing, afternoons and evenings were invested in social visits, dinners and salons. He was not only making connections but was also gathering material for his novels. The great houses of England opened their doors to this handsome young American whose intelligent talk entertained and impressed. Edel's writing never flags in its liveliness, but yet another visit to another country house is only interesting to a certain extent, and even encounters with other literary lions, like George Eliot, give a flavor closer to gossip than epiphany. 

It is the perennial problem of penning a life of a writer, particularly an author like James who, essentially, did nothing else. The life is in the writing, and what life there is outside the writing is not the most vital part of the man. 

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