Monday, July 4, 2011

10. Henry James

[The following is part of Peta Mayer's 10 Things to Expect From a Brookner Novel.]

How do you account for the passion that someone you love has for someone else? This is the task I confront when I think about how to contextualise the relationship between Brookner and Henry James. I look to her while she looks to him. Indeed the whole literary world looks to Henry James, but what does he look like to Brookner? For years Brookner was charged with writing a poorer man’s Henry James, meaning that you got some of the pain and deliberation without some of the sensitivity and charm. But if we take Harold Bloom’s theory of influence to heart, it also means we read James now in the light of Brookner. In which case she seems more sensitive to audience than he, more generous - less egotistically-wrought - and therefore lighter, trickier, more divested and perhaps more experimental. (Sorry, Henry)

Whatever the case, references to James pervade the Brookner oeuvre. She coupled James with Dickens when she said, ‘I’m quite content to claim these two great men as my mentors’ (although in the Brown interview she is less willing to establish a direct line of influence). Brookner wrote the preface to the Modern Library Classics 2001 edition of The Portrait of a Lady, although it’s probably one of her least admirable pieces insofar as her signature voice is mostly absent. Elsewhere she’s described him as a writer ‘whose every novel and story hovers over some kind of immanence, as if life were reserving surprises which are sensed though rarely directly addressed,’ and this tussle with the immanent is also true of Brookner’s fiction. Despite James’s own struggle with literary celebrity, she represents his legacy as ‘a life for which the terms success and failure are wholly inadequate.’ Like Brookner, James was a walker, ‘almost as prodigious as Dickens he would, on Sundays, walk from Kensington to Hampstead to visit Du Maurier, walk with him round Hampstead Heath, repair to the Du Mauriers for a meal, and then walk back to Kensington.’ Like James, Brookner ‘could dine out every night if she wanted to,’ her friend Carmen Calill once explained (Brookner dedicated A Friend from England to Calill). And, also like James, Brookner’s sexuality has been the subject of speculation. ‘That he remained celibate is an obvious difficulty for the modern reader, though this may have been no more than personal choice, or, alternatively, a consequence of the madness of art,’ she wrote. James’s celibacy is famously up for debate, as indeed are the figurative desires of the Brooknerine.

Brooknerines are committed readers of Henry James. In Falling Slowly, James provides a refuge for Miriam Sharpe in a time of tragedy.
James constitutes a diversion for Miriam, not only to the extent that his fiction offers a kind of panacea, but also because of the personal (sexual) mythology that surrounds him. Brookner gives A Closed Eye its title and epigraph from James’s Madame de Mauves, ‘She strikes me as a person who is begging off from full knowledge, - who has struck a truce with painful truth, and is trying awhile the experiment of living with closed eyes.’ In this novel, James is recruited as the expert of a type of necessary self-deception. But he’s not always or primarily a signifier of desperation for Brookner. In A Misalliance, Blanche Vernon wields James as a symbol of her controversial behaviour: ‘I might make an injudicious remark or start raving on about Henry James,’ she threatens her ex-husband Bertie. Brooknerines, then, can mobilise their Jamesian ravings to beneficent ends.
Already she had got through What Maisie Knew and The Awkward Age, and was about to start on The Tragic Muse. She marvelled that Henry James knew so much about women and children, yet had remained a bachelor, and by all accounts a man of the greatest integrity. She liked that about him, that and his reputation for modesty. He had deferred to worldly friends, as if he were not more worldly than any of them. There was nothing cheap about Henry James.

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