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Master of reality: on Henry James' non-fiction

James elevated the novel to a higher plane – but 100 years after his death, it’s his surprising memoirs and essays that are enjoying a revival.

Henry James was the originator in ­English of novel-chauvinism, the idea that the extended prose fiction is, as he put it, “the book par excellence”. Between 1871 and 1904, during which time he published 19 novels, including The Europeans, Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady and What Maisie Knew, plus novellas such as Daisy Miller, The Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw, James also wrote dozens of reviews, essays on “The Art of Fiction” and “The Future of the Novel”, and half a dozen stories about the novelist’s earthly tribulations and posthumous mistreatment. In the words of a later novel-chauvinist, F R Leavis, James set out to accomplish “a general full recognition among the educated that creative talent – creative genius – was at least as likely to go into the novel as into any mode of art”. In this effort, James employed all the big rhetorical guns, not just French tags (“par excellence”), but capitals and superlatives. In the closing words of his preface to The Ambassadors, which he considered “the best, ‘all round’, of my productions”, he stated that “the Novel remains still, under the right persuasion, the most independent, most elastic, most prodigious of literary forms”.

The chauvinist position had a limiting effect on his relationship with non-novelists. T S Eliot, a fellow uprooted American and like-minded elegist for the unlived life, looking back on the arid years of his apprenticeship, said that he “learned something, no doubt, from Henry James”. That “something” went a long way, in terms of borrowed images and allusive phrasing. But Eliot felt he would have learned more if not for James’s “exclusive concentration on his own kind of work”. James moved through the world in a pair of novel-blinkers. Confronted with the volumes of Browning’s The Ring and the Book, he claimed, in a 1912 lecture, to experience “the sense, almost the pang, of the novel they might have constituted”. He called this phantom novel “a work of art . . . smothered in the producing” – hardly an orthodox way to mark the hundredth birthday of a poet.

But, for all this, the most prominent new publications during the centenary of James’s death, on 28 February 1916, do not relate to his fiction: a Library of America edition of his autobiographical writing, edited by Philip Horne, and Oliver Herford’s Henry James’s Style of Retrospect, a diligent and minutely argued study of the “late personal writings”. It is true that the Library of America has already produced 11 volumes of James’s fiction; that Cambridge University Press is in the process of doing a scholarly version of the same thing in 34; and that the James industry has already yielded writing on every inch of that work. Still, for almost three decades there has been a growing critical and editorial engagement with his non-fiction writing from the decade after his “major phase” novels – The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl – during which he published virtually no fiction. This work, amounting to a “second major phase”, includes the contentious travelogue The American Scene, an account of his 1904-05 tour of the much-changed United States he had left for Europe 30 years earlier; the long explanatory prefaces to the 24 volumes of the New York Edition of his fictions; the essays collected in Notes on Novelists (1914); and the autobiographies A Small Boy and Others (1913) and Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), which are printed alongside essays, notebook entries and an uncompleted third instalment in the Lib­rary of America volume.

If the late novels, with their snaking, ­nuance-laden sentences and relentless tracking of the characters’ inner lives, show that James was in at the beginning of literary modernism, the later non-fiction shows why he might be considered modern and even modish. The recent writing on him as a novelist talks of impressionism, vagueness, religious experience, melancholia. In the non-fiction, we meet James the Freudian, the explorer of family dramas and selfhood, the proto-psychogeographer given to flâneries, a figure whose descendants are neither self-conscious Jamesians such as Alan Hollinghurst and Cynthia Ozick nor self-declared modernists such as Eimear McBride and Tom McCarthy, but rather the likes of Karl Ove Knausgaard and David Shields, who embrace the literary potential of the memoir and the essay. In a letter written in 1908, when the prefaces had followed The American Scene in monopolising his attention, he spoke about being taken away from “‘creative’” work, throwing the
primacy of the novel into doubt many decades before somebody offered the first graduate seminar in “literary non-fiction”.

In his book Reality Hunger (2010), a plea for realistic art which proceeds from the conviction that the novel, far from being the only game in town, has long since had its day, Shields fingers James as an enemy – perhaps the enemy. It was James, he alleges, who took the novel away from its exciting “mongrel” origins, in documentary, topographical writing and autobiography, and asserted that it “must be the work of the imagination alone”. It isn’t clear where Shield got this idea, which is equally wrong about what James rejected and what he embraced.

Tony Tanner, in his book Henry James and the Art of Non-fiction (1995), pointed out that James insisted from the start “on the truth and reality of the novel; almost . . . on the non-fictionality of fiction”. Any reader of James’s prefaces or his working notebooks will know him as a serial plagiarist of dinner-party anecdotes. As if to win Shields’s approval, James said The Princess Casamassima, his 1886 novel about Victorian anarchism, emerged “from the habit and the interest of walking the streets”. In “The Art of Fiction” (1884), his own Reality Hunger, James urged novices: “Write from experience, and experience only.”

James gave more thought than David Shields could ever dream of doing to the problem of accommodating reality in writing. He believed that the “most fundamental and general sign of the novel, from one desperate experiment to another, is its being ­everywhere an effort at representation” – and representation for James is founded on a troubling conflict of priorities which he wanted to resolve.


In their feisty exchange of letters in 1915, H G Wells advised James that life “must not be whittled or distended for pattern’s sake”. But James did not need telling. It had been his life’s ambition to give a sense of reality through what he called form, which in his work usually meant that characters occupied a clear role in the book’s moral or conceptual structure, and that the plot would unfold in dramatic scenes, not through exposition or overt meditation.

It is understandable that Wells and others, such as E M Forster in Aspects of the Novel, might have thought that James favoured “pattern” over “life”. In his preface to The Tragic Muse, James had written that a picture without composition “slights its most precious chance for beauty”, and invoked by way of negative example “such large loose baggy monsters” as War and Peace, Thackeray’s The Newcomes and The Three Musketeers. Pre-empting the reply that these books exhibited “life”, he said it was the wrong kind – wasteful, otiose. What, he wondered, do these books “artistically mean”? For James, the Victorian novel was guilty on this count, not just Thackeray, but also Dickens, Trollope, Hardy and even George Eliot, who in Middlemarch provided a “treasure-house of details, but an indifferent whole”. The English novelist did not excel in what James called the “literary part of the business”. For examples of “what composition, distribution, arrangement can do”, he said, you have to “go elsewhere”: namely to the French and their superior display of audacity, neatness, acuteness, intellectual vivacity, fine arrangement of material, and so on.

But the French approach carried its own vices. It might not produce books that were large, loose and baggy, but it did produce books that, as James put it in an 1893 essay on Flaubert, were unconsoled, unhumorous and unsociable. In Zola’s Rougon-Macquart sequence, which considered a French family through heredity and environment, method became “almost the only thing we feel”. Here James praised the English for being “strong, genial, and abundant” – for being at home in the “moral world” and holding “their noses close . . . to the texture of life”. The novel’s tendency to “appear more true to its character” when it bursts its mould was, he wrote, its “high price . . . as a literary form”. Pattern without life was no better than life without pattern.

The reconciling of these opposites, achieving “a selection whose main care . . . is to be inclusive”, produced in him a sense of novel-anxiety, even defeatism. He lamented that there is “no art at all . . . that is not on too many sides an abject compromise”.

David Shields recognised James as a predecessor for his committed thinking on this problem, but not as a novelist practising an unmixed sort of non-fiction. In Reality Hunger, he identifies John Cheever’s journals, F Scott Fitzgerald’s misery memoirs and E M Forster’s Commonplace Book at the expense of their well-kempt novels as the work that gets closest to their experience of reality. But James should be Exhibit A in Shields’s case. He wrote in all of Shields’s beloved observational and introspective modes and did so when handling subject matter that Shields, too, has treated in non-fiction: American capitalism, the importance of reality in literature, his own life. James was the first novelist to publish, in A Small Boy and Others, a work of personal history that didn’t resemble the “Life” of a statesman (Trollope) or a saint (Tolstoy), pipping Proust by seven months – and besting Proust, by Shields’s criteria, because he did not feel the need to invent. Reminiscences of schooldays, visits to the theatre and museums, the food in the family larder, the “sweet taste of Albany”, came, James said, “from everywhere at once”. His amanuensis Theodora Bosanquet, in a vivid memoir printed as the appendix to Horne’s volume, recalled that “no preliminary work was needed”: “A straight dive into the past brought to the surface treasure after treasure, a wealth of material which became embarrassing.”

Embarrassing? Perhaps; but justified in the text itself, which, like Knausgaard’s My Struggle, is as preoccupied with remembrance as with memories. Early in James’s memoir, realising that he can only recall how he behaved during one long boyhood walk downtown with reference to another, and finding himself divided between the “still present freshness” of some memories and “my sense of perhaps making too much of these tiny particles of history”, he decides he will be guided by a rule:

. . . from the moment it is a question of projecting a picture, no particle that counts for memory or is appreciable to the spirit can be too tiny, and that experience, in the name of which one speaks, is all compact of them and shining with them.

Soon enough, as in Knausgaard, we return to voluminously subclaused sentences rich with evocation of a younger brother’s youthful callowness, escape through reading and dreams of future glory as a novelist.

James was glad to have chosen a “vast miscellany” that accommodated “everything”. But he still hoped the book would achieve “a grace of its own”, and a line from the opening paragraph of A Small Boy and Others implied a belief that, by some kind of internal logic or magic, it could achieve the synthesis similar to the one he sought in his fiction. To “knock at the door of the past”, he discovered, was “to see the world within begin to ‘compose’ with a grace of its own round the primary figure”.

In a notebook entry from 1905 printed in the new Library of America volume (the closest he came to a non-fiction credo) James dismisses the intense memories that were visiting him while writing The American Scene as “irrelevant strayings of the pen, in defiance of every economy”, before deciding that “to present these accidents” – to catch in full the unstaunched flow of recovered experience – “is what it is to be a master”. Oliver Herford explains that the critic Richard Poirier, reviewing an edition of James’s notebooks, insisted that James must have written “prevent”. Herford has seen the original. The S may be “cramped”, but an S it is. In a formulation that David Shields would feel obliged to cheer, Herford writes that the “stylistic accomplishment of the late personal writings may indeed be called a mastery of accidents” – that is, a masterly presentation and not a masterful prevention of them. But, like Wells and Forster, Poirier also seems to miss James’s perennial ambivalence towards pattern, and how he had always been concerned with presenting “accident”, but in such a way that – unlike in the baggy monsters, “with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary” – it would yield meaning.

Why, you might wonder, did James not just stick to the independent, elastic, prodigious novel? That was the chink in his chauvinism: not an insistence that there were places the novel couldn’t go, but an openness to the virtue of non-fiction. Unlike Shields and Knausgaard – “just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous”, he writes in book two of My Struggle – James saw possibilities and not an ultimatum. He turned to non-fiction despite his belief in the supremacy of the novel, and he returned to the novel for the same reason. In 1915, in a letter to Wells, he wrote: “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance . . . and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” And the 1908 letter where he placed “creative” between inverted commas also expressed the feeling that he “could really shed salt tears of impatience and yearning” to get back to novel writing.

For all the difficulties that the novel posed, there was one practitioner who offered James hope of a resolution: Balzac, “the father of us all”. After despatching Tolstoy and Thackeray in his preface to The Tragic Muse, James talked of his delight in “a deep-breathing economy and an organic form” – terms that encode his belief in a fusion of the novel’s warring priorities. This is what Balzac had achieved: a “solidly systematic” literary composition, combined with “free observation” and “personal experience”. And in The Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors, James felt that he had managed the same. Others agreed. In his essay “Henry James: an Appreciation”, published in 1905, Joseph Conrad, who along with Ford Madox Ford sought to emulate Jamesian form, noted that the reader is “never set at rest” by his novels. “His books end as an episode in life ends. You remain with the sense of the life still going on . . .”

A century later, James offers an escape route from our present bind. His personal writing supports the claims for non-fiction, while the obstinacy of his novel-chauvinism
serves as a rebuke to anti-novel sloganeering. Working on his final novel, The Ivory Tower, and returning to questions of “matter” and “manner”, form and life, he wrote:

I come back, I come back, as I say, all throbbingly and yearningly and passionately, oh, mon bon, come back to this way that is clearly the only one in which I can do anything now . . .

That The Ivory Tower avoided treating the Great War does not mean that James considered the novel a form unequal to this task. That he died before completing it was not a Freudian slip.

Henry James: Autobiographies , edited by Philip Horne, is newly published by the Library of America

Oliver Herford’s Henry James's Style of Retrospect: Late Personal Writings, 1890-1915 will be published by Oxford University Press in May

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era