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Is "Portrait of a Lady" by Henry James a great American novel?

Portrait of a Novel - review.

Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece
Michael Gorra
W W Norton, 416pp, £20

Henry James once defined criticism as the mind “reaching out for the reasons of its interest”, a process that he deemed “the very education of our imaginative life”. Michael Gorra doesn’t include this quotation in Portrait of a Novel but it is an apt description of the book he has written about James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881).
For many readers, Portrait is the greatest of James’s many masterpieces. It was indisputably the pivot on which his fiction turned toward the problem that would absorb him for the rest of his life, the problem of consciousness. It is the novel that defined psychological interiority as drama, forever changing our ideas about what fiction can do. In particular, its famous 42nd chapter, in which Isabel Archer discovers that instead of “affronting her destiny”, as she hoped, her destiny has affronted her, must, as Gorra argues, stand “as one of James’s greatest achievements and a turning point in the history of the novel”.

I expect that mine will prove a minority perspective on Gorra’s marvellous portrait of Portrait, for I read it while in the final stages of revising my own book about the genesis of an American masterpiece, in my case F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Unearthing the roots of a classic novel is a (comparatively) novel way for the critic to reach out for the reasons of our own interests, to explore the education of our imaginative life. For Gorra, it provides an opportunity to reframe The Portrait of a Lady against the background of James’s life and art, his ideas about consciousness, desire and autonomy and his role in the invention of American literature. Like Gorra, I am also drawing on biography, correspondence, history and literary criticism to discover the origins of great fiction.

Yet, although our undertakings are virtually identical, our books are sharply divergent in style, structure and approach. This is as it should be, for so are the two novels we are exploring. In threading the story of James’s life through and around his pivotal Portrait, Gorra pays homage to the Master by finding a voice that filters and reflects James’s. Few could imitate James’s majestic style and Gorra is far too intelligent to try; but James’s sensibility suffuses his language, creating a book that feels not unlike reading James: stately, reflective, nuanced and wise.

Trying to trace the source of literature as if it were a river we can navigate is hazardous, for reasons Gorra makes clear: in seeking to recreate an author’s journey towards great fiction, one runs the risk of seeming to reduce a masterpiece to simplistic assertions of a facile correspondence between a work of imagination and the realities that may have helped inspire it. There is no “real” Isabel Archer, any more than there is a “real” Jay Gatsby, but both characters were modelled on the writer’s ideas about actual people – and upon other actualities they encountered. How could it be otherwise? “Few of James’s important characters have a source in a specific person,” Gorra writes. “What he does instead is to take not a person but a set of circumstances from the life around him.”

Gorra’s enterprise is to recreate as closely as he can those circumstances in order to interpret James’s novel. He has done a splendid job, writing a book full of felicitous observations as he creates a delicate cobweb of connections between the novel and its contexts. “The whole of anything is never told,” James remarked in his notebooks during the composition of Portrait; while respecting the truth of this observation, Gorra also wants to see how close he can come or, rather, to join in the project of redefining what we mean by the “whole” story of fiction.

Such projects are a rejection of the old critical piety that insists upon an absolute separation between life and art. If it is true that art is not identical to its origins, it is equally true that it has a relationship to those origins. The life and work are intertwined: it is folly to pretend otherwise but maintaining a false schism can be easier than the messy business of trying to think usefully about how a work of art connects to a long-lost world. Visiting Hardwick Court, the model for Gardencourt, the house in which James’s story opens, Gorra tells us: “We don’t know just where he would have done this, but the weather was warm and so let me place him in the Garden Room.” Some may see this as an affectation but it is scrupulous with the reader about what Gorra knows and what he doesn’t and it evinces a very Jamesian respect for the workings of consciousness.

James delighted in what he called “the palpable, imaginable visitable past – in the nearer distances”. We are trying to discover the visitable past, too; the question is what such sources can teach us about the work, as Gorra explains: “[T]he difference between the fictional page and the gravel of documentary truth can stand as a guide to artistic practice.” The reverse is also true, however: great fiction can show us how to read our national history. Indeed, one of Gorra’s stated goals is to think about James’s Portrait as a prismatic reflection of American ideals and their boundaries.

The Portrait of a Lady is a story about an American who believes in individual autonomy learning a very hard lesson about the limits of self-determination. Isabel will lose her innocence in every sense: as Gorra writes, she “rejects the plot that other people might write for her, and insists instead that she must be free to choose, free to make her own mistakes”. And it is a story about recovering the past: Isabel must rediscover her past in order to claim her future.

James’s Portrait is also a novel about our relationship to things, about whether what we own can represent us, to others or to ourselves. Isabel learns that things say more about her than she thought: she is not as free as she in - nocently, wilfully tried to remain. For Gorra, Portrait’s “account of the limits of self-sufficiency is what, above all, makes it stand as a great American novel” and “a critique of American exceptionalism”.

Late in Portrait of a Novel, Gorra notes that Isabel finds herself in a similar position to other well-known protagonists: “She hasn’t had the freedom she thought. The critic Arnold Kettle once called the Portrait a 19th-century version of Paradise Lost, a book about the end of a dream, about the loss of faith in the idea of in - dividual autonomy.” Before long, Gorra is noting the particular American valence of this idea: “America itself has had no separate or special creation. No fresh start, no city on a hill, no truly new world; no exception to or exemption from history itself . . . [W]hat almost 50 years later Fitzgerald would understand, too, dreaming of a green light whose promise he knows is illusory; learns a truth so at odds with the American imaginary that it must be repeated again and again, an innocence lost in each generation.”

In the end, both Gatsby and Portrait – and so both of our books about these novels – are about recapturing the past, about innocence lost and regained, America then and now. Above all, they are about the artist’s conviction that the exquisite matters, a conviction that remains one of life’s saving graces.

Sarah Churchwell is professor of American literature at the University of East Anglia

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis