"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

October 4, 2012

"The Portrait of a Lady" (1880) by Henry James (Book Review)

The Portrait of a Lady, written by the American-born, European-minded author Henry James (1843-1916), is a masterful story about the cruel loss of ideals. James himself called it "the conception of a certain young woman affronting her destiny." What will she "do?"

From The Portrait of a Lady on, for the rest of his life, James would be absorbed by the problem of "consciousness." The novel derived great drama from psychological interiority, changing reader's ideas about what fiction can do. In the end Isabel Archer discovers that instead of “affronting her destiny”, as she had hoped, her destiny has affronted her. (See this review in the New Statesman).

An orphaned young American woman, Isabel Archer, visits her rich relatives who have settled down in England, at an estate called Gardencourt. She is a strong and willful person, who knows her own mind and is full of ideals. She has refused an American suitor, square-jawed and boring businessman Caspar Goodwood, who however follows her to England to press his suit again and in fact keeps stalking her until the last pages of the book. But to her family's surprise, she also refuses the soft-spoken Lord Warburton, a friend of the family who lives nearby, and who has both rank and fortune - she thinks him too safe and sure and seeks a man with more inspiration. The third man in love with her is her nephew, Ralph Touchett, but as he is suffering from tuberculosis and does not expect to live very long, he keeps his feelings secret and becomes her best and only true friend. In fact, he persuades his dying father to bequeath a large portion of his inheritance to Isabel - Ralph looks with pleasure forward to what she will do with her life when she is rich and independent. Well, unfortunately there will be no such pleasure...

[Henry James - From: Wikipedia]

After her uncle's death, Isabel embarks on the Grand Tour with her aunt and in Florence makes the renewed acquaintance of Madame Merle, a lady she had already met at Gardencourt. Madame Merle is an intelligent and accomplished woman, an independent socialite mostly living off others, who likes manipulating those around her. Isabel trusts her despite warnings from other friends and swims naively into a wide open net. Madame Merle introduces her to expatriate, indolent dilettante Gilbert Osmond, a widower with a doltish daughter of fifteen, Pansy, who has been educated in a convent. Gilbert leads a quiet and well-ordered life surrounded by antiques and art. Isabel falls in love with him - he has excellent manners and poses as an artist living on a higher plane. Blinded by her idealism, she sees a fellow-idealist in Gilbert, and does not note his faults.

The newly-weds set up house in Rome and here the story jumps three years. As soon as that, the marriage is already a failure, although Isabel and Gilbert keep up appearances for the outside world, they coexist in a hateful truce. Gilbert is a control freak who does not want his wife to have too many ideas (i.a. an independent mind and character) - he would probably prefer her to be an obedient  "doll" like his well-trained daughter.  Instead of finding freedom with her fortune, Isabel has been caught in a loveless trap. She finds some consolation in Pansy, to whom she feels close.

A visit to Rome by Lord Warburton (who briefly poses as suitor to Pansy, but is in fact still in love with Isabel) and the ailing Ralph, causes a further rift in the marriage. Gilbert accuses Isabel of having sabotaged Pansy's chances with Lord Warburton (Pansy is in fact interested in someone else), and of paying too much attention to Ralph of whom he feels jealous. Both men return to England, Ralph expecting never to leave Gardencourt. Isabel promises to come when the end is near. Gilbert strictly warns her to stay in Rome, but when the dreaded telegram arrives, she disobeys him and quickly travels to England.

However, after Ralph's funeral she feels she has no other option but to return to Italy, even although she now knows the secret relationship that existed between Gilbert and Madame Merle. She loves Pansy and wants to help her, on top of that she feels she cannot run away from the life she has chosen, even if it is full of unpleasantness and discordance - different from today, when mistaken commitments are perhaps all too easily discarded.

Sadly, Isabel is a normal, good person inspired by idealism, but everything she did has led to disappointments: not only has she disappointed Ralph's faith in her, but most seriously of all, she has been wrong to herself. Such is the harsh conclusion of Portrait of a Lady, a novel written in a meticulous literary style that tends to cover up the torments of its characters, which are nonetheless very real.
Available for free at Gutenberg and the Adelaide University Etext Center. I read the novel in the Penguin Classic edition. The Portrait of a Lady has been filmed by Jane Campion, with Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey and Martin Donovan (1996).

October 3, 2012

"Le Grand Meaulnes (The Lost Domain)" (1913) by Alain-Fournier (Book Review)

Le Grand Meaulnes, of which the title literally means "The Great Meaulnes" (like the "Great Gatsby"), but which in English is also known as "The Lost Domain" and "The Wanderer," is the only work written by the French author Alain-Fournier (Henri Alban Fournier) before he was killed at age 27 in one of the early battles of WWI. It is a true masterpiece of nostalgia.

[Alain-Fournier in 1905 -
Photo: Wikipedia]

The novel is narrated by François Seurel, son of a village schoolmaster in a small village in the Sologne, a region of pools and marshes in north-central France. François (age 15) is captivated by the charismatic new schoolboy Augustin Meaulnes (17 years old), who is known as “the great Meaulnes" not only for his large stature, but also the daring feats he pulls off. He may be called an embodiment of the romantic ideal. On a solitary excursion through the countryside, Meaulnes looses his way and stumbles upon a mysterious country estate where a strange wedding celebration is underway. There Meaulnes also chances to meet a young woman of otherworldly beauty, Yvonne de Galais, for whom he conceives a transcendent love. But abruptly, the party breaks up and Meaulnes has to return to the village, where he takes François in his confidence.

To his dismay, Meaulnes discovers that he cannot retrace the route to the country estate, which has become "lost," an unobtainable romantic ideal, and a symbol of perfect happiness on the borderline of childhood and adulthood. He keeps hopelessly trying with the help of François, and it is the narrator who a few years later succeeds in locating the castle after Meaulnes has already left the village - it is much closer than they thought possible. Meaulnes is called back, he revisits the estate and even marries Yvonne - but the perfect happiness he believed to find has evaporated due to the experiences he himself has had in the meantime.

The book is full of a haunting atmosphere, the sounds and colors of the countryside and the different seasons. It is also permeated by a feeling of irrevocable loss: the loss of the pure dreams of charmed youth to cruel experience, the loss of idealized love to the sordid reality of the flesh, and the realization of the evanescence of the world around us - and even our memories of that world.

Le Grand Meaulnes was one of the favorite books of the British author John Fowles (The French Lieutenant's Woman) and he wrote The Magus under its influence. Another author who writes in the same vein of the loss of magic worlds is the today so popular Japanese author Haruki Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, etc.). But Alain-Fournier is purer than these post-modern authors, he writes exactly in the adolescent spirit of the story, honest and without any cynicism. Le Grand Meaulnes is a most beautiful book that deserves to better known. It may be impossible to find our dreams, but we must keep trying.

I read Le Grand Meaulnes in the English translation by Robin Buss in Penguin Books. Here is the original French, and here a French audio version. Website on the novel.




October 1, 2012

"Persuasion" (1815) by Jane Austen (Book Review)

"Persuasion" is the title and theme of Jane Austen's last completed novel - manipulative persuasion has broken the life of Jane Elliott, whose engagement with penniless naval officer Frederick Wentworth was blocked by her vain father Sir Walter Elliot and her all too practical godmother, Lady Russell. Now, eight years later and 27 years of age, though highly intelligent and accomplished, Anne is still unmarried and nursing the wound from the past and facing a future of loneliness and financial uncertainty - though with calm resignation.

The story is set into motion by the renewed appearance of Captain Wentworth. Anne's pompous and status-conscious father has squandered much of his fortune and is forced to let out the family estate, Kellynch. By chance, the new renters, Admiral Croft and his wife, are related to Captain Wentworth, who has returned with a fortune - and still a bachelor - from the Napoleonic Wars. He has never forgiven Anne for allowing herself to be persuaded to break up the engagement and their first meeting after all those years is a difficult one.

Misunderstandings and social restrictions keep them for a long time from getting to know each other's true feelings - there are other, younger women interested in Wentworth, and a devious nephew is trying to court Anne. But, as every reader of Jane Austen's novels knows, in the end the emotional tangle will be cleared up and things will be set right...

More interesting than the plot is again - as in other Jane Austen novels - the "comedy of manners," where the hypocrisy of society is revealed in the extreme vanity of Anne's father and elder sister Elizabeth. They are only interested in titles and despise people who are not part of the aristocracy - Elizabeth regards Anne as inconsequential as Anne doesn't share her prejudices - and in a nice scene are shown demurely licking the heels of a viscountess, lady Dalrymple. Another hypocrite is Anne's unscrupulous nephew William, who after an estrangement with Sir Walter caused by his lowly marriage (for money) now as a rich widower is courting Anne for her title. Even Lady Russel, though of a practical mind, is very susceptible to matters of rank and birth and therefore, with her wrong persuasion, has made Anne's life unhappy.

But at the same time, the second theme of the novel is the rise of the professional classes which would end the domination of the landed gentry. Jane Austen speaks with admiration about Captain Wentworth and other naval officers (including Admiral Croft, who has none of the foolish pride of Jane's father and does away with his collection of large mirrors after renting the house). These people work for their living and do great things, while Mr Elliott and others of his class only sit on their fat ass. Austen shows that too much reliance on money and connections leads to a false life. This is also a break with other novels by Jane Austen: in Pride and Prejudice, for example, the heroine Elizabeth Bennet marries inherited wealth and rank in the person of Mr. Darcy; in Persuasion, the hereditary aristocracy is held up to ridicule, while the rising meritocracy made up of successful officers in the Royal Navy gets full praise. In that sense, too, Anne's eventual marriage to Captain Wentworth shows the way to the future.


Free at Gutenberg or the Adelaide University Etext Center. I have read the Penguin Classics version. Persuasion is referenced in John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman. Since 1960, the novel has been filmed four times for television.