Hello there, dear readers, assuming there are any of you left after my months of silence! Never one to overburden others with my written words (many, many years of turning out legal tootle on schedule finally induced me to take pity on myself and others in this respect), I was nevertheless shocked, positively shocked, to see that it’s been almost three months since I’ve posted anything on my moribund little blog. However did the blogosphere survive my absence? (Rest assured that my question here is satirical!) Although I’ve not been posting I have spent the last few weeks catching up on my blog reading and have no doubt annoyed some of you very much indeed by leaving long, rambling comments on your blogs. You may consider yourself revenged by the fact that your excellent reviews have caused me to add several new peaks to my own Mount TBR of unread books. I’ve simply lacked the energy and concentration, however, to contribute to the online bookish discussion by writing my own reviews. But all this is slowly, slowly changing, now that life is settling down and the boxes are (mostly) unpacked. Because I’ve practically forgotten how to type, much less arrange my thoughts in a coherent structure, I thought I’d ease myself back into things through the forgiving medium of a “miscellany” rather than a formal book review (hopefully the latter will start trickling in during the next few weeks, as I’ve been reading some lovely things).
Because the following sections are totally unrelated to each other, if you find one boring you aren’t missing a thing by scrolling down to the next.
A. MOVING (of most interest to those having a sadistic turn of mind)
Have you ever moved, dear reader? I don’t mean a student move, where you leave the plant at your mom’s, stuff the dirty undies (would one say “knickers” in the U.K. or is this term dated? If you’re British, please enlighten me here) in your backpack and — presto! — off you go! I mean a real, honest-to-god move involving a houseful of furniture; several thousand books; three snarling, foul-tempered cats who were perfectly happy in their old home and a stressed out Mr. Janakay. If you’ve done this, or something comparable, you can understand the trauma of my last twelve months, in which I’ve moved twice, the first a long-distance move to temporary quarters followed just recently by a move to my new and hopefully permanent home, thankfully located in the same city as my temporary abode. After surviving these physical relocations, and living out of boxes and suitcases for almost fourteen months, I can truthfully say “never again, dear reader, never again!”
B. Books Old and Books New; Books Read, Unread and (Maybe) Never to be Read
Despite the difficulties of the last two months or so, I did manage to keep reading. After all, isn’t that what we’re all about? Admittedly, there were disappointments; these primarily centered on my sheer inability to write any reviews for the Japanese Literature in Translation or Independent Publishers months despite reading a few books for both events. Ah, well, that’s what next year is for, isn’t it? My reading choices this year have been all over the place, or perhaps more accurately, more all over the plan than usual (if you’ve read my blog at all, you can see that my taste tends to be, ahem, “eclectic”). As my opening photo demonstrates, my little pile of completed books includes pop pulp (The Godfather, special 50th anniversary edition); a few classics (Henry James’ Spoils of Poynton and Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington); a little literature in translation (Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings, for example) and a few fairly obscure offerings from an independent publisher or two, prompted by Kaggsy’s February event (Doon Arbus’ The Caretaker, published by New Directions, is a good example here). During the worst of my move I spent a great deal of time with Joe Abercrombie, an inexplicable choice, no doubt, to those who don’t share my taste for his fantastical grimdark world. What can I say? You either like this stuff or you don’t and, honestly, it was light relief to turn from movers, boxes and home contractors with Covid-19 problems to the exploits of Glotka the torturer. Although I generally enjoyed everything in my pile, some choices were particularly rewarding:
Although I have (almost literally) tons of books I want to get through this year as a result of various challenges, I have two or three in particular that I’ve added to my 2021 list:
Are any of you, dear readers, fans of Proust? If so, you absolutely owe it to yourself to at least spend an hour or so with:
Visual art was very important to Proust (“My book is a painting”), which is readily apparent from the literally hundreds of artists and paintings discussed at various points by the many, many characters who appear, disappear and reappear in In Search of Lost Time. Karpeles’ “visual companion” groups these many art works into chapters that correspond to Proust’s volumes; each entry has a brief introduction, a long quotation from the relevant passage in Proust and an illustration of the art, usually in color. Did you know, for example, that Swann “had the nerve to try and make” the Duc de Guermantes buy a painting “of a bundle of asparagus . . . exactly like the ones” the Duc and his guest were having for dinner? Quelle horreur! Thanks to Karpeles, you can see (and compare) Manet’s rejected Bundle of Asparagus with the Duc’s preferred painting, a “little study by M. Vibert” of a “sleek prelate who’s making his little dog do tricks.” Guess what, dear readers? The Duc should have followed Swann’s advice!
There’s a very good introduction, notes and an index listing the artists alphabetically and keyed to three different Proust editions. It’s been many years since I’ve read Proust and I’d forgotten the wonders of InSearch of Lost Time. After a few hours of browsing Karpeles, however, I’m tempted to re-read at least a volume or two. After all, there are several different editions!
On a last Proustian note: The New Yorker recently did a very good piece on “Conjuring the Music of Proust’s Salons,” in which Alex Ross reviews two recent recordings paying homage to an actual concert organized by Proust on July 1, 1907. Since Proust was as attuned to music as he was to literature and visual art, both recordings sound very interesting indeed. The New Yorker has, alas, a pay wall, but if you haven’t clicked too much this month the article is available at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/03/22/conjuring-the-music-of-prousts-salons.
What’s a miscellany without a few nature photos, thanks to Mr. J? Although I miss some of the parks and preserves that were reasonably accessible to my old home, my new one is located little more than a mile (about 1.5 km) from a nature preserve and some very lovely scenery. Nothing dramatic, you understand, or particularly historic (if you crave history and/or dramatic scenery, you should pop over and read about some of Simon’s lovely excursions) but still — nice.
If you’ve read this far, dear readers, you no doubt agree with me that it’s time for this particular miscellany to end. I hope to post a real review later on in the week; until then au revoir.
Well, dear readers, here you are, well into the new year while Janakay is still piddling around with the old! Time just seemed to gallop away from me, there at the old year’s end, what with the “Big Book Sort,” the holidays and a (very) little recreational travel. One day it was early December and I rather unrealistically thought I might actually catch up with my 2019 Challenges; then I blinked and it was mid-January! No matter how many times this has happened to Janakay, she’s always surprised! I suppose it’s that child-like sense of wonder that keeps her going!
2019 was a big year for me as far as bookish matters are concerned. After literally years of thinking it would be fun to write about some of the great books I was reading, and to connect with others who shared my passions, I (finally) launched my blog and — gasp — participated in not one, but two Challenges! (the first was Karen’s “Back to the Classics” Challenge; the second was the TBR Challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader). Now, a year later, what do I think of the whole enterprise?
The blog itself has been rewarding, even if it’s been on life support at times; my “launch year” unfortunately coincided with a final, rather intensive year of academic work on my art history degree. As for the Challenges, well . . . . Janakay isn’t always into completion! It’s a kind of glass half–empty, glass half-full thing and, since Janakay has a naturally sunny disposition she regards both her Challenges as having been very worthwhile exercises. Even if the total number of reviews and books read were somewhat less than ideal, the Challenges ensured that reading in 2019 was quite stimulating and definitely more challenging than the previous year’s when, sad to say, I was in a bit of a science fiction-fantasy rut. Regrettably, however, around midyear my reviews fell far short of my reading; so much so that I didn’t see the point of a final linkup post for either my TBR or Classics Challenge. Because this is the month named for the god who gazes into the past as much as the future, however, and I haven’t posted in quite some time, I thought it would be interesting, at least to me (you, dear reader, can always click elsewhere for entertainment!) to do a sort of informal tally of the results of my Challenge participation.
I’ll begin with the “Back to the Classics Challenge,” as the books I selected were generally more of a stretch for me to complete than my TBR selections. The final sum of my posted reviews — five — was pretty bad. The number of books (eight) I read for the Challenge, however, wasn’t too horrible, particularly when I consider that the Challenge required me to read books from genres (such as translated literature) that I normally avoid because they’re too much work! Here’s my thumbnail tally by category:
19th century classic: For this category I rather ambitiously selected Henry James’ 1890 The Tragic Muse, written right before HJ’s disastrous stint as a playwright. Although Muse displays the realism so characteristic of 19th century literature in general, it’s also quite philosophical in a sense; James uses his characters to debate various opinions regarding the nature of dramatic art and the plot turns on the conflict between pursuing art and meeting the expectations and obligations imposed by society. One plot strand centers around Nick Dormer and his decision to pursue painting rather than the political career expected by his family, while the other revolves around Miriam Rooth, a fiercely dedicated actress who rejects a conventional life in favor of the stage. Since Muse is mid-period James, its syntax is much more manageable than HJ’s late masterpieces (Wings of the Dove, for example). As with any novel by HJ, one shouldn’t expect thrills and chills. Although Muse does have some extended discussions on the nature of art, particularly dramatic art (one senses that James is working through his ideas regarding his upcoming career switch), the major characters’ choices, along with their resulting complications, do create a bit of tension in the plot. Like the great artist he is, James creates complicated and subtle characters. While I found Nick a bit bland, James does wonderful female characters and Miriam is one of the great creations of 19th century English literature. How many novels of this era portray a strong and supremely gifted woman who navigates considerable practical obstacles and arranges her life to allow the full exercise of her talents? Miriam is not only unusual, she and her choices are fully believable. Although I liked this novel very much, it’s not one of HJ’s masterpieces and I’d hesitate to recommend it to someone who only intended to read one or two of HJ’s novels. I obviously love James’ work and actually managed to review Muse in some (well, too much) detail; if you’re interested you may check out my post.
20th century classic: Decisions, decisions! So much to choose from! I finally settled on Elizabeth Bowen’s debut novel, Friends and Relations (another one of my rather rare reviews; you may find it here.) Friends is a deceptively brief but stylistically rather complex novel involving the secrets and shifting relationships of two very different sisters and their respective husbands. Although I found some of the novel’s characters rather two dimensional and its ultimate plot twist unnecessarily melodramatic, it also contained moments of real emotional insight and tenderness, as well as some wonderful comedy. A detailed and seemingly believable depiction of upper class English life between the wars is an added bonus. And, of course, the novel is beautifully written. Friends is definitely worth reading, if not quite equal to Bowen’s later work, such as The Last September or The Death of the Heart.
Classic Tragic Novel: For this category, I read Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, published in 1949, but, alas, failed to post a review. I found this category quite interesting because it made me question the very definition of a “tragic” protagonist. Must s/he be Aristotle’s person of noble qualities, subject to adverse circumstances and brought low by an inner flaw? Or can our tragic protagonist be some poor schlub in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or a couple of rich, educated, culturally blind Americans who traipse around Algeria, carrying too much emotional baggage and descending into their own hell of utter darkness? If you answered my third question affirmatively, well, Sky is the very defintion of a tragic novel. Kit and Port Moresby, the couple in question, are the ultimate adventure tourists, scorning the mundane; Port is intent on seeking out the increasingly remote and isolated while Kit becomes more terrified as they leave “civilization” further and further behind. Neither Port nor Kit understands or is interested in understanding anything about the people or cultures they encounter, and both are totally unsympathetic characters; if you want warm and fuzzy, this is not your novel. The couple’s journey is bleak, the north African landscape is tortured and the prose is gorgeous, as Bowles describes a terrifying and empty universe in which civilization does not triumph. This novel is bleak, bleak, bleak. Janakay loved it and wants to read more Paul Bowles, but is afraid to; she has also vowed to travel exclusively with guided tour groups in the future. Sky has been my “jinx” book for ages; without the Classics Challenge it would have continued languishing unread and I would have missed a great read (many thanks, BooksandChocolate!).
Classic from a Place You’ve Lived: One of the more interesting places I’ve lived is New Orleans, Louisiana. From the abundance of myth, legend and literature associated with this oh-so-special city I picked The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, a white, male, southern novelist I had successful avoided for most of my life. Percy was quite the flavor, back in the day; did you know The Moviegoer won the 1962 National Book Award over such contenders as J.D. Salinger (Franny and Zooey), Joseph Heller (Catch-22), William Maxwell (The Chateau) and Isaac Bashevis Singer (The Spinoza of Market Street)? Although Percy’s luster has faded a bit in subsequent years, Moviegoer continues to be regarded as one of the greatest U.S. novels of the 20th century; early last year The New Yorker made a persuasive argument that it continues to remain as relevant as ever.
The novel’s non-linear plot centers on the travails of Binx Bolling, a well-connected New Orleans stockbroker with a knack for making money, who occasionally (please forgive Janakay’s snark) attends an afternoon movie, which he finds more “real” than his quotidian routine. In addition to (occasionally) watching movies, making money and seducing his secretaries, Binx wanders around New Orleans, the Gulf Coast and Chicago seeking god and spouting thinnly disguised existentialist philosophy. By novel’s end, Binx accepts reality, marries the neurotic rich girl and decides to attend medical school, which he will have no trouble getting into and which his family will pay for. Despite Percy’s skill with dialogue and description, his frequently lovely prose and his sincerity, Janakay did not like Moviegoer, which she considers enormously overrated (lots of guilt here! When I lived in New Orleans, I patronized a nice little bookshop that had a candid photo of Percy browsing its stacks and I heard, first hand, that he was a very nice guy!). Are any of you cyberspace wanderers familiar with Moviegoer? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts, as I’m afraid my own cultural bias may be blinding me to the novel’s virtues (I’m highly resistant to the woes of privileged southern white boys). It’s worth noting that Moviegoer reflects the racial and sexual attitudes of its time and place, which have thankfully improved somewhat over the fifty-odd years since its publication. Also, before I forget — this is one of the novels I read but never got around to reviewing.
Very Long Classic: I’m afraid I totally bombed out in this category. I had originally intended to read Miklòs Bánfly’s They Were Counted, volume I of his Transylvanian Trilogy, an unsung classic from eastern Europe. Last July and fifty pages in, I realized this was not going to happen (at least not in this lifetime); I opted instead for a nature walk in Corkscrew Swamp, a wonderful nature preserve located in the western portion of Florida’s Everglades (boardwalks! birds! river otters! ghost orchids!) Of course, I could have switched selections, made Tragic Muse my “very long classic” and reviewed Jane Eyre or Great Expectations (both of which I re-read last spring) for my 19th century category. Oh, well …………………. those river otters at Corkscrew were wonderful!
Classic Comic Novel: Another bomb! I intended to read something by Ivy Compton-Burnett, who’s a favorite author of mine (her humor is so very black and her dialogue is so very, very funny) but kept saving it as a treat. Then — it was December and I decided to read a couple of contemporary detective novels instead! (If you haven’t yet met detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, devout Buddhist cop and half-caste son of a Thai bar girl, stop now and read John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 immediately! Provided, that is, you’re not offended by an unflinching look at Bangkok’s sex trade). Remember what Janakay said about her addiction to non-completion?
Classic in Translation: The Challenge was just what I needed to get me reading some of those wonderful translations out there, particularly as I tend to confine myself to anglophone writers. Thanks to the NYRB Classics, I had several novels by Guy de Maupassant gathering dust on the shelf so I took this opportunity to read Like Death. Set in Belle Epoch Paris, it involves a simple but piquant situation: noted society painter Olivier Bertin is beginning to feel his age when the lovely young daughter of Anne de Gilleroy, his longtime mistress, appears in his life. The novel follows the growing realization of both Bertine and Anne that the former is subsuming his love for Anne into a passion for her daughter. Although I thought the story might work better as a novella than a full-length novel, it was psychologically quite acute and offered a wonderful look at the aristocratic Paris of the late 19th century. I did manage to review this one; follow the link if you want details.
Classic novella: I literally have hundreds of these in a very special, very neglected corner of a very large book case and hardly ever read one! 2019 and a Challenge — here I come! I really, really meant to read one in 2019 — one little afternoon in December would have done it — but Bangkok 8 was so exciting I simply had to follow it with Bankgok Tattoo, the second book in the series! And, after all, there’s always 2020 . . . . I did read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein last spring, which technically qualifies (it’s less than 250 pages) but just didn’t feel like writing about it! Janakay has to wait for inspiration!
Classic from the Americas: This was a category in which I did the reading but didn’t do a review, primarily because it took me so long to make my selection. After several months of dithering I finally settled on Zama, a 1956 novel by the Argentinian writer Antonio Di Benedetto. Di Benedetto (died in 1986) was a contemporary of Borges and Cortázar who never achieved their international fame; Zama has only recently been translated into English and made readily available through the NYRB Classics. As the novel opens, it is circa 1790 and Don Diego de Zama, a midlevel functionary of the Spanish empire, is stuck in a dead end posting in what is now Asunción, Paraguay. Zama longs for everything he doesn’t have: the bright lights of Buenos Aires; promotion (as a Spaniard born in the colonies he faces considerable discrimination in this respect); the wife and children whom he’s too poor to have with him and for a remote, fantasy Europe that he has never seen. The novel falls into three chronological sections (1790, 1794 and 1799); in each period Zama faces, respectively, a serious sexual, financial and existential problem. In each period Zama over-analyzes and misinterprets his situation; essentially he’s so busy presenting his life to an imaginary audience he misses, or is unable to face, the reality in front of him. Zama’s tragedy, perhaps, is that he’s never quite able to lose himself in his fantasies; he retains a neurotic self-awareness that ensures he’s continually disappointed by the realities of his situation. It’s all very existential (Di Benedetto was a great admirer of Dostoevsky) and Janakay isn’t at all sure she grasped everything there was to grasp; in fact, after I finished Zama I was tempted to settle in for a re-read (it’s quite brief). Zama is a challenging, but very worthwhile novel. And, did I mention it’s quite funny at times?
Classic Play: I’ve been meaning to read Ben Johnson’s The Duchess of Malfi for years. I’m still meaning to! Another category where I dropped the ball.
Classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania (including Australia): Thanks to NYRB Classics, I had long possessed a copy of Maria Dermôut’s The Ten Thousand Things (1955) sitting unread on my shelf. This highly autobiographical account of life on the remnants of a Dutch spice plantation in Indonesia was one of my favorite reads of the year. Ostensibly the story of a young woman who returns to her grandmother’s garden to raise her child and grow old, the story moves backwards and forwards in time to encompass hundreds of beings, the living and dead, the supernatural and natural, to show in the most subtle way possible the interconnectedness of all things. I reviewed this novel in great detail in a prior post(I’m afraid I became a little carried away with the visuals, having just completed a couple of courses in Dutch art!); there’s a wonderful essay that explains the novel far better than does my review in Lost Classics (edited by Michael Ondaatje), a fascinating little book which is in itself worth tracking down.
Classic by a Woman Author:For this category I read and reviewed The Blackmailer, the first of a number of novels by Isabel Colegate, a wonderful English novelist who’s a favorite of mine. Blackmailer, which is set in the post-war London of the 1950s, is a surprisingly subtle look at the relationship between the blackmailer and his/her prey, and the intricate cat and mouse game in which they indulge. The novel offers crisp dialogue, a great depiction of post-war London’s publishing world and some wonderful supporting characters (including a hilarious old nightmare of a nanny and Bertie the spaniel, portrayed with great vividness and not an ounce of sentimentality). Perhaps best avoided by those demanding a great deal of action in their novels.
I did a bit better with my TBR than with my Classics challenge, completing ten of the twelve books I selected from my enormous TBR pile. Alas, however, I only reviewed four. Regardless of numbers, however, the Challenge really motivated me actually to read some of those very interesting books I’ve been accumulating all these years and was, more importantly, a lot of fun (I’m very sorry to see that the Challenge won’t be offered in 2020). The real standouts for me were Tom Drury’s The Driftless Area, a wonderful noir thriller with supernatural elements, which I reviewed, and Ester Freud’s Summer at Gaglow, which I did not. My real regret is that, once again, I’ve evaded Jane Gardam’s The Man in the Wooden Hat, which has been on my TBR list for years!
Regarding my choice of illustrations — have you ever wondered where those nauseatingly cute paintings of anthropomorphic dogs playing poker and so on came from? For better or worse, we owe them to Kash Coolidge, a graphic artist who created them as part of an advertising campaign in the early part of the 20th century. In the illustration I choose, the canines all look like they’re having a doggedly good time on New Year’s Eve, don’t they?
I’ve recently finished reading Henry James’ The Tragic Muse, my first book of the new year and the 19th century novel I selected for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I feel quite a sense of accomplishment; if I haven’t summited Everest, I feel like I’ve at least reached base camp! My choice of a mountain climbing metaphor is quite deliberate. I’ve at least gotten started on the Challenge (we all know what tends to happen to those good intentions, don’t we?). Even more importantly, however, I’ve reacquainted myself with one of those “classic” writers whom I suspect is more admired than actually read. Although I tremendously enjoyed The Tragic Muse, it was a lengthy novel that demanded time and a fair amount of attention. No skimming or multitasking while I parsed those subtle Jamesian sentences!
In the brief life of this blog, I’ve referred to Henry James at least twice, both times in terms of adoration. Despite my current high regard for James, however, I did not begin my reading life as an HJ fan. After an unpleasant teenage encounter with his Portrait of a Lady (my “mature” judgment at the time was that Portrait was tied with Eliot’s Silas Marner for the title of the most boring book ever written!), I consigned HJ to the category of writers who had little to offer me personally. My opinion changed drastically about fifteen years later. The catalyst for this transformation came when I casually purchased a paperback sales copy of Leon Edel’s multi-volume biography of James. Unbeknownst to me, Edel was the 20th century specialist in James studies. Although later scholars (perhaps most notably Sheldon Novick) have attacked certain aspects of Edel’s work, his James biography continues be an indispensable source of knowledge about the author’s life. Edel was a tremendous scholar and a marvelous writer who used great sensitivity in evaluating many areas of James’ life about which little is known (James, who was no admirer of the biographer’s art, deliberately destroyed certain personal writings before his death to preserve his privacy). Because his work was a literary biography, Edel combined a factual account of James’ life with very perceptive discussions of James’ novels and major fictional works. At that particular time in my life I had the great gift of an undemanding job that allowed me the spare time and mental energy to plough through Edel’s biography. As I learned the details of James’ life, which included financial problems, a tortured sexuality and some very difficult family relationships, I began to see him as a far more sympathetic figure than I had previously considered him to be; increased knowledge about his life also made his work more interesting and accessible. Perhaps more importantly, however, Edel’s biography was a wonderful introduction to James’ literary output. As I read about James’ novels, I became interested in James’ novels, particularly as I saw how his literary work related to his own life and reflected the culture of which he was a part. Although I read a lot of other things during this time in my life, I primarily focused on James’ novels and, to a much lesser extent, his shorter fiction (James was also a gifted travel writer and perceptive literary critic; alas I’ve read next to nothing of his output in either field). Nineteenth and early 20th century literature, however, requires time and attention, and as both became increasingly scarce over the years (eventually I had to get a real job) I’m afraid I gave James’ novels more shelf space than attention. I was in fact quite startled when I realized some time ago that for all my prattle regarding my love for James’ fiction it had literally been years since I had actually read any of it. I decided to participate in the Classics Challenge this year in large part because it increased the likelihood that I’d actually re-read at least one novel by a writer whom I hold in such high regard.
Because James was a prolific author (he turned out a lot of writing as he was heavily dependent on the income it produced), I had a wide array of novels to choose from in making my selection for the Classics Challenge. I settled on The Tragic Muse(Muse) largely because this was one of the novels I had never re-read (unlike, say, Portrait of a Lady) and so remembered few details about the plot. Another important factor in my selection was style. Although James’ writing is synonymous in the minds of many with subtle complexity, this idea is rather inaccurate when applied to his output as a whole. While it is certainly true that the sentence structure and syntax of his “late” novels (The Golden Bowl, Wings of the Dove and The Ambassadors) can be quite bewilderingly complex, his earlier novels (and even Muse, which dates from the mid-period of his productivity) are often quite straightforward stylistically. It’s also worth mentioning that Muse doesn’t fit a couple of other familiar tropes regarding James’ novels. Rather than offering an intense psychological study of a few individuals (as in, for example, The Golden Bowl) it has a large, sprawling cast of characters. Muse also doesn’t concern the theme, so prevalent in James’ early fiction (Portrait of a Lady; Daisy Miller) of naive American innocents forced to grapple with the sophisticated wiles of an older European culture.
Muse contains two separate but symmetrical narrative arcs, one centering on Nick Dormer, an upper class Englishman who rejects family and heritage to become a painter, and the other on Miriam Rooth, a penniless girl of partially Jewish ancestry (a point that matters to several of the other characters) who is determined to become a great actress. James sets his novel in the Paris and London of his own day, i.e., the late 19th century, and depicts how the acts and attitudes of an interrelated group of English aristocrats affect the decisions, and fates, of Nick and Miriam. His story begins in Paris, where we first meet the Dormer family. The widowed Lady Agnes, attended by her daughters Grace and Biddy, has reluctantly accompanied her son Nick, who has insisted on attending the latest Paris exhibition of avant-garde art. It’s easy to miss a certain dry humor that often turns up in James’ work; here, for example his description of the Dormer ladies’ reaction to the French avant-garde is quite funny (Lady Agnes observes that in London art is “much less unpleasant” than the Parisian “horrors” admired by her son). Nick himself is a charming and devoted son, a quintessential golden boy, destined by birth and training to emulate his late father’s political career. Although outwardly amenable to this plan for his future, Nick secretly cherishes an ambition to be a painter.
Also in Paris is Julia Dallow, a widowed cousin and friend of the Dormer family. Rich, beautiful and talented, Julia is indifferent to art and contemptuous of painting. From the outset it is clear that Julia is not only in love with Nick but is also extremely eager to put her money and formidable talents behind his political career. Her reasons for doing so are far from disinterested; unlike Nick, Julia is fascinated by politics and sees their marriage as a way for her to become a great political hostess. As the novel progresses Nick becomes increasingly unable to hide his boredom and distaste for the political life in which he is engaged, while Julia increasingly reveals the full extent of her antipathy and contempt for the life of an artist. When Nick ultimately resigns from Parliament, he does so knowing that it will cost him his marriage to Julia as well as a large bequest from a family friend who is willing to back a political career but refuses to leave his money to a painter. One constant in James’ novels is that choices have consequences and he never spares his characters the full weight of their decisions.
One of the most interesting and ambiguous characters in Muse is Gabriel Nash, whom James purportedly modeled on Oscar Wilde, an acquaintance and fellow writer. Although Nash and Nick Dormer were friends at Oxford, they subsequently drifted apart and, when they meet by chance at that fateful art exhibition in Paris, have not seen each other for many years. Nash, like his real-life counterpart Wilde, is a kind of 19th century performance artist. After dabbling with literature in his Oxford days, Nash forswears any active engagement with the arts (or with anything else for that matter) in favor or simply enjoying beautiful sensations in whatever form they assume. In Nash’s view, creating or producing a tangible work of art is a crude and imperfect expression of the ultimate art of simply living a “beautiful” life. He and Nick quickly reestablish their old friendship, much to the dismay of Nick’s family. In his subsequent struggle to balance the demands of his family and heritage against his urge to lead the life of an artist, Nick regards Gabriel Nash as a kind of “artistic conscience” or lodestone who constantly reminds him of the primacy of art over all other endeavors (while painting may be crude, it beats canvassing for votes!). The other characters, however, view Nash as an irresponsible tempter or frivolous wastrel; essentially they see him as a Mephistopheles who leads Nick away from his duty to family and country. Every reader of Muse will, of course, have his/her own interpretation of this equivocal character and the role he plays in Nick’s choice. In addition to functioning as a symbol (good or bad) of the supreme value of a certain type of art, James uses Nash to advance the novel’s action and to link the symmetrical plots; it is Nash, for example, who effectively launches Miriam’s career by introducing her to Nick’s circle.
Miriam’s parallel narrative recounts her rise from an untrained “wannabe” to one of the great actresses on the English stage. When the novel opens she is a penniless and awkward girl, who wanders Europe with her rather feckless mother, living hand to mouth in a series of cheap hotels and pensions. Outwardly at least Miriam is distinguished by nothing except good looks and a fierce conviction that she is destined for theatrical greatness, an opinion unshared by those who view her informal “audition” before a retired great of the French stage. Although she acknowledges her performance was bad, Miriam’s belief in herself as an artist remains unshaken. She realizes, however, that she needs training and opportunities but lacks the financial means and social connections to secure them. Her material situation changes when Gabriel Nash introduces her to Peter Sherringham, a relation of the Dormer family and a rising star in the British diplomatic service. Extremely ambitious (he sees himself as a future ambassador), Sherringham’s one unprofessional passion is for the dramatic art of the classical theater. He provides Miriam with the financial backing and emotional support she needs and becomes intensely involved with her expanding prospects. Although Sherringham steers clear of a sexual entanglement, and prides himself on keeping his emotional distance, it is clear to his friends, to Miriam and to the reader that he is soon totally, hopelessly in love with her. It is a measure of his passion that this cool, self-controlled man proposes marriage; because a diplomat of his stature can’t be married to an actress he conditions his proposal on Miriam’s leaving the stage. The scene in which she refuses Sherringham’s proposal, and exposes his hypocrisy to himself and to the reader, is perhaps the most powerful in the novel.
As this brief (and, I hope, not too tedious) summary makes clear, there’s a lot going on, plot-wise, in this novel. As was common in the 19th century, Muse was first published as an ongoing serial in The Atlantic Monthly, one of the fashionable magazines of his day; James was writing for a popular, albeit prosperous and literate, audience and knew what his readers expected for the $15 per printed page that he was ultimately paid. In addition to the developments alluded to above, James also included at least two love triangles (one involving Nick’s young sister Biddy, who has nursed a passion for Peter Sherringham since she was a child; the other concerning Miriam’s incipient passion for Nick, which comes into play when he paints her portrait); an engaging and ironically humorous subplot involving the family friend who disinherited Nick and several very interesting supporting characters (for example, Basil Dashwood, the actor whom Miriam ultimately marries. She does not leave the stage!). The novel also includes some powerful and very emotionally gripping scenes and, as an extra bonus, has an ambiguous ending that leaves hope for Nick and Julia. While I can’t speak for the reaction of James’ contemporaries, there was more than enough action and suspense to keep me turning the pages.
As with most great novels, moreover, Muse suggests a dimension extending beyond the quotidian actions of its characters. Most obviously, James is offering his meditation on the demands that art places on its practitioners and the barriers, both tangible and psychological, that an artist must surmount to achieve his or her goal. He also contrasts the visual and dramatic arts and the different demands, training and pitfalls that each places on the artist and actor. Remember how, at the beginning of this far-too-long posting, I noted how the facts of James’ life often play into his fiction? Muse was the last full length novel he wrote before turning to the stage; one could make a strong argument that the entire novel is James’ attempt to define the very nature of dramatic art, in all its tawdry glory (although Miriam is one of James’ great creations, HJ is tough on her at times). As a sidenote for the historically inclined, James’ career as a playwright ended in public humiliation in 1895. It’s a testament to his enormous talent and strength of will that he survived this ordeal and, in his 60s, went on to write what many regard as his greatest novels.
Finally — which of the two actresses whose likenesses are at the beginning of this post best fits your idea of Miriam? French Rachel in red, so very classical, or English Sarah Siddons, so romantic and tasteful in Reynolds’ subdued palette? Both women were the leading actresses of their day and both, I believe, have been suggested as models for Miriam. My answer, a very Jamesian one, is both! Miriam receives her earliest training in Paris, from a legendary French actress of the classical school; visits the Théâtre Français, where James places her in front of “Gêrome’s fine portrait of the pale Rachel, invested with the antique attributes of tragedy;” has her breakout performance in London as a romantic lead in a traditional English comedy and, as the novel closes, reaches the pinnacle of her art in the tragic role of Juliet.
So here we are, almost two weeks into our shiny new year! Is everyone busy reading their challenges? I’m in a lackadaisical kind of mood these days myself — not a bad mood but certainly not a high energy one. I always think of mid-January as a time to re-group, to conserve resources after the excitement of the holidays; those extra minutes of daylight aren’t registering yet and spring seems far, far away. Aside from an unwelcome bit of exercise this morning with a snow shovel, I’ve had a lovely day, wrapped up in a blanket, sipping the results of a new recipe for hot chocolate (it uses two different kinds of chocolate and real cream) and reading Henry James. Oh, I did have a bit of a reading mishap — Percy has hidden my print volume of The Tragic Muse and substituted other James novels, thinking I’d never notice! (Percy’s main interests are ornithological; as a literary philistine he thinks James’ novels are interchangeable. They aren’t). As a result, I’ve been following the adventures of Nick and Miriam by kindle clicking, rather than page turning. Even so, it’s a wonderful read, with those long 19th century sentences and subtle, Jamesian delineations of thought and emotion. It’s a slow read, very much suited to a slow time of year; it’s made even more leisurely by being punctuated every thirty minutes or so by dreamy interludes of staring into space (maybe I’ve been hanging with Percy too long). Somehow, the day has just vanished.
Fortunately in light of my mental lassitude, following the novel’s action is not too difficult. James’ plot is relatively straightforward (I defer to the experts on this point, but I wouldn’t read this novel for his plot, myself). He follows two protagonists, Nick Dormer, an aristocratic young Englishman with a bright political future, and Miriam Rooth, a beautiful penniless young woman from a dubious background. Nick is torn between painting and politics; although he’s elected as a member of the House of Commons in the early portions of the novel, he’s bored by the political life and only comes alive when he escapes to his “horrid” (his fiancée’s words, not mine) little studio to engage in his painting. Everything in Nick’s life compels him to choose conventional, worldly success: his heritage and training; a promise to his dead father; an adored and adoring mother who has no doubts her boy belongs in Parliament; a beautiful, wealthy lover who will only marry a successful political guy; and a wealthy benefactor who won’t leave his money to an artistic loser. James is interested in Nick’s choice between his passion for art and his world’s ideal of a successful life and of the personal sacrifices often required from those who persist in following a higher consciousness. Spoiler alert here for those who demand suspense in reading an 1889 novel: Nick rejects his political career to follow his art. The decision costs him him his fiancée, a magnificent bequest from his benefactor and the regard of his family and friends. Although James intimates that Nick has real talent, Nick also has little formal training and is beginning a career as a serious artist at a relatively late point in life. Despite every inducement to turn his back on art, Nick becomes totally committed to being a painter, although his worldly success as an artist is (at least at this point in the novel) very much in doubt.
Miriam’s situation could not be more unlike Nick’s. The daughter of a fantastical, ineffectual mother, Miriam’s businessman father is dead, and the modest income he provided his family is gone, leaving his daughter without worldly prospects or financial security. Miriam and her mother eke out a paltry existence, moving from one European city to another, living in a succession of cheap boarding houses and pensiones, lingering in cafes to save money on fuel and frequently going without. Miriam’s mother lives in the novels she reads (when she can get them. Sound familiar, anyone?); Miriam lives in her imagination. Surprisingly, she is neither dreamy nor indecisive. James makes clear that Miriam is simply a born actress, so thoroughly consumed by her need to express herself through her art that nothing, but nothing, will deter her. When we first meet Miriam in Paris in the opening pages of the novel she is an awkward, badly dressed (and remember, in James’ world manners and appearance matter) young girl. Gabriel Nash, a English aesthete who will play a pivotal role in the novel, takes her up as an amusing divertissement. Nash and Peter Sherringham, a young English diplomat who will also play an important part in James’ tale, enable Miriam to gain an audition with Madame Carre, a legendary French actress who serves as a type of acting coach/guide to a younger generation of thespians. Madame Carre’s verdict, shared by Nash? Miriam has no talent. Miriam’s reaction? She will be a great actress, opinions otherwise are irrelevant; she simply needs to learn her craft. Despite generally agreeing with Madame Carre’s assessment, Sherringham thinks that, possibly, there may just be something to Miriam and almost on a whim provides her with the financial backing that allows her to perfect her dramatic skills. As the novel progresses, so does Miriam’s talent and growing stature as an artist. By the time Nick decides to chuck it all away for art, Miriam is experiencing her first success on the London stage. Gabriel Nash is now a firm believer in her greatness (and, as an connoisseur and aesthete he’s well placed to spread the word) and Peter Sherringham? Well, the discrete wisdom of the diplomat is on holiday! Despite being the well-trained and rising young star of the Foreign Office, and knowing full well the career folly of his choice, Sherringham is hopelessly in love with Miriam; he’s even offered her marriage, providing she gives up the stage.
Well, that’s all for tonight folks. Despite certain soap opera aspects of the plot, James presents us with a serious meditation on what it is to be an artist, of the demands and sacrifices of practicing the arts and of the elements comprising the dramatic art (James was very interested in the theater and thought about this subject a great deal). In this novel he has given us two contrasting protagonists — golden boy and poor, beautiful and underrated girl — who must choose whether, and how, each will practice his/her art. Although there’s a certain commonality in the barriers each faces, there are also significant differences; while Nick is more constrained by expectations of family and society, Miriam’s primary obstacles are money and opportunity (I find it interesting, but unsurprising in view of the time in which he wrote that James doesn’t explicitly discuss the constraints of gender to any notable degree). Choices have been made and, because this is James, consequences must be faced …..