on 23 March 2013
Portrait of a Lady is an amazing book. Almost every sentence is screwed up to the highest tightness of craft and lightness of art. Most every paragraph is shaped with a delicate and ardent brilliance. James writes a novel like Shakespeare writes poetry, with a limpid and rapid fluency of interwoven rhetoric and feeling which effortlessly persuades our admiration.
Having read James' workmanlike early novel The American and admired it, and some of his ornate and fussy short stories, I was unprepared for the powerful command this novel exerts.
Compare Isabel Archer to any of a dozen contemporaneous heroines (hell, compare her to a Shakespeare heroine and only Rosalind and Beatrice and Cleopatra are her equal in mettle!) and Isabel outshines them.
The story is gripping. By page 25 we already know that it is a quasi-tragedy, that the novel concerns itself exclusively with highly educated idle rich, Henry James' social set, and that Isabel's fate is already inherent somewhere in the story. But the working-out of that destiny forms an irresistible fascination for a discerning reader of novels.
I would compare Portrait of a Lady to those great books of Fielding, Cervantes, and Tolstoy for James' scope and brilliance; but the amazing language of Portrait provides the same sense of wonder as Shakespeare's rhetoric at his best.
This is a truly remarkable novel, and worth savouring in depth and detail.
on 1 February 2016
Longwinded, turgid, dense prose with few paragraphs. The first 60 pages were insufferable. By about p 200 or the introduction of Madame Merle I began to warm a little to it. But I have to face it - although I love Henry James plays, films - I just hate his writing. I have to struggle through this "flawed masterpiece" for a Book Club read but it is really hard going. I like the C19 novelists on the whole, i.e. George Eliot (who is said to have influenced James), Tolstoy, Zola, but I cannot "take" to Henry James -