Eric's Reviews > The Tragic Muse

The Tragic Muse by Henry James
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Jan 21, 2009

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bookshelves: themaster, ficciones
Read in January, 2009

I can finally put aside this warm, well-thumbed and softened paperback. I think it is the first social kunstlerroman I've ever read. Joyce's 'Portrait of the Artist as Young Man' and Nabokov's 'The Gift' are anchored in the artist's point of view, and we see the world warping and changing as the artist's sensibility evolves. James, however, observes his two artists--the actress Miriam Rooth and the painter Nick Dormer--from the outside, from a social distance. The story is not about art as it is conceived and made, but art as it is lived--"art, that is, as a human complication and a social stumbling-block," as James says in his preface. James is interested in how the discipline, sacrifice and solitude of the artisic vocation complicates the social existence of the artist. (Though James not afraid, here and there, to delve into some recondite questions of representation, Miriam's acting--her endless observation and modeling of the various people she meets, stories she hears--serving as an obvious surrogate for his own writing.)

It's an interesting choice. Nick's strolls through the National Gallery could have served as a pretext for an elaborate prose poem, a tour of the artist's mind as it moves among colleague productions. But James stays vague and distant--which is fine, but James could have retained his distance and vagueness about Nick artistry while still zooming in close on the wider psychology. Nick is capable of "wide excursions of spirit" that give life to his art but complicate his relations with his mother and fiance: he's a born pleaser, someone who can imagine the emotions of others to the point of identifying with those emotions, even when the aims of those with whom he so wholly sympathizes oppose his own inclinations. Nick is very serene and breezy about this tendency--as he would be, when seen from the outside--but the inner lives of such people are usually very chaotic, as they are wrenched by conflicting loyalties. I thought James could have given more glimpses of that turmoil, and maybe less of the outward jauntiness, without compromising his pledge to stay out of the artist's workshop, as it were.

So I greatly admire the book for the usual Jamesian strengths: the unique points of view; the delicate dissection of personal motives; and, peculiar to this book, the early Degas-like Parisian scenes in the museum/shrine-to-herself/apartment of Madame Carre, one of the ancient comediennes doted on by Peter in his slightly bloodless, nostalgic, antiquarian obsession with the Theatre Francais...but it was too long and diffuse. Without much narrative tension and no really absorbing characters (I mean absorbing on an Isabel Archer level), the story's telling in no way requires 576 pages. There were sections which I was tempted to skim, especially the talky play-like confronations of Peter and Miriam, of Nick and Julia (James has a great ear for the confusion and awkwardness that attend the conversation of people who view the world differently...but confusion and awkwardness are not fun to read page upon page) and the stretches of thin, watery prose. After months of this, I'm starving for a little lyricism.
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