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NY Times review of The Mature Master by Sheldon Novick

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message 1: by Laura (last edited Dec 23, 2007 07:03AM) (new)

Laura Slapikoff (lslapiko) Interesting review. I've been reading The Young Master and enjoying Novick's take on James' personality. It sounds like the controversy over The Young Master took the wind out of Novick's sails, which is a pity. I'd rather have had him stick to his original line than let the criticism pressure him into banality. I do agree that it's odd that Novick lifts text right out of James' writing and sticks it in the middle of his own.

December 23, 2007
A Beast in the Jungle

The Mature Master.
By Sheldon M. Novick.
Illustrated. 616 pp. Random House. $35.

In the title essay of a collection published this year, the novelist and critic David Lodge declared 2004 to have been “The Year of Henry James.” This was because 2004 saw the publication of two major “biographical” novels about James — “The Master,” by Colm Toibin, and Lodge’s own “Author, Author” — as well as a novel by Alan Hollinghurst, “The Line of Beauty,” in which the hero is writing a thesis on James. Both Toibin’s and Lodge’s novels took as their starting points the facts of Henry James’s life, and while they shared certain material, each had a distinct focus: Lodge wrote primarily about James’s involvement in the theater and his friendship with the caricaturist and writer George du

Maurier, whose novel “Trilby” was enjoying phenomenal success just as James’s own literary star was in eclipse, while Toibin focused on James’s close relationships with his cousin Minny Temple, the writer Constance Fenimore Woolson and the sculptor Hendrik Andersen. Toibin also dramatized a scene in which the young James sleeps naked in the same bed with Oliver Wendell Holmes — a scene, Lodge points out in his essay, probably derived from Sheldon M. Novick’s 1996 revisionist biography, “Henry James: The Young Master,” in which Novick suggested that James experienced his “initiation” into sex in 1865 and that his partner was very likely Holmes.

Novick is a law professor, and he likes making a case. In the preface to “The Young Master,” he challenged the received image of James as an effete, fussy figure; homosexual, if at all, only in spirit, and most likely celibate. Novick also criticized Leon Edel, the author of a canonical five-volume biography of James, for hewing too closely to “what now seems a rather old-fashioned, Freudian view of ‘homosexuality’ as a kind of failure.” Novick, on the other hand, intended to write a biography in which it would be shown “that Henry James underwent the ordinary experiences of life: that he separated himself from his enveloping family, that he fell in love with the wrong people, that his first sexual encounters were intense but not entirely happy.” If such a biography had not yet been written, Novick argued, it could be “attributed partly to James’s having loved young men.”

At the time of its publication, “The Young Master” provoked something of an uproar in James circles. Responding to Novick’s book on Slate, Edel objected strenuously to Novick’s claim that James had sexual relationships, writing that Novick “attempts to turn certain of his fancies into fact — but his data is simply too vague for him to get away with it.” Novick responded by defending his own biography, denouncing Edel’s — “For a modern reader,” Novick wrote, Edel’s biography “badly distorts the record of the novelist’s life” — and chiding the 89-year-old author for refusing to accept “that James, although his principal affections were for men, ever had sexual contact with a man.” Novick’s letter — which concludes “Lighten up, professor” — initiated an eight-part, on-the-record donnybrook that grew increasingly surreal and took an explicit turn when another James biographer, Fred Kaplan, entered the fray. The discourse now devolved into what Novick rightly characterized as “dirty” talk, reaching its apex when he wrote: “Least important of all, I think (but can’t be sure) that one evening in the spring of 1865,” James masturbated Oliver Wendell Holmes.


message 2: by Laura (new)

Laura Slapikoff (lslapiko) NY Times Review, pt. II

This debate over James’s sex life had the unfortunate effect of distracting attention from the many other aspects of Novick’s biography, among them his powerful evocation of James’s childhood, his portrayal of Henry James Sr. and his persuasive rereading of a crucial episode in James’s youth involving Minny Temple and Oliver Wendell Holmes. If reviews gave a lopsided impression of Novick’s book as a study of James’s sexuality, however, it was at least in part because Novick fanned the flame of debate by making — and defending — his case with such lawyerly gusto.

Now, some 10 years on, he has published a sequel. Like its predecessor, “Henry James: The Mature Master” strives to supplant the common view of James as “a passive, fearful man, a detached observer of the life around him” with one of the writer as a gregarious, sometimes heroic, often troubled citizen of the world. Far from a sniffy celibate living comfortably on independent means or a “little boy with his nose pressed against the glass of a shop window,” Novick’s James was an authentic cosmopolite who led a life as emotionally, sexually and financially complex as those of the characters in his fiction.

Does Novick succeed in giving us a new, more “ordinary,” less cerebral Henry James? The answer, for better or worse, is yes. Indeed, the life that he describes (“The Mature Master” begins with the successful 1881 publication of “The Portrait of a Lady” and ends with James’s death in 1916) is one that, for any urban writer, will seem eerily, even tiresomely familiar. Passionately devoted to his craft, James is also burdened by the constant pressure to make money. He suffers from back pain and constipation, and often feels overwhelmed by the amount of writing he has to do: in addition to the novels, many of them published in serial form, there are the short stories, travel articles, reviews and “potboilers” from which he earns his living, not to mention the correspondence with which he feels dutybound to keep up. When in London, he attends dinner parties almost every night, at least in part because at these dinner parties, he picks up the germs — what he calls données —; from which his fictions grow. But he also travels to Europe, to Italy and France, when he can afford to take the time off and his bank account permits. Personal relationships matter intensely to him. He is close to his sister, Alice, and his brother William, though his relationship with William is intermittently barbed. He has many friends — titled ladies, political leaders, fellow writers, actresses. And then there are the young men with whom, Novick broadly hints, he has love affairs, and to whom he writes erotic letters.

“The Mature Master” is a more understated book than its predecessor. Far from making speculative claims that will raise the hackles of his fellow Jamesians, Novick here approaches his material with a once-bitten, twice-shy caution. For example, he mentions in a footnote — but does not elaborate on — the rather extraordinary detail that the “pelvic massages” that Alice James underwent as part of her treatment for hysteria were sexual in nature, leading to orgasm. “The success of the treatment,” he continues, “induced Henry to try a version of it himself. He hired a young man to administer the massages and like Alice was for a time relieved of his symptoms.” Novick also quotes again the diary entries on the basis of which he deduced that James had had a sexual encounter with Holmes. Significantly, however, he refrains in this case from commentary. The only hint that remains of a sexual episode is one rather insinuating sentence: “Holmes and James had exchanged visits, had become intimate friends.”

This is representative of Novick’s method. Rather than directly stating that James had sex with any of the young men for whom he developed such passionate feelings, Novick relies on euphemisms to get his point across. Indeed, he inundates the reader with euphemisms. On Jonathan Sturges: “Their long visit in Torquay marked a new intimacy in their relations, ... an intimacy that presaged regular visits and long stays in James’s house.” On Arthur Benson: “It was the first of many overnight visits and marked a new stage of intimacy in their relations.” On Hendrik Andersen: “Visit would follow visit, and Andersen would be a most intimate friend.”

One problem with this approach is that it evades the actual content of the letters that James wrote to his putative lovers; many of these letters appear, on close scrutiny, far more ambiguous than Novick suggests. As he himself is at great pains to point out, in his fiction James made an art out of indirection. Why, then, should we not read his letters as we read his fiction? True, many of them are “drenched in sexuality,” but it is sexuality of a highly literary sort. Wordplay and double-entendres abound. To Arthur Benson, James writes that he is “taken up with living in the future and in the idea of answering you with impassioned lips.” To Hendrik Andersen: “However we will talk of these things, dear boy, when I really can lay my hands upon you, & how I shall lay them!” To Walter Berry: “I somehow kind of feel that you have wondrous newses for me; that you can’t not have. I shall have nothing for you but a great gaping mouth at them — think of me therefore as just a waiting, panting abyss and yours all devotedly.” To me, these sentences read less as erotic invitations than as the self-amusing “dirty talk” of a lascivious old man.


message 3: by Laura (new)

Laura Slapikoff (lslapiko) NY Times Review, pt. III

Novick makes stronger arguments when he seems less intent on proving a point. For me, the letter that most viscerally suggests that James had an active sexual life is one that he wrote late in his life to the young novelist Hugh Walpole. Here James’s subject is not sex per se but its relation to literature. Walpole, it seemed, had told James that he was guilty of indulging in “high jinks.” In response James wrote: “Don’t say to me ... à propos of jinks — the ‘high’ kind that you speak of ... — that I ever challenge you as to why you wallow, or splash or plunge, or dizzily & sublimely soar (into the jinks element), or whatever you may call it. We must know, as much as possible, in our beautiful art, yours & mine, what we are talking about — & the only way to know it is to have lived & loved & cursed & floundered & enjoyed & suffered — I don’t think I regret a single ‘excess’ of my responsive youth — I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions & possibilities I didn’t embrace.” Here, it seems to me, James is asserting an emphatic connection between experience — the injunction to “live” with which “The Beast in the Jungle” concludes — and art. He is also stating, without ambiguity, that in his youth he did “live,” though not as much as, in retrospect, he wishes he had.

As a reading experience, “The Mature Master” is something of a mixed bag. Novick provides, for instance, a detailed account of Alice James’s death, but pays such scant attention to her brother’s intense relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolson — a focus not just of Toibin’s novel, but also of “A Private Life of Henry James,” by Lyndall Gordon — that James’s violent reaction to Woolson’s suicide seems to come out of thin air. Nor does Novick devote much space to James’s friendship with George du Maurier or suggest that James felt anything other than gladness at witnessing his friend’s success. As in the first volume, Novick maintains a novelist’s pace and relegates the hardware of biography to the back of the book. This time around, however, the prose is much less lively. Perhaps in response to a slap on the wrist that Millicent Bell gave him in The Times Literary Supplement, he refrains here from mimicking “James’s tone and language, weaving into his own prose whole passages of close paraphrase and frequent exact repeats of passages from James.” Instead the voice is mostly workaday. There are many longueurs in this long book, as well as swaths of narrative in which one extremely short factual paragraph, separated from its neighbors by space breaks, gives way to another, and another and another. Dangling modifiers vex (“At home at peace in Lamb House in mid-July, after almost a year abroad, two or three years of steady work lay ahead”). Sometimes the language seems to have been lifted right out of the pages of Hello! magazine. (“Hay came down with his wife to Surenden Dering, in Kent, to say good-bye to his hosts there, the newly retired Senator J. Donald Cameron, a great Republican chieftain, and his charming wife, Elizabeth.” How does Novick know she was charming?) And while his readings of the fiction can be revelatory, they can also be banal, as when he writes that in “The Wings of the Dove,” Kate Croy’s reflection in a tarnished mirror is “a reminder of her constant innermost and secret realm of being.”

Still, this biography has its distinct virtues. Novick superbly parses James’s sometimes contradictory political views and his acquaintance with the politicians of the day. He is also very good on James’s approach-avoidance relationship to the world of the theater and on his highly ambivalent attitude toward his own Americanness. And when Novick discusses the late novels — which he clearly loves — the genius of James sometimes inhabits and energizes his prose. Describing the notoriously difficult syntax of “The Ambassadors,” he writes: “Shadows are not black but infused with color: double negatives take the place of bare assertions — each quality that is denied adds a dimension to one that is affirmed.” This is an eloquent and extremely helpful observation, as well as one worth keeping in mind when trying to bring the elusive James into focus. It’s also a comment that left me eager to reread James’s novels.

Can a definitive biography of James ever be written? Probably not — as James would be the first to assert. Novick himself, without much sense of irony, quotes his subject on biography. “The pale forewarned victim,” James wrote, “with every track covered and every paper burnt and every letter unanswered, will, in the tower of art, the invulnerable granite, stand, without a sally, the siege of all the years.”

If the shouting never dies down — if Novick still shadow-boxes with the ghost of Edel, and novelists as diverse in sensibility as Toibin and Lodge find themselves irresistibly drawn to James’s legacy — it may be because James, as a writer and a figure, so masterfully resists being pinned down. His credo was to live, and in striving to assess how much he himself actually lived, we can probably do no better than to resort to his favored double negative and declare — not at all simply — that we cannot for certain say that he did not.

David Leavitt is the author, most recently, of “The Indian Clerk.” He teaches at the University of Florida, where he edits the literary journal Subtropics.

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