Sunday, April 29, 2007

Colm Toibin on Henry James

Readers of his blog will testify to my appreciation of The Master, Toibin's fictionalized account of James's life. He is currently writing a novel set in the last five years of the nineteenth century.

He discusses Henry James's dilemma of deciding between the full life that comes with marriage and the need for an artist to shun the trappings of family, in the Guardian.

On January 5 1888, when Henry James was in his mid-40s, he recorded in his notebook a conversation with the journalist Theodore Child "about the effect of marriage on the artist, the man of letters etc. He mentioned the cases he had seen in Paris in which this effect had been fatal to the quality of the work etc — through overproduction, need to meet expenses, make a figure etc.

Four years earlier, James had had a similar conversation with Edmund Gosse about John Addington Symonds, "of his extreme and somewhat hysterical aestheticism", and of his wife's disapproving of the tone of her husband's work, "thinking his books immoral, pagan, hyper-aesthetic etc". He imagined Symonds's wife saying: "I have never read any of John's works. I think them most undesirable." James immediately saw a drama he could make between "the narrow, cold Calvinistic wife, a rigid moralist; and her husband, impregnated - even to morbidness - with the spirit of Italy, the love of beauty, of art." From these seeds he grew his story "The Author of Beltraffio", the first of the 10 stories he wrote about writers.

One can sense the undercurrent of hostility that Toibin harbours for the insensitive wife forcing her spouse to return from a world of aestheticism to that of mundane matters. And ostensibly, the reader—the sensitive reader, no doubt—ought to be charmed by the lyrical flushes of language (impregnated—even to morbidness—with the spirit of Italy) and agree with Toibin on how the rituals of straight life can sap the intensity of the artist.

I have nothing against gay writers, but what Toibin seems to be falling into here, is a common enough trap with them:

Child then spoke of the French novelist Alphonse Daudet, whom James also knew, saying of his "30 Ans de Paris", a memoir, that "He would never have written it if he hadn't married." James then wrote: "So it occurred to me that a very interesting situation would be that of an elder artist or writer, who had been ruined (in his own sight) by his marriage and its forcing him to produce promiscuously and cheaply - his position in regard to a younger confrère whom he sees on the brink of the same disaster and whom he endeavours to save, to rescue, by some act of bold interference - breaking off the marriage, annihilating the wife, making trouble between the parties." As a result of this conversation, James was inspired to write his story "The Lesson of the Master", published later that year.

The image of the older writer worrying about the young confrère has identifiable gay overtones. Notice the word used for the wife—annihilate. Why? What has the poor woman done? If the writer has such problems with her, why did he marry? James didn't, but that can hardly be qualified as a morally superior choice. A writer's need for solitude cannot be bound by gender. I would like to know what Toibin would say about an elderly gay writer, such as himself, who comes to the realization in his later years that a life with his partner (invariably male) has restricted his creative capacities. And would he find it in himself to advise another young man to desist from a civil partnership? I doubt it very much.

One may say that the dynamics of a gay relationship are very different from a straight one, and so, the question of such a possibility does not arise. But that would be looking at the situation lazily. Are we saying that a gay relationship involves a superior living space between the partners than a straight one? Because that's the only way of explaining the hostility towards the wife. James may have felt so since he was closeted, but such a theory—of marriage ruining creativity—cannot be generalized to other perfectly happily settled writers. Think Zadie Smith and Nick Laird. Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss. Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster...and several others.

Update: Came across another Toibin piece in the LRB:

A fourth story of James's, 'The Beast in the Jungle', which comes very close to being a masterpiece, has also been interpreted as having a gay theme.

In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has an interesting essay on James and 'The Beast in the Jungle'. It is possible, she writes, that critics believed that James himself translated 'lived homosexual desires, where he had them, into written heterosexual ones so thoroughly and so successfully that the difference makes no difference, the transmutation leaves no residue.' She herself, on the other hand, believes that James 'often, though not always, attempted such a disguise or transmutation, but reliably left a residue both of material that he did not attempt to transmute and of material that could be transmuted only rather violently and messily'.

When, in 'The Beast in the Jungle', May Bartram meets John Marcher, she remembers the 'secret' he has told her ten years earlier. 'You said you had from your earliest time, as the deepest thing within you, the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen.' Eve Kosofsky writes: ' I would argue that to the extent that Marcher's secret has a content, the content is homosexual.'

I would argue, on the other hand, that Marcher's secret clearly has a content and the content is possibly homosexual. The problem with the story is that the 'secret' itself, the 'something rare and strange' sounds laughable when we hear it first, a heavy-handed self-dramatisation which Marcher's character in the story takes a while to recover from. The reader has a right to expect, as the years go by, either that Marcher's secret will turn out to be a delusion in which May Bartram has all along encouraged him, or that some catastrophe will actually befall him before the story ends. It is as though some traces of Kafka had arrived in Lamb House. (James first thought of the story in 1901.) There are only two characters in the story, both isolated, oddly neurotic; and before she dies May intimates that she knows what the 'secret' is, and it refers to something that has already happened. After her death, Marcher, too, realises, vaguely, what it is about. He has failed to love; he has been unable to love. Clearly, he has been unable to love May Bartram, as James was unable to love Constance Fenimore Woolson; and it is open to readers whether or not they believe that May has understood all along something Marcher cannot entertain. He may have failed to love her because he was gay. And because he could not deal with his own sexuality, he failed to love any body. This, Kaplan points out, is 'an embodiment of James's nightmare vision of never having lived, of having denied love and sexuality'.

The story becomes much darker when you know about James's life - something that almost never happens with the novels. You realise that the catastrophe the story led you to expect was in fact the very life that James chose to live, or was forced to live. 'In all his work,' Leon Edel wrote, 'there is no tale written with greater investment of personal emotion.' In 'The Beast in the Jungle', James's solitary existence is shown in its most frightening manifestation: a life of pure coldness. The story includes the sentence: 'He had been a man of his time, the man, to whom nothing on earth was to have happened.' Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes: 'The denial that the secret has a content - the assertion that its content is precisely a lack - is a stylish and "satisfying" Jamesian formal gesture.' But it is not a stylish or satisfying formal gesture. It is, ostensibly, about a man who realises that his failure to love has been a disaster; but it is also, for readers familiar with Edel's or Kaplan's biographies of James, and readers willing to find clues in the text itself, about a gay man whose sexuality has left him frozen in the world. It is, in all its implications, a desolate and disturbing story, James's 'most modern tale', according to Edel. 'No passion had ever touched him for this was what passion meant. He had seen outside of his life, not learned it from within.'

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