Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Reading around James

Time has escaped me this week like the right bastard it is, so all I have tonight--byproducts of my continuing happy engagement with The Portrait of a Lady and Michael Gorra's Portrait of a Novel--are a couple of brief passages to share.

The first comes from a book I've drawn on before, Simon Nowell-Smith's collection of Henry James anecdotes, The Legend of the Master, a book whose slimness belies its riches. This scene, related by James's friend Violet Hunt, is more amusing than meaningful, but as I sit here with my cats I find the delivery, along with Hunt's patience in holding back the payoff, makes it satisfying:
Settled in for the afternoon, surrounded by adoring ladies, the recluse of Rye sat complacent, holding my last new Persian kitten between his open palms, talking animatedly to the Beauty [Hunt's niece], who could not talk but looked. He quite forgot the poor beast, which was too polite and too squeezed between the upper and the nether millstone of the great man's hands to remind him of its existence, and I dared not rescue it until the sentence on which Mr. James was engaged was brought to a close--inside of half an hour.
Another book that Gorra's study of Portrait led me to pluck from my shelves is the NYRB Classics edition of the journals of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt. I was surprised to find that no mention of James had made its way into the NYRB's selection; James didn't spend that much time in their circle, but I assumed he would pop up somewhere in their journals nonetheless, and, if so, that editor and translator Robert Baldick would have included it in his selection.

The chief charm of the Goncourt Journals, however, is that it's nearly impossible to turn to any page and not find something that you want to share, James or no James. Like this anecdote told by one of James's literary heroes, Turgenev, from April 9, 1881:
After dinner we talked about love and the strange tastes women have in love. Turgenev told us that in Russia there was a charming woman, a woman with curly hair of the palest blond imaginable and a slightly cafe-au-lait complexion in which the undissolved coffee grains formed a crowd of little beauty spots. This woman had been courted by the most intelligent and most famous of men. One day Turgenev asked her why, out of all her suitors, she had made a perfectly inexplicable choice, and the woman replied: "Perhaps you are right, but then you have never heard the way he says: 'Really? You don't say!'"
I hope Anthony Powell came across that entry at some point; I expect he would have been delighted by it.


  1. Anonymous10:40 AM

    "Woman may show some discrimination about whom they sleep with, but they will marry anybody." -- Anthony Powell (quoting Peter Templer), At Lady Molly's

  2. Just finished Gorra's book myself and was delighted. Thanks for pointing out The Legend of the Master.

  3. Well played, Anonymous.

    And NancyKay, I expect you'll really enjoy The Legend of the Master. There are many, many good James anecdotes in its pages.