Tucked away in Saturday's WSJ was Colm Tóibín's invigorating review of a 416-page book about the writing of The Portrait of a Lady, which he finds "masterful" and "exemplary in its approach." Of (straight) professor Michael Gorra's Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece [Kindle], Tóibín writes:
"Mr. Gorra writes clearly; he is eminently sensible; and he attempts to be as intelligent as possible. His examination of James's sexuality is exemplary in its attention to sources. His own judgment of James's work is also careful: He views "The Portrait of a Lady" as a great novel; and while he values some of the other work, he believes that the novel was not matched until the miraculous flowering of 20 years later, when James produced his three masterpieces, "The Wings of the Dove" (1902), "The Ambassadors" (1903) and "The Golden Bowl" (1904). Mr. Gorra manages to connect the earlier novel and these three books with real insight by showing how James returned to the theme of Americans in Europe with greater refinement and nuance, having written novels in the meantime such as "The Bostonians" (1886), which is set in America with Americans alone as the protagonists, or "The Tragic Muse" (1890) and "The Spoils of Poynton" (1897), which explored the tone and texture of English life without any drama coming from across the Atlantic."
Again discussing the great novel, Tóibín continues:
Tóibín's review will certainly find its way into one of his future compiliations similar to All a Novelist Needs: Colm Tóibín on Henry James or New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families [Kindle]. As for TPOAL, if you haven't, you must.
"The discovery of Isabel in all her sparkling inwardness and allure in the first half of the book is exhilarating, but then the book darkens and, Mr. Gorra writes, "shifts to a minor key, less exhilarating but with a new gravity and indeed, nobility, whose force increases with each chapter." This leads us to the famous Chapter 42 of the novel, which, as James himself writes in his Preface, "throws the action further more than twenty 'incidents' might have done." As Isabel sits by the fire, the reader knows no more than she does. In paragraphs of extraordinary rhythmic power she begins to realize what has happened to her. She begins to understand that her husband and his friend Madame Merle are not what they say they are. "What she sees," Mr. Gorra writes, "as she sits there will produce a moment of reverie that lasts the full length of a night, a chapter that stands as one of James's greatest achievements and a turning point in the history of the novel.""This new tone in the book, more stately and grave, will lead to one of the greatest scenes in all of fiction, the deathbed encounter between Isabel and her cousin Ralph Touchett, filled with melancholy wisdom and hard-won tenderness. In his description of this episode, Mr. Gorra writes with majestic ease and affection. He points out that neither Ralph nor Isabel evoke God or an afterlife but "nevertheless, the two of them seem, in confessing all, to float for a second beyond their bodies, unbound by any sense of self and with their minds moving at the end as one. It is as if their souls stood naked to one another, a flash so powerful—so rare, so brief—that it makes all the suffering needed to produce it seem worthwhile. I cannot read this scene without tears."