Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Tragic Muse (1890)

Henry James was in his early 40s when he wrote The Tragic Muse, which is also when he seriously made an attempt at a career in theater, producing and writing plays. Those two factors may help explain the overarching theme of this long and shaggy novel, which appears to be about making the commitment to the bohemian lifestyle, as an artist. The two main narrative threads concern one character who can't decide between a career as a politician or as a painter—portrait painter, to be specific—and a young actress who may or may not be preternaturally talented, but is definitely taking the London theater world by storm. Round and round they go in their frolicsome agonies. This being Henry James, most of the action comes cloaked in a mantle of the novel of manners, by which I mean the main concern here, above anything else, is who is going to end up married to whom. He didn't seem to have the imagination to conceive his stories any other way, for better or worse. It's strange (and something of a loss) because the issues around the career decisions James raises here are real and consequential—obviously for himself as much as any reader, though not often involving the privileged classes quite this way, I suspect. Or, if they do, I don't care, because I don't particularly care whether someone in line for an ambassadorship would hurt himself by taking an actress as a wife. Even if James was genuinely a student of theater, as I'm sure he was, he always cared very much about the upper classes, so here we are. From our remove of more than a century it's hard for me to take much of this as believable. Particularly when it is continually stuffed back into the box of how will the marriages sort out. That said, I was often entertained and mostly satisfied by the stories of who ended up together—for the most part they were neatly done. And, on an even more abstract level, I often find reading James a kind of comfort, even with his rambling overdeveloped sentences and lack of human insight in many areas. It's not like he's completely without insight. And his dedication to the craft, even when it goes somewhat off the rails, as here, is always worthy of esteem, as he might say. In terms of the plot points, however, there's even more than usual for James a lot of magic wand waving for overstated purposes. At one point a character here gets on a boat in Central America and travels weeks and months to arrive just as the curtain is going up on a new show. Really, he had it timed so precisely? But you forgive these ridiculous conceits because you're glad he could make the show, and that means you care about the characters, so no matter what else, on some level, James has done his job.

"interlocutor" count = 9 / 812 pages

In case it's not at the library.

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