Sunday, July 17, 2016

"The Lesson of the Master" (1888)

Preparing to embark on what turned out to be an abortive career as a man of the theater in the early 1890s, Henry James devoted much of his work then to contemplations of the artist's life and commitment. This long story may be the truest vision because it is about novelists rather than stage actresses or portrait painters. The master in this story, Henry St. George, is a well-established British novelist whose work has been falling off. I have no idea who it's modeled on, if anyone. James may have intended it to resemble no one in particular, as after all it's something of a failing writer. Paul Overt—what a name—is the student, a promising younger writer. They are introduced by a woman named Marian Fancourt, in whom Overt takes an immediate interest ("falls in love with"). Yes, once again the primary concern of all appears to be who the single characters will marry, but it's used very well here. St. George has some idea his work has diminished, and believes it's related somehow to his marriage, which is a happy one. In the central scene of the story St. George seriously counsels Overt not to marry if he wants to fulfill his literary talent. St. George sees it as nearly a direct exchange—happiness in marriage for artistic accomplishment. Overt immediately accepts his advice and goes to the Continent for two years, spending his time mostly alone and writing a masterpiece. Upon his return to London, Overt discovers various improbable things have happened. I'll let you discover them on your own, as they are something of a surprise, clearly intended to illustrate further the themes of the story. James never married, declaring himself a bachelor. It's also possible he was gay. He seems to understand very well a certain dynamic tension between primary relationships and creative work. It's possible this story is a little too programmatic in the way it outlines the problem, but it also has a very good handle on it, which in many ways I think makes this one of the most important pieces in his career. It's not subtle, but its material is a lot better and more pointed than, for example, The Tragic Muse, which also bears the themes. It may speak well to James that he was so relatively reticent in writing a story about writing stories—that would be more of a 20th-century problem—but it's obvious in this story that writing fiction was the creative life he knew, not theater.

"interlocutor" count = 2 / 63 pages

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

1 comment:

  1. Richard Riegel here, Jeff -- I continue to be impressed with your repeated forays into the Henry James canon. I've read a bit of James over the years, but his too-Victorian propriety tends to put me off. Yet since writers I HAVE studied extensively (e.g., Philip Roth) consistently praise James, I feel like I should know more about his writings, and I appreciate you venturing into those overheated literary parlors for us. I also dig your routine noting of the "interlocutor" count in each James work. Taking off from Clarence Thomas's complaint that the Anita Hill hearings were "a high-tech lynching," I think that when you find an especially high use-of-"interlocutor"-to-pages ratio in any particular James title, you should accuse The Master of running "a highbrow minstrel show"!