This is an attitude associated with Joyce and his postmodern progeny, but Gorra persuasively argues that such challenging fiction began with James’s “Portrait.” The Anglo-American novelist agreed with the French novelists he knew that it was time to write for mature adults; the “English system was good for virgins and boys, and a bad thing for the novel itself,”James wrote in a review of Zola’s “Nana,” a novel then inconceivable and unpublishable in England or America. For the French, writing for adults meant dealing with squalor and sexuality, but for James it meant converting the novel from entertainment to art, a classification few people were willing to grant it, even at that late stage in literary history. Hemingway famously said all modern American fiction came from “Huckleberry Finn,” which may be true of relatively undemanding fiction such as his; but the more demanding work of Faulkner, Gaddis, Pynchon, David Foster Wallace and others (Gorra implies) comes from “The Portrait of a Lady.”
Much contemporary literary criticism is so arcane as to be almost incomprehensible, but Gorra’s book reads beautifully, closer to belles lettres than to academic criticism. He identifies the real-life originals behind James’s characters and places, but steers us to the proper use of this information: “Searching for some putative original allows us to see what was in fact created; the difference between the fictional page and the gravel of documentary truth can stand as a guide to artistic practice.” There is more biographical information here than in most monographs on individual novels, but the emphasis is always on how James shaped that material to aesthetic ends.