Last week I was wandering around the giant warehouse of a bookstore on the rue de Rennes called the FNAC, and in a fit of nostalgia I found myself face- to-face with the “Literary Criticism” section. It was a sad moment. On a whole floor bursting at the seams with novels from every continent, histories of every century, sociology, religion, political theory, and you-name-it---and in the country that has inspired countless budding literary critics the world around….Literary Criticism got two small book cases. They looked embarrassed, those two minuscule towers wedged between two other bookcases labeled “Biography” and “Literary History” (and literary history turned out to mean textbooks designed to prepare French students for their various state exams). This Literary Criticism section was nothing to shout about. It had some recent editions of Blanchot, a translation of David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction; books by the 17th century scholar Marc Fumaroli, and almost everything by Antoine Compagnon, a brilliant writer, but alone on that shelf in thinking about how criticism has evolved and what it might mean today. Also, mis -shelved but inviting, Eric Fottorino’s exposé of his years as writer and editor in chief at Le Monde: Mon tour du "Monde". Some good books, some great books, some enervating books, but they added up to nothing-- no sense of a movement, no collective energy.
All of which made me reflect on the state of literary criticism in general. The last big thing in France, before cognitive science at least, was called “genetic criticism.” By comparing manuscript variants of masterpieces on their way to being published, genetic critics hoped to discover something really interesting about literary creation. These genetic critics had the following intuition: Maybe what the French theorists meant in the 1970s when they announced the death of the author was not so much that the author was dead but that the book was alive! And if you could get as close as possible to whatever set of choices constituted the making of a book, you would have committed an essential act of criticism—and gone one better than interpretation.
You have to be a pretty serious nerd to love genetic criticism. Whereas Michael Gorra has taken the same insights as the genetic critics, the same scholarly finesse, and created a book that is an adventure from beginning to end. His meditative and deeply pleasurable Portrait of a Novel : Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece cured my melancholy over the state of criticism by page xxiv—and I hadn’t even started the first chapter. I’m reading galleys, and his book is going to be published at the end of August. Dear Reader, order it!
Gorra has invented a genre that ought to catch on among literary critics in search of a method: the biography of the novel. It’s not obvious what the biography of a novel should entail, but the first thing Gorra does is to show us James’ Portrait of a Lady as it has always been for him—a living, breathing miracle. There are the essential things, beautifully done…. Where James was when he wrote Portrait of a Lady, his state of mind, his family and friendships, the places he traveled and how they expanded his vision, his drive, his talent, his limits and his secrets. He revisits the trampled ground of James’ “sources,” rejecting the literal-minded source hunting that made people like Barthes and Blanchot want to kill off author studies in the first place.
Here’s one of a thousand sentences I love in Portrait of a Novel; it’s about the way James channels his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson’s Venice suicide into a rush of short stories-- “The Altar of the Dead,” “The Beast in the Jungle,” “The Jolly Corner, and “The Friends of the Friends.” :
A solitary man, a sympathetic woman: it’s as though James were shaking the dice of character, and rolling them again and again; different combinations of the same two pieces, chronicles of could-haves and should-haves and even second chances.
Gorra has found a tantalizing structure that allows him to go back and forth between James’ life, the scenes of his writing, and the development of his characters-- especially Isabel, the centerpiece--who all emerge here as they should: more real than their sources. There are places in Portrait of a Novel where Gorra gets so close to the making of Portrait of a Lady, he actually crosses over from literary history into the interior of James’s consciousness. The interior world that Gorra imagines, and that we come to inhabit, is so plausible, so true to life, that his Portrait of a Novel becomes a novel—a masterpiece of critical imagination.
Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece. 384 pages. W.W. Norton. August 2012.