Book Review

The Daily Henry James: A Year of Quotes From the Work of the Master, Part II

So Henry James and Ernest Hemingway, it appears, told of the same message, to have courage.

But in this well-done attractive book, a small red paperback, there is also a lot about work, the work of art, mostly. And there is a lot about relationships, as one would expect, also.

I want now to type out the quotes I underlined in my copy of this book and comment if moved to. But first, here is Michael Gorra’s comment on reading this book, which helps explain why James’s work has been adapted so well to this format:

“That effort [to read these passages as if they were free-standing] has made two things clear. One is James’s epigrammatic force. The other, which can be easy to miss when caught by the flow of a narrative, is the extraordinary precision of his descriptive prose, his sheer ability to make you see.” Which reminds one of Joseph Conrad’s declaration that that “to make you see,” is the main objective of the artist.

“January 8, The Lesson of Balzac, 1905

“The English writer wants to make sure, first of all, of your moral judgment; the French is willing, while it waits a little, to risk, for the sake of his subject and your interest, your spiritual salvation.”

“January 11, The Art of Fiction, 1884

“But the only condition that I can think of attaching to the composition of the novel is, as I have already said, that it be sincere. This freedom is a splendid privilege, and the first lesson of the young novelist is to learn to be worthy of it.”

This quote surprised me; I thought the Jamesian thing was to write as a craftsman. But first, for him, was sincerity. The next quote is one of my favorites.

“February 16, The Princess Casamassima, 1886

“‘Our troubles don’t kill us, Prince; it’s we who must try to kill them. I have buried not a few.'”

“April 1, The Madonna of the Future, 1873

“‘But do you know my own thought? Nothing is so idle as to talk about our want of a nutritive soil, of opportunity, of inspiration, and all the rest of it. The worthy part is to do something fine! There’s no law in our glorious Constitution against that. Invent, create, achieve! No matter if you have to study fifty times as much as one of these! What else are you an artist for?'”

“April 12, The Author of Beltraffio, 1885

“It was the point of view of the artist to whom every manifestation of human energy was a thrilling spectacle, and who felt it forever the desire to resolve his experience of life into a literary form.”

“April 14, The Lesson of the Master, 1892

“‘Fancy an artist with a plurality of standards to  do it: to do it and make it divine is the only thing he has to think about. “Is it done or not?” is his only question.'”

Which reminds me of Nabokov’s advice to caress the divine detail.

“April 16, The Figure in the Carpet, 1896

“‘By my little point I mean–what shall I call it?–the particular thing I’ve written my books most for. Isn’t there for every writer a particular thing of that sort, the thing that most makes him apply himself, the thing without the effort to achieve which he wouldn’t write at all, the very passion of his passion, the part of the business in which, for him, the flame of art burns most intensely? Well, it’s that!'”

More surprises for me: James limning energy and passion; just shows you I haven’t read much of him and have forgotten how passion erupts in “The Beast in the Jungle.”

“April 19, The Art of Fiction, 1884

“There is one point at which the moral sense and the artistic sense lie very near together, that is in the light of the very obvious truth that the deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer. In proportion as that intelligence is fine will the novel, the picture, the statue partake of the substance of beauty and truth. To be constituted of such elements is, to my vision, to have purpose enough.”

“April 24, The Next Time, 1895

“Her disappointments and eventually her privations had been many, her discipline severe; but she had ended by accepting the long grind of life, and was now quite willing to be ground in good company.”

Humor! In Henry James! Very dry, to be sure.

“April 26, The Tragic Muse, 1889

“Everybody with whom one had relations had other relations too, and even optimism was a mixture and peace an embroilment. The only chance was to let everything be embroiled but one’s temper and everything spoiled but one’s work.”

This made me think of the ruthlessness of the artist, as in the work of Philip Roth, but one could argue it’s a guarding of one’s vocation.

“April 27, Anthony Trollope, 1883

“His great, his inestimable merit was a complete appreciation of the usual. Trollope, therefore, with his eyes comfortable fixed on the familiar, the actual, was far from having invented a new category; his distinction is that in resting just there his vision took in so much of the field. And then he felt all daily and immediate things as well as saw them; felt them in a simple, direct, salubrious way, with their sadness, their gladness, their charm, their comicality, all their obvious and measurable meanings.”

Reading this, I remembered reading Trollope (and wanted to read more), and it also put me in mind of Samuel Johnson; there is something of the latter in the magisterial tone of James.

“May 1, The Lesson of the Master, 1892

“‘The great thing?’

“‘The sense of having done the best–the sense which is the real life of the artist and the absence of which is his death, of having draw from his intellectual instrument the finest music that nature had hidden in it, of having played it as it should be played. He either does that or he doesn’t–and if he doesn’t he isn’t worth speaking of. And precisely those who really know don’t speak of him. He may still hear a great chatter, but what he hears most is the incorruptible silence of Fame.'”

To be continued.

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