Sunday 4 March 2018

The Faint Thrill of Horror

Brookner on James is always fascinating and often provoking, not least in her 1987 review of Leon Edel's classic biography of the writer (Spectator, 1 August 1987 here). Henry James crops up more than once in Brookner's novels. In Falling Slowly (1998), for example:
She marvelled that Henry James knew so much about women and children, yet remained a bachelor, and by all accounts a man of the greatest integrity. She liked that about him, that and his reputation for modesty. He had deferred to worldly friends, as if he were not more worldly than any of them. (Ch. 16)
I agree with the last bit, but take issue with the rest. Integrity, yes - but modesty is perhaps a step too far. Similarly in her Edel review her reading goes askew. Henry James: 'essentially timid, prudent, virginal, secret and pure'?! She seems at pains to absolve him of any accusation of impropriety; she seems to want to limit What Henry Knew:
[E]ven when using libidinal language, as he does in the truly awful novel called Watch and Ward, an early work, he does not appear to know what he is doing, and his late ardent friendships with young men are not so much homoerotic as pre-sexual.
I think we all, when reading the writers of the past, especially those we revere, construct them afresh for our own purposes and sometimes in our own image. Brookner, like Edel, sees a particular James, but such is James's inexhaustibility we might just as equally posit another: supremely the very opposite of timid, prudent, virginal, secret and pure.

But what interests me about her Leon Edel piece is the following passage, in which I seem to hear a more personal note, as if Brookner were writing about herself and her own devotion to art and to work. (But of course I may myself be guilty here of constructing an author for my own purposes.)
He was fully in charge of his life, yet saw, when he was two thirds of the way through it, that he had used it up, and that there was to be no second chance. This is the message of the story called The Middle Years, and is condensed in the phrase that might be his epitaph: the madness of art. For despite Henry James's essential sobriety, his industry, and his blamelessness, one is left with the impression that his is a supreme case of misdirection. And the faint thrill of horror that this life inspires, a horror that deepens to anguish as one reads on in this meticulous and loving biography, condensed from its original five volumes to a seamless new version, must surely spring from the dawning realisation that there is no second chance, a realisation with which James lived even as a famous and venerated public figure, surrounded by the love of friends and with the evidence of a lifetime's work in print.

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