What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady": Lane v. Wood

It’s interesting to compare Anthony Lane’s "Out of the Frame" (The New Yorker, September 3, 2012) with James Wood’s "Perfuming the Money Issue" (London Review of Books, October 11, 2012). Both reviews give Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1880) a startlingly fresh reading by exploring its sexual implications. But what I find even more interesting is the way Lane’s and Wood’s sexual views differ. Both critics see Portrait’s villain, Gilbert Osmond, as sexually creepy. Regarding James’s description of Osmond’s relationship with his daughter Pansy (“If he wished to make himself felt, there was soft and supple little Pansy, who would evidently respond to the slightest pressure”), Lane writes:

James omitted the line, and its surrounding passage, when he thoroughly revised the novel, in 1906, for the New York edition of his works (and thereby hangs another tale), yet the jolt of that earlier, unrefined image feels dreadfully suited to Osmond, for whom Humbertism, actual or threatened, would make a pleasing addition to his secret stash of sins.

Note that “pleasing.” Lane enjoys fictional evil. In his review of Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, he says, “When evil can do what it wants, the edge is taken off our fear and our sneaky sense of fun” (“Renaissance Man,” The New Yorker, February 12, 2001; included in his great Nobody’s Perfect, 2002). 

In contrast, Wood is less playful. He calls Osmond “the most frightening character in fiction.” He further says:

What makes The Portrait of a Lady such a strange book is its strongly felt attraction towards sex and its strongly felt recoil from it. Osmond’s seductive diabolism is surely, in large part erotic. The very structure of the novel is sickly and voyeuristic; a group of gazers, each with an erotic interest in her, circulates around Isabel. If you were to read the plot through the pornographic optic that it seems almost to dare, you would notice that some of them, like Caspar Goodwood and Lord Warburton, imagine themselves with her. Others, like Madam Merle and Henrietta, would like to watch her with someone else (Madame Merle wants to watch Osmond and Isabel, Henrietta wants to watch Caspar and Isabel).

Wood seems almost repelled by the sex he sees in Portrait through his “pornographic optic.” There’s certainly no “sneaky sense of fun” in his description of Osmond’s “seductive diabolism.”

Wood’s emphasis on Portrait’s sexual aspect appears to stem from his reading of Michael Gorra’s new study Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece. In his review, he mentions “Gorra, noting the sexual charge that frequently inhabits the prose.” On the other hand, Lane’s notion of a parallel between Osmond and Humbert Humbert is his own. Fourteen years ago, in his review of Adrian Lyne’s movie of Vladimir Nabokov’s splendid Lolita, he wrote, “One of Humbert’s more insidious crimes is to make you wonder what his gentlemanly forefathers may have done to their daughters; with Isabel out of the way, for instance, what cracks might Gilbert Osmond have inflicted on the porcelain virtue of Pansy?” (“Lo and Behold,” The New Yorker, February 23, 1998; collected in Nobody’s Perfect). 

Credit: The above artwork is John Singer Sargent's "Portrait of Henry James" (1913).

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