This sequel to Henry James: The Young Master (1996, etc.) chronicles, in numbingly Jamesian detail, the expatriate writer’s attempt, in his social life and his work, to create a venue for “large & confident action—splendid & supreme creation.”
Novick (Law and History/Vermont Law School) follows the novelist from 1881, after The Portrait of a Lady was published, to his death in 1916, when he was hailed as a modernist master who introduced into fiction the notion of the observer’s consciousness. While covering relations with family members such as older brother William, the philosopher, Novick justifiably spends more time on James’s cosmopolitan circle of artists and their aristocratic mentors, who crossed national and sexual boundaries. This group heightened his tendency toward painting tableaux rather than telling tales, while leaving him out of step with both middle-aged women, who formed the major readership of literary fiction, and London theatergoers, who rejected him in his mid-career attempt to write successful dramas. James could not have asked for a more sympathetic biographer. Novick is tolerant of his homosexuality, sensitive to his battles with contemporary tastes and absolutely admiring of his achievements. If anything, the author is too sympathetic to his subject. His explanation of James’s prejudices, for instance, nearly becomes exculpatory: “There is not a great deal of difference, in the end, between his view of roles as realities that must be accepted, and the very modern view that while real, they are socially constructed.” Nor is he above the occasional gaffe—if James met Evelyn Waugh, as claimed, the latter could not have been a “young writer” yet, as he had only been born a few years before this encounter. Novick is on surer ground in explaining the stylistically dense, psychologically rich fiction James created in his last, major phase: The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl.
James’s relentless work habits produced a frequently stunning oeuvre. His biographer’s focus on the novelist’s daily rounds in an otherwise quiet life is just as relentless and demanding, but far less artful.