Anthony Lane’s New Yorker book review of Michael Gorra’s “Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece” presents –beyond a literary tutorial–an opportunity to luxuriate in beautiful prose with such delightful use of language as to encourage more than one reading.
After drawing us in with a first intriguing excerpt which presages other “threshold” scenes that inspired his review title “Out of the Frame,” Lane advises readers who’ve never or not recently read Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady that it would be best to do so before attempting Gorra’s analysis. For those of us who likely won’t be delving in shortly, he offers a plot summary, noting that “a book which begins in tranquil decorum will become…a disturbance of the peace.” Well, Lane guides the reader through a gauze of ever-so-slight, hints, of innuendo and no truly revealed firm plot or liaisons, about which readers of the 1880s complained to The Atlantic Monthly where it first appeared in installment format. Indeed, as Lane quotes the Atlantic’s editor who begged the question in an essay on James the following year, “Will the reader be content to accept a novel which is an analytic study rather than a story?” Then, the answer was no, but obviously, it is an understatement to observe that appreciation of–indeed devotion to– James’ mastery grew over time.
Well, after a fascinating review in which Lane interweaves references to other works of literature, and frequently sites relevant Atlantic Monthly stories and correspondence, he leaves us with a paen to simpler times noting of James: “He is our foremost explorer of the private life, and of what it costs to preserve. We need him more than ever.”
What an interesting contrast this brings to mind now here in the 21st century where one wonders where our mores have become so flexible and continue to evolve as to wondering what grounds this shifting structure. Our view of private life has been so eroded. The masses are lured by “reality” and consultants offer services to safeguard reputations; surely that would have been an enviable option in James’s Victorian period where whispers could ruin a young woman (not to digress into distraction-though tempted–to some cultures’ current-day practices.). I thought of the recent Atlantic Monthly June 2012 article by Anne-Marie Slaughter titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” We’ve come a long way but still to some extent stand in the threshold of James’s protagonist Isabel Archer. Agonizing over her own career-life balance debacle, Slaughter provokes: “Are we selling women a fiction?” And, then came news of Yahoo hiring dedicated careerist Marissa Mayer of Google fame who was six months pregnant at the time. Public company, public life.
I didn’t quote the author Gorra himself when writing about Lane’s review, but one of Lane’s characterizations struck me. He refers to Gorra as assuming a role of professional prismatist…certainly not a use of the word I’d ever seen. But it made me think. What a beautiful way to evoke the spectrum of interpretative angles, perspectives as Lane observes, those of biography, geography, publishing, textual variation, and mild erotic sleuthing, among others–“as if hoping to catch it at an unfamiliar slant.” Take a moment to read the article; for language lovers, it’s a fabulous experience.
Now, bear with me still as I jump across on this inspiration of prisms, which is a marvelous metaphor that can open so many doors….I learned of new scientific research recently which speaks to our sense of wonderment when we gaze upon butterflies. Studies are examining not just the evolutionary rationale for the incredible variety of colors and patterns, but how exactly Mother Nature creates the color. In some butterflies, the powdery substance on the wings, is composed of different natural compounds that give it specific colors. In some butterflies however, the apparent color has no chemical basis at all and would be completely devoid of pigment but for the incredibly intricate crystalline structures, called gyroids, which create an architecture that causes the light spectrum filtering through to bend, resulting in the perception of color. OK, I’m going to use the dreaded word—now that IS awesome. I first learned about this from a program about ongoing research at a German University. But here, I’ve found for you an article in Wired from two years ago which addresses the same topic. Sorry but I don’t know yet how to upload conveniently clickable URLs so these are copy/paste. For all of us who’ve wondered about the colors in bubbles, this is the beginning of new explorations of the prism. Enjoy.