March 9, 2015

The Art of the Novella challenge 16: The Lesson of the Master


the lesson of the master
Title: The Lesson of the Master

Author: Henry James

First published: 1888

Page count: 122

First line: He had been told the ladies were at church, but this was corrected by what he saw from the top of the steps – they descended from a great height in two arms, with a  circular sweep of the most charming effect – at the threshold of the door which, from the long, bright gallery, overlooked the immense lawn.

So I moved straight on from the one Henry James in the novella series to the other, from The Coxon Fund to The Lesson of the Master. This far more well-known story is something of a set text of the Jamesian world – anyone coming to the writer for the first time might well be pushed to read it (or alternatively The Figure in the Carpet), The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller, and having done so could consider themselves well prepared for something longer and bigger – for the good, big stuff.

The Lesson of the Master and The Figure in the Carpet have additional interest, especially for the shallow amongst us, because they’re about writers, and literature, and how wonderful and magnificent those things are, when taken on their own, but how terrible – how fatal – when mixed, as alas they often are, with life.

The novella starts with one of those classic James openings, that you feel he simply pulled down off the shelf when needed: a young man arrives as a guest at an English country house and stands on the terrace, looking down at a group of people on the lawn. I had to go back to The Portrait of a Lady to check that it wasn’t the self-same scene: not quite, there it’s afternoon tea, rather than a Sunday morning bask in the unimprovable glory of being rich and English and not at church when the others of your party are.

The story, in short, is one of the relationship between a young writer, Paul Overt, and an older, hugely successful one, Henry St. George – the ‘Master’ of the title, whom Overt idolises, though he knows his work has fallen off in recent years. The set piece of the whole enterprise is a single scene, about two thirds of the way through – at 20 pages it takes up a sixth of the book – in which the two men talk, late at night, and St. George imparts his ‘lesson’. This is, basically, to not turn out like him, who sacrificed the possibility of artistic greatness for the cheap prize of sales and income, all to support his wife and children. St. George is the living embodiment of that most sombre of Cyril Connolly’s ‘Enemies of Promise’: the pram in the hall.

This scene is a superb piece of writing, and it wouldn’t be overstating the case to say that it holds almost the entirety of the real interest of the novella – there is plot outside of it, which is clever enough, but without it the story would hardly be held up as the jewel that it is.

It reminds me of the big scene you get in a Hollywood film where the star in his post-prime greatness gets to at once out-act and anoint the young star on the rise – think: Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, Robin Williams and Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves/Johnny Depp/John Cusack/Chris O’Donnell/Andy Garcia in… well, you know the films, and you know the scenes.

Here’s St. George passing on the secret to Overt:

“It’s all excellent, my dear fellow – heaven forbid I should deny it. I’ve made a great deal of money; my wife has known how to take care of it, to use it without washing it, to put a good bit of it by, to make it fructify. I’ve got a loaf on the shelf; I’ve got everything in fact but the great thing.”

“The great thing?” Paul kept echoing.

“The sense of having done the best – the sense which is the real life of the artist and absence of which is his death, of having drawn from his intellectual instrument the finest music that nature had hidden in it, of having played it as it should be played.”

And on, and wonderfully on.  It’s stirring stuff.

What’s so compelling about the scene is that, although this is the very stuff of artistic endeavour – it’s the secret conversation anyone who’s ever written anything has played out in their head, and is usually inserted, in paraphrase, as the ‘Always Be Closing’ motivational harangue somewhere in every Creative Writing programme – it runs in total contrast to how we think writers and artists do talk. Put a pair of writers in a room, the common currency of it is, and they’ll talk royalties, agents, film options, promotional nonsense – anything but the actual art all those material items variously underpin and overwhelm, make possible and eventually extinguish. It’s a guilty pleasure, because it externalises the conversation we all want to have, at some time in lives – or twice, perhaps, once as the eager young gun, once as the tragic success.

That said, it is sure to piss off any women writers, or male feminists, who read it (in fact it’s a good test of exactly how feminist-inclined a male writer is). This is the writer as hero, the woman as fatal distraction:

“You think then the artist shouldn’t marry?”

“He does so at his peril – he does so at his cost.”

“Not even when his wife’s in sympathy with his work?”

“She never is – she can’t be! Women haven’t a conception of such things.”
“Surely they on occasion work themselves,” Paul objected.

“Yes, very badly indeed. Oh of course, often, they think they understand, they think they sympathise. Then it is they’re most dangerous.”

Two questions arise from this: one, did James, who did write sensibly and sympathetically about women on occasion, and about artists and writers indefatigably, ever create a female writer character? And, two, does this sexism invalidate the idea of great art – “the great thing” – that it is so carefully twinned with? Can you have one without the other?

The answer to the first, for me, is: I don’t know. The second: no, and yes.

We can write off St. George’s views of women as bigotry of either the eternal/personal or the historical/conventional type, and still retain his lesson: that the artist must sacrifice a normal life in order to create something truly great. This remains, if not incontrovertibly true, then absolutely a balm and a crutch to anyone finds their creativity hampered by a job or a family life.

There’s more to The Lesson of the Master than this, but I’ve left the ironical twists of the plot for the reader to enjoy, like the bon-bons they are. One final thing, though: I said in my post on The Coxon Fund that I wasn’t sure it if was his best short fiction, as The Lesson of the Master was more highly regarded – yet in many ways The Coxon Fund is better James. It was published in 1894, when he was in mid-transition from his early, C19th phase to his later, proto-modernist one, that would see the publication of The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors  and The Golden Bowl in successive early years of the Twentieth Century.

In that post I marvelled at the rich and abstruse ambiguity of the prose, which seemed to float above the stuff of the story, its meanings activated always at one remove from what was happening, as if James had inserted another level of semantic operation between that of signifier and signified.

By contrast, The Lesson of the Master is pretty straightforward. When James describes a thing, he does so by describing it, not by conjuring a secondary phantasm that points wispily towards the thing, before doing a loop-the-loop and elegantly evaporating.

That’s not to say the writing here is without interest (and I’ve already said how great that central scene is). For one, how can one not adore the description of a housecoat as having “tragic literary elbows”! Hang on. Let’s give that an indent:

tragic literary elbows

Ah, splendid! For another, there’s an intriguing sentence – in the free indirect style, and I’ll come to the narrator in a moment – transcribing Overt’s thoughts about Marian Fancourt, the rather underwritten bright young woman who represents the greatest threat to his freedom. For now, he thinks, her literary and cultural aspirations were everything he might hope for in a companion.

It was probably enough she would leave them behind – exchange them for politics or “smartness” or mere prolific maternity, as was the custom of scribbling daubing educated flattered girls in an age of luxury and a society of leisure.

What caught my attention was the lack of commas – the “scribbling daubing educated flattered girls”. Is James, who is usually the grammarian’s grammarian, doing something proper here? Or is he letting the rush of prejudice in Overt’s thought derail his syntax? If so, this is a definite inclination towards the modernist, and I like it.

There’s a last, minor undertone to the novella that elevates it above mere brilliance, that shows the restless mind of the great artist, incapable of settling for simple verisimilitude. Whereas The Coxon Fund proclaims its narratorial scheme for the get-go (‘“They have got him for life!” I said to myself that evening…’), The Lesson of the Master posits itself at first as the work of an ordinary third-person omniscient-absent narrator, though focused on Overt – we see the world over his shoulder. Though the narrator does in the first pages call him “our friend”, that personalisation (or appropriation) is anything but consistent. On five occasions the narrator allows himself to intrude on the tale with a first-person singular pronoun, but always in a discreetly organisational manner: “This was particularly the case on the occasion of which I speak.” “…he a week after the conversation I have noted left England for a long absence…” and the like. He doesn’t seek to guide or comment on the tale of his telling.

Then, two thirds of the way through, the mask slips – a different way. This is in the same scene as that earlier comma-less sentence, with Overt and Marian Fancourt deep in artistic conversation.

This episode will have lived for years in his memory and even in his wonder: it had the quality that fortune distils in a single drop at a time – the quality that lubricates many ensuing frictions. He still, whenever he likes, has a vision of the room, the bright red sociable talkative room with the curtains that, by a stroke of a successful audacity, had the note of vivid blue. He remembers where certain things stood, the particular book open on the table and the almost intense odour of the flowers placed, at the left, somewhere behind him.

Prolepsis is the proper term for this, this slippage forwards in time, but it’s subtly done (and it’s only in typing it that I notice more missing commas – “the bright red sociable talkative room”). The reader barely notices it, but still the sensation is there: more is going on here than a simple story, told and tied with a bow – there is a story beyond the page, that is mine, ours, and not the author’s to invent and to know.

Looking carefully – and I don’t have to time to look really carefully – I note that James swaps between calling his  hero Paul Overt, Overt and Paul almost at random, but by the final pages, when he slips again into an imagined present beyond the bounds of the story, he is, he definitely is, Paul. The narrator is sharing him with us. There is something rather sweet about it, rather human, and rather un-Jamesian. It’s like the attitude of a person towards their pet. I’m reading a fair bit of Muriel Spark at the moment, and that strange attitude towards the characters is there in her strange books, too. Both writers seem to turn simple ‘authorial distance’ into a real, though thorooughly uncanny, three-dimensional space: it’s not just something to be overcome, or seen through; things happen there.

Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press, and lectures in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels.