Life is shadow and art is substance

Here is Colm Toibin describing Henry James’ attitude towards novels and their writing:

As he imagined his books, he saw life as shadow and the art he produced as substance. He believed that language and form, the tapestry of the novel, could produce something much richer and more substantial than mere life, something that offered what was chaotic and fascinating a sort of complex and golden completion.

It is often more useful to look at a drama already in the making as the seed for James’s work rather than an individual character. He was interested, as his initial inspiration, in scenes rather than souls; he made his characters out of the dramatic moments he created for them, treating moral conflicts and matters of secrecy, infidelity and power with infinite subtlety. In his work, a single look, a single moment of recognition, a single ambiguous resolution took on enormous force, became the fuel that powers the great engine of his novels. He dramatised the intensity in the relations between people, playing freedom against pattern, restriction against openness and chaos against harmony.

The piece also gives several instances of a few lines plot summaries and notes that James wrote down in his notebooks, and what novels they became later. That part is very fascinating for me because it gives a glimpse of how novels are born in the minds of the writer.

Three years later, he listed six possibilities for new books, four of which became novels. One was to deal with “the girl who is dying, the young man and the girl he is engaged to”; this became The Wings of the Dove (1902). Another became The Other House (1896). A further novel he listed by its actual subsequent title, The Awkward Age (1899). And one more he summarised as: “The father and daughter, with the husband of one and the wife of the other entangled in a mutual passion, an intrigue.” This became The Golden Bowl (1904).

Take a look!

Hat tip: To Jenny at Light Reading for the link and recommendation.

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