Michael Gorra’s books include Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece and The Bells in Their Silence: Travels through Germany. He teaches English at Smith. (September 2017)


Shaping Stories to Make Sense of Ourselves

Claire Messud, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2013

The Burning Girl

by Claire Messud
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Julia Robinson, the teenaged narrator of Claire Messud’s subtly made fifth novel, isn’t quite precocious enough to quote that line from Joan Didion’s The White Album. She’d recognize the sentiment, however, and I thought of those words in reading the story she …

Nine Lives

David Szalay at the museum and former home of the poet Julio Flórez, Usiacurí, Colombia, January 2014

All That Man Is

by David Szalay
The noun in the title of David Szalay’s fourth book of fiction means something quite specific. All That Man Is: not humankind, or mankind, or people; still less women or children. No, he means men, Y-chromosomed adults, and yet the rhetorical sweep of that phrase does gesture toward some large …

Losing the American Tone

Edith Wharton, circa 1901; photograph by Zaida Ben-Yusuf

Four Novels of the 1920s: The Glimpses of the Moon, A Son at the Front, Twilight Sleep, The Children

by Edith Wharton, edited by Hermione Lee
The marriage of Edith and Teddy Wharton had for a long time looked workable, marked by a shared passion for travel and dogs and later for automobiles, if not by passion itself. They each suffered from the neurasthenia common in their time and class, and lacking children their movements from …

The Girl at the Florist’s

Donald Antrim, New York City, September 2014; photograph by Larry Fink

The Emerald Light in the Air

by Donald Antrim
“Stay put and don’t piss off the duck.” That’s the last note Reg Barry gives his Puck before lowering him into a hole—in fact inhabited by a duck—for the start of his open-air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; but of course the director has other things to worry about …

Deep into Green

Jan Van Eyck: The Arnolfini Wedding, circa 1435

Green: The History of a Color

by Michel Pastoureau, translated from the French by Jody Gladding
We live in colors. They fill our waking moments, they form a part of our every apprehension of the visible world, and they govern many of the choices we make about the ways we define or express ourselves. It’s rare, though, to see ourselves as constituted by the reds and greens in our lives, and we often pretend that such things involve nothing more than the paint on our walls or the inconsequential choice of a tie.


The Nose of the Master

John Singer Sargent: Henry James, 1913

“Henry James and American Painting,” a compact but wonderfully heterogeneous show at the Morgan Library, includes a comprehensive selection of Jamesian portraits along with other paintings of and by his friends. James liked sitting, and the exhibition includes a round dozen of his many portraits; more probably than have ever been gathered in one place before.

The Portrait of Miss Bart

Joshua Reynolds: Mrs. Lloyd, 1775-1776

In the tableaux vivants scene of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, Lily Bart’s posture announces that she is herself as a work of art. She stands on display, showing what she has, and the moment at which she is most herself is also the one in which she most becomes a thing, an object consumed by those eyes, and consumed perhaps in other ways as well. For art is often sold. Lily has here turned herself into a commodity, and poses as if she’s up for auction. The scene works to literalize the idea of the marriage market.

All Blue

China, 2012

Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters; Nova Scotians, hair rinse, bluing, bleach…