On ‘The Portrait of a Lady’

With some books, the reading of them leaves an impression as vivid as their contents. I first read The Portrait of a Lady as a young man of twenty-three in New York City, in the very World’s Classics edition which I am invited, forty-three years later, to introduce. Back then, because the book was physically small, and James one of the great names of literature that my formal education had but nominally included, I would slip the handy volume, with its pleasingly severe blue cover, in my coat pocket before leaving the modest, triangular apartment I shared with my wife and infant daughter on Riverside Drive near 85th Street; I would walk over to Broadway, catch the subway at 86th Street, and stare into the closely printed pages for the seven stops and twenty minutes it took to arrive at Times Square. And so, in reverse, on the way back.

During those rush hours I usually had to stand, swaying, jostled, gripping a porcelain loop while I buried my head, ostrichlike, in the accreting sands of James’s tale as it made its leisurely way from England to Paris to Florence and Rome and back to England, to betranced and lovely Gardencourt, the home of successive invalids. There was a certain swank, it certainly occurred to the vain youth I was, in dulling the indignities of my twice-daily passage with a fiction so refined, so aloof in its voice and milieux from the underground congestion of the American metropolis. But the method of such short, distracted doses may, possibly, have weakened my overall impression of the book, for most of what I remembered was the tea party at the beginning and the kiss like lightning at the end.

In preparation for this present task of introduction, I took the same nostalgic volume with me to China, where, on the all but endless trans-Pacific flight and in brief bedtime snatches at the weary end of many a sightseeing day, I made my way through it again, conscientiously. The sense of conscientiousness recurred, without, this second time around, a young man’s exultant confidence of a practically infinite life ahead of him, with time in which to read and write any number of books. Instead, a much older man took a certain sour comfort in the likelihood that he would not be setting himself to read this particular masterpiece a third time. Again, the circumstances of the reading may have been un-ideal. The novel’s beginning felt unnecessarily arch and the ending unnecessarily frustrating. Between beginning and end, of course, there was marvelous writing, as James lovingly drew the filaments of his rather thin and Gothic tale into momentary marvels of witty metaphor and daintily particular sensation:

It was not that his spirits were visibly high—he would never, in the concert of pleasure, touch the big drum by so much as a knuckle.

Time had breathed upon his heart and, without chilling it, given it a relieved sense of having taken the air.

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.