Henry James – shorter fiction? Surely that’s a contradiction in terms? The Bostonians – 504 pages. The Ambassadors – 512 pages. The Wings of the Dove – 528 pages. The Golden Bowl – 592 pages. Daunting length – difficult prose. There’s reading challenges and then there’s tests of endurance. And when reading is a hobby, I’m not up for the latter. However, Melville House Publishing’s The Lesson of the Master – a mere 122 page bagatelle – winked at me from afar and threw down a gauntlet, picked up only after David Lodge had persuaded me that reading James may just be something enjoyable.
The main theme of The Lesson of the Master is the separation of the artist from love for the sake of his art. According to Lodge, James consciously decided not to marry and there’s many an embarrassing incident in Author! Author! between James and his authoress friend Constance Fenimore Woolson as he tries to avoid the weight of her expectations. For Paul Overt, the young protagonist of The Lesson of the Master, the dilemma is the same though the details differ. It is he who, after discussion with his literary hero, decides not to pursue the woman he loves and withdraws into solitude for a couple of years to write his second novel.
After a slow but entertaining build in which society is depicted with measured irony, the pivotal scene occurs in chapter V. Overt’s self-appointed mentor delivers his verdict on the quest to create the perfect novel.
“On the supposition that a certain perfection’s possible and even desirable …. Well, all I say is that one’s children interfere with perfection. One’s wife interferes. Marriage interferes.”
“You think then that the artist shouldn’t marry?”
“He does so at his peril – he does so at his cost.”
This man has married a rich (but not entirely sympathetic) woman and has enjoyed a lucrative literary career. He hasn’t written any masterpieces though. Is it any wonder that young impressionable Paul makes the decision he does.
The events following his return cast an entirely different hue on the lesson he has learnt. No telling here but it appears that the younger man has been outwiled by the master, the older novelist. St. George is his name and therein lies the clue. The Lesson of the Master can be seen as a humorous retelling of the legend. St. George is, by necessity, the victor. But what or who is the dragon? Marriage itself? Or perhaps even the young Paul Overt?. Because in certain affairs of the heart, Overt is the foe who must be vanquished.
My goodness, James was being playful. That was something completely unexpected. So was the delight of his prose – not half a difficult as I was fearing. Or maybe I, the reader, have come a long way since the day I abandoned The Portrait of a Lady – 672 pages. Ok, maybe not quite far enough to attempt it again. No running before we can walk. The Jamesian Experiment Part 3 likely, therefore, to revolve around The Turn of the Screw – 112 pages.