The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, a brief summary and two questions

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…she (Isabel’s aunt) is horrified at my contenting myself with a person who has none of Lord Warburton’s great advantages – no property, no title, no honours, no houses, nor lands, nor position, nor reputation, nor brilliant belongings of any sort. It is the total absense of all these things that pleases me. Mr. Osmond is simply a man – he is not a proprietor!”

I have finally finished The Portrait of A Lady, and I have two questions: why did Isabel Archer marry Gilbert Osmond? And, why did she plan to return to him on the very last page? I am all the more eager to discuss this with you, and to continue with John Banville’s interpretation of Isabel’s story in Mrs. Osmond, as Henry James leaves us with Isabel’s life quite unresolved.

In the very briefest of summaries, Isabel Archer has been brought from her home in America to England by her aunt. She immediately forms strong attachments to her cousin, Ralph, and her uncle. She is also courted by Lord Warburton, a wealthy man who has been smitten by Isabel’s charms. Back home she has left Caspar Goodwood, another suitor who lives in New England. There is no shortage of people who admire Isabel. In fact, her cousin is so taken by her that he begs his father to leave her an enormous part of the family fortune upon his death. When Madame Merle, a friend of Isabel’s aunt, learns of Isabel’s inherited fortune, she leads her into a marriage with Gilbert Osmond, an odious man with a most lovely daughter who seems in such stark contrast to her wretched father. When Ralph lies dying of consumption, Isabel tells her husband she must go to his bedside, and she is firmly forbidden to do so. Yet in a brave act of independence, she leaves Rome for Gardencourt, in England, and learns that it has been Ralph who bestowed his fortune upon her, not his father as Isabel thought. The Portrait of A Lady ends with Isabel returning to Rome, to her dreaded life with an appalling man.

So, why did she marry Gilbert Osmond in the first place? Because she was young and naive? Because she was led to it by the manipulations of an older woman with dark intent? Isabel would not listen to those around her whom she loved and trusted, such as her cousin Ralph. Instead she listened to Serena Merle, who manipulated Isabel into this marriage for her own purposes. Henry James never once says that Isabel loved Osmond, and what I come away with is that she felt coerced into this marriage by those whom she trusted, but scarcely knew.

Gilbert Osmond was the one who caught her, put her in a cage so to speak, as her cousin Ralph feared he would. Osmand had a contempt for everyone but a very few, and “for everything in the world but half a dozen ideas of his own.” It would be a wretched prison to find oneself in, married to a man with such superior views in direct contrast with one’s own. Poor Isabel, her imagination, her vivacity, is squelched under our very eyes. It is as if Osmand is trying to put her to death.

I admire her greatly for going to her cousin’s bedside despite her husband forbidding her to do so. It was something she needed to do as a decent human being, something she needed to do for herself and her beloved cousin as he lay dying. But, to turn the final page and discover that she is on her way back to Rome, back to Osmond, is quite alarming. Does she feel she has no other choice? Is she imprisoned not only by her husband, but by the social mores of her time? If there was any help to be had by being independently wealthy, now would be the time to claim those favors. For inheriting a fortune has been of no help whatsoever to her life thus far.

Tell us what you think, JoAnn, Audrey and Helen. Arti has put up a wonderful post on Ripple Effects, and I would love to continue a discussion with any thoughts I may have missed.

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Suggestion for a read along this February, please join in!

When I posted this picture on Instagram, one or two friends said they wanted to read it. But, as it is a sequel to The Portrait of A Lady by Henry James, there was discussion of reading that first.

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And so I propose a read-along of  The Portrait of A Lady in February. We could take as long as necessary, just read it sometime during the month and discuss it at the end. Of course, feel free to post about it as you go, or offer any other suggestions to the read-along in the comments below, but I am excited about it. Because Mrs Osmand is so good, and I want to remind myself of what came before.

Are you in?

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, a Midwinter Read-along Which I’m Eagerly Joining

It was purely by chance I discovered an invitation, put forth by Julia Bird, on Twitter this evening.

Apparently there is an organized reading of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, a children’s book published in 1973 which I have long seen on school library shelves but never read myself.

The read-along begins on Midwinter Eve (December 20) and runs through the Twelfth Night (January 5) with discussion happening on Twitter using the hashtag: #TheDarkisReading.

Perhaps you will join in, as well. It sounds too delectable to pass.

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

On clearer days, I could see far beyond the trees on the opposite bank of the river, a pale outline of hills visible against the clouds. It was not an unpleasant view, and on occasions it brought me a rare sense of relief from the emptiness of those long afternoons I spent in that apartment.

It seems a perfect day to be reading such a book, A Pale View of Hills, with the pale view outside of my own front window. The atmosphere within my living room contributes to the atmosphere Kazuo Ishiguro has created, one of mystery and sorrow. One of nostalgia and regret.

The English are fond of their idea that our race (Japanese) has an instinct for suicide, as if further explanations are unnecessary; for that was all they reported, that she was Japanese and that she had hung herself in her room.

Etsuko has lost her eldest daughter to suicide, and at first that is what I thought the novel was going to be about. But, it is really Etsuko’s reminiscences about the past, about her friend who lived in a small cottage in Nagasaki with her daughter, Mariko.

Sachiko is a mysterious woman. She laughingly avoids direct questions, she seems unperturbed by the way that her daughter disappears, or that her daughter is able to visit with a woman whom no one else can see. She lets Mariko stay out after dark for long hours, far longer than I could ever have allowed, and in the end, breaks her promise to Mariko about keeping her little kittens. In Sachiko’s mind, the small, dirty animals could never come to their new home, following an American man who will become the new husband, the new father.

It doesn’t matter how old someone is, it’s what they’ve experienced that counts.

She asserts that her daughter, Mariko, will be fine in America.

It’s a better place for a child to grow up. And she’ll have far more opportunities there; life’s much better for a woman in America.

But perhaps this is what she tells herself, in trying to believe that she is doing the right thing in leaving Japan. Parts of the novel refer to the old way of life in Japan, when the elders taught respect, when women followed their husband’s wishes. Ishiguro points to the loudness of Americans in their big cars, a point I feel acutely myself, and even the English way of life is brought in for contrast.

In Japanese cities, much more so than in England, the restaurant owners, the teahouse proprietors, the shopkeepers all seem to will the darkness to fall; long before the daylight has faded, lanterns appear in the windows, lighted signs above doorways.

Ultimately we close the book, turning the last page, without much knowledge of Etsuko’s daughter or her death. In fact, one can’t help wondering if this daugher, Keiko, and Mariko are so similar they could be the same girl. Surely when Etsuko was talking to Mariko she promised her, that if things were terrible, they could return. Is Etsuko confusing the events of her life? Or, is her memory rearranges things to make them more palatable?

This is a lovely novel, a brief and atmospheric story of a mother’s love for her child; a mother’s hopes for the future while turning over the past in her mind. Have you read it? Do you have another interpretation? Please tell me in a comment below, and let me know if you have a review to which I can link.

I read it for the Japanese Literature Challenge 11, but also to think of Kazuo Ishiguro as he received the Nobel Prize for Literature last week.

Find another review from BookManiac here.

How about a read-along for Kazuo Ishiguro?

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I found it so exciting when Kazuo Ishiguro was determined the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature this week! So many recipients of previous awards the last few years (Man Booker, I’m looking at you) have not only been surprising to me, they have been utterly disappointing.

But, this is a new day! And we have so many works of Ishiguro’s to choose from. The Unconsoled is my favorite, but it is long, and therefore perhaps not the book for this busy autumn season. I suggest:

Never Let Me Go

or

A Pale View of Hills

or

Remains of the Day

Would any of you like to read one of these with me? (None of the three are more than 280 pages.) We could take our time, casually reading and discussing through what remains of October. Let me know what you think, for I would rather read with you than alone.

xo,

Bellezza

Update: It seems that some of us will read two: A Pale View of Hills and Remains of the Day. I think we should take October to read which we like, some even prefer Never Let Me Go, and at the end of the month I will host a round up. At that point, I will pose a few questions for us to discuss and post any links to your reviews.

Henry Green Read-Along with Mookseandgripes, Proustitute, and a Few Others

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There has been a read-along of Henry Green before, when Stu hosted Henry Green Week in 2011, and there has been a read-along of an nyrb classic before, when Dorian and Scott hosted Hill. So I am super excited to announce another read-along beginning this November of Henry Green’s newly published books by nyrb press. It is hosted by The Mookse and the Gripes and Proustitute over at Goodreads.

The Year of Reading Henry Green, as the read-along is called, consists of one Henry Green book a month beginning in November. (The first two of his book will be published by nyrb press on October 18; you can see them pictured above.) So, the schedule is as follows:

November: Back

December: Loving

January: Caught

February: Blindness

March: Living

April: Party Going

There are three more of Green’s books to go, and the months to read those are as yet to be determined. But, this is surely enough to pique your interest and get you started should you decide to join the read-along whose members include so far:

Doesn’t it sound like fun?

p.s. Click on the link to read a fascinating article on Henry Green in the New Yorker.

Any Interest in a Read-Along of Captivity by György Spiró?

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Behold this book, Captivity, winner of the Aegon Literary Award, translated from Hungarian, and coming in at a mere 864 pages, it is not for the “subway reader.”

In fact, that term was brought to my attention by Vishy on Facebook tonight, who highlighted this gorgeous article: Ten Giant Translated Novels That Make a Mockery of Subway Reading. Included in the list is Haruki Murakami’s 1984 (love!) and Roberto Bolano’s 2666 (not so much), but I am woefully unaware of Hungarian authors.

So I wondered, with all of Captivity‘s accolades, and they are not a few, if anyone else would be interested in picking it up with me. VishyFrances? Claire?  Dorian? Tom? Juliana? Anyone?

We could start in January, or whenever you like. Tell me what you think.

Participants (thus far):

Vishy

Jessica

cirtnecce

Dorian

luvviealex

TJ

Little, Big by John Crowley

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It’s the sort of book that once you turn the last page, you feel you ought to turn to the first and begin again. The themes are so big, the thoughts so anything but little, that I wonder what I’ve missed in the first time through.

There’s Destiny, for one thing.  War and death. Love. Ideas like that, any one of which could consume a whole novel all by itself. But Crowley has them crowded up together, banging against each other making them all Somehow related, and at the same time he strings us along at a carefully measured pace of his own. There is no hurry to get where he is going.

And even if we get there, wherever that may be, we find such an inter-connectedness that we may very well be back where we first started. It’s Brother North-Wind’s Secret: after Winter comes Spring, and after Spring comes Winter, in an endless cycle of birth and rebirth.

It turns out that Edgewood is the door, through which one must go, but it is also the way back. For one generation follows another; after Violet and John Drinkwater, come Daily Alice and Smoky Barnable, and their children behind them. They have tarot cards to guide them, and faeries to distract them, but still they must live the Tale as we all must do.

Poor Auberon leaves home for the City to find his fame and fortune. What he finds is beautiful Sylvie and a broken heart. He lives scandalously, and when he returns only his father is surprised to see him. There is mention of killing the fatted calf, and we’re instantly reminded of the Prodigal Son, whom rather than being turned away is received home with open arms.

Sophie’s daughter with George Mouse is a changeling; she has been stolen away by the faeries, but she, too, returns home to open arms. What healing takes place when the lost daughter is reunited with her mother after years of separation. Perhaps, in Crowley’s observations of family, it is not so faerie-like after all.

Daily Alice walks to the river first, and we’re never quite sure what becomes of her after she crosses over. Smoky, always left out no matter how well loved he is, follows. And so the family banquet becomes a wake first, to honor him. Each one of us has his own path. Ultimately, we walk it alone.

And so, before I go, a final question that Tom and I briefly touched on in the middle of the month. Do you think the Tale is just for the Drinkwaters? Or, are we all living it ourselves? I welcome your thoughts and ideas on this most magical book.

Little, Big (Book 3: Old Law Farm)

Photo credit here
Photo credit here

…they were led down concave weed-spined lanes in an endless land, down the twists and turns of a long, long story, a boundless and-then, toward a place something like the place Sophie at Edgewood contemplated in the dark-etched trump called the Banquet: a long table clothed in just-folded linen, it’s claw feet absurd in the flowers beneath twisted and knotty trees, the tall compote overflowing, the symmetrical candelabra, the many places set, all empty. (p. 263)

I want to be there. Even if I don’t know for what, or whom, we’re waiting.

Little, Big (Book 2: Brother North-Wind’s Secret)

photo credit here
photo credit here

I have grown so fond of these characters, felt such an affinity for Daily Alice and Smoky and Sophie, that I was a little shocked to read that Smoky had been unfaithful with Sophie. “Only three and a half times,” to be sure, but still he was unfaithful with his wife’s sister.

I guess I was even more surprised that this seemed to bother Daily Alice not at all. It seems that she and her sister have a closeness that not even a husband can come between.

Meanwhile, there is a chapter in this book entitled “Little, Big” such as the entire novel itself is called. We find the three (Daily Alice, Smoky and Sophie) holding hands all under the night sky. As Sophie watches the falling stars, Daily Alice contemplates her size within the world. Are we little? Are we big?

Daily Alice couldn’t tell if she felt huge or small. She wondered whether her head were so big as to be able to contain all this starry universe, or whether the universe were so little that it would fit within the compass of her human head. She alternated between these feelings, expanding and diminishing. The stars wandered in and out of the vast portals of her eyes, under the immense empty dome of her brow; and then Smoky took her hand and she vanished to a speck, still holding the stars as in a tiny jewel box within her.

So they lay a long time, not caring to talk any more, each dwelling on that odd, physical sensation of ephemeral eternity–a paradox but undeniably felt, and if the stars had been as near and full of faces as they seemed, they would have looked down and seen those three as a single asterism, a linked wheel against the wheeling dark sky of the meadow. (p. 178)

And another thing; I understand how it was that Smoky thought of himself as a whole crowd of people, for I’ve felt that way myself. Maybe not exactly as he does, but I’ve balanced my persons of woman, mother, wife, daughter, teacher and listened to their voices clamor in my ear each vying for undivided attention. How interesting that Smoky would feel that, too.

“Santa,” he wrote, “I would like to be one person only, not a whole crowd of them, half of them always trying to turn their backs and run whenever somebody”–Sophie, he meant, Alice, Cloud, Doc, Mother; Alice most of all– “looks at me. I want to be brave and honest and shoulder my burdens. I don’t want to leave myself out while a bunch of slyboots figments do my living for me.” (p. 165)

If Santa can fix that for you, Smoky, as you burn your Christmas Eve letter in the fireplace and watch the smoke go up the chimney into the night sky, you let me know.

As for Brother North-Wind’s Secret, it is as “simple” as the fact that after Winter, Spring comes. I think this is one of the first times that Crowley brings up the cyclical nature of the world, of its inhabitants. One generation follows another, passing down its sins and its secrets, while hope lies ever ahead.

Tomorrow, thoughts on Book 3: Old Law Farm. Please feel free to leave links to your thoughts, or comments, below.