Adaptable: Henry James

During his lifetime, Henry James wrote enough novels and short stories to fill a 23-volume “artistic autobiography” with selected work, but in his literary afterlife, he’s embraced another role: fictional character.

As of 2010, he’d appeared in novels no fewer than 11 times, according to Reader’s Almanac, the Library of the America’s blog. (Incidentally, the LOA picked a James travel narrative as its most recent Story of the Week.) As quoted in the same blog, novelist Cynthia Ozick, who herself penned Foreign Bodies an adaptation of The Ambassadors, suggests: “Mysteriously, with the passing of each new decade, James becomes more and more our contemporary – it is as if our own sensibilities were only just catching up with his.”

In addition to the The Ambassadors, I’ll be covering two such fictional works this month, both of them published in 2004, Colm Toíbín’s The Master and David Lodge’s Author, Author. If anything, the comparison of even two such works forcefully undermines the illusion that a fiction writer can capture the truth of a historical figure’s life, though they can certainly give that figure new life.

Perhaps present day readers recognize in James a counterpart – he too spent his youth in one century and his old age in another, as many of us will. Perhaps in refusing to form (known) romantic ties during his lifetime, he made himself a potent symbol of our singles culture. Or perhaps we simply crave to look through the eyes of an author who captured people’s timeless foibles with such consummate mastery.


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