Things Not Said, Actions Not Done

Gabriel Josipovici, “Learning From the Master,” The Irish Times 18 December 2010 [a review of Colm Tóibín’s All a Novelist Needs: Colm Tóibín on Henry James]:

“…I do, however, have to take issue with Tóibín and with James himself on one important point. In an essay on the meaning for the novelist of Lamb House, his Sussex retreat in his later years, Tóibín quotes a letter James wrote to his friend Grace Norton about the heroine of A Portrait of a Lady and her relationship to the real-life Minnie Temple: ‘I had her in mind and there is in the heroine a considerable infusion of my impression of her remarkable nature. But the thing is not a portrait. Poor Minny was essentially incomplete and I have attempted to make my young woman more rounded, more finished. In truth everyone, in life, is incomplete, and it is [in] the work of art that in reproducing them one feels the desire to fill them out, to justify them, as it were.’

Tóibín is so taken with this formulation that he repeats it verbatim in one later essay and paraphrases it in another. But what artists say about their work, even artists as self-aware as James, is, as Tóibín knows all too well, not necessarily the truth. It seems to me that both James and Tóibín in The Master are using their art not to round out and fill out a portrait left incomplete by life, which sounds more like the sort of aim Oscar Wilde might have expressed, but to bring home (to themselves, to the reader) the mystery of that life. That is why each of the great last novels ends not with resolution, not with final understanding, but with the sense that something which could be said in no other way has, remarkably, been said by the accumulation of things not said, of actions not done. That is why James’s greatest short story, The Turn of the Screw, ends so magnificently and so mysteriously: ‘I caught him, yes, I held him — it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it was truly that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped”. …”