The Lesson of the Master, by Henry James

Purchased at chapters.indigo.ca

Purchased at chapters.indigo.ca

One of the challenges that we North American readers who follow the Booker Prize face every year is the phenomenon that I like to think of as “reader interruptus”. Now that we know what the longlist is, we would love to read it. And, if we lived in London or Glasgow or Belfast, we could head down the street to our favorite bookshop and come home with a relatively complete inventory, and wait for the late release titles to be available.

On the other side of the Pond, we face a different challenge. Available titles tend to be few (I think only four of 13 this year, but I stand to be corrected). So we need to order the rest from the UK — not a major problem, but this is where the “interruptus” factor comes in. As good as any supplier may be, postal or courier services now have control of the books and who knows when the customs service decides that a package should sit on a shelf for a few weeks before being forwarded.

After you have gone through this process for a few years, a reader (at least this one) builds up a few relevant titles to fill in this period. One of the most attractive (not just in the Hesperus Press edition I read) but in content concept was Henry James’ novella, The Lesson of the Master, a work of which I knew a little bit, but not much.

Like much of James, the plot summary is minimal. The narrator, a young author of promise named Paul Overt, has the chance to meet and, perhaps, form a useful friendship with an established lion of the literary establishment, Henry St George. Henry is the Master, who will teach him a lesson.

Without being too much of a Booker fetishist, this premise had relevance when I looked at this year’s publication schedule. It features an unusually large number of works from previous winners and established names — Atwood and Banville, previous winners, are already sitting on the sidelines; Coetzee and Trevor are on the longlist and still a month away from publication; Mantel, Waters, Byatt and Toibin have produced volumes that some rave about but which other readers say are well short of their best. At the other end of the spectrum, the Booker dozen also features three first novels and a handful from other previously published authors who are not yet “names”.

So there we have the dialectic: Masters and aspirants; established and developing talents; stars rising and stars (perhaps) falling. And the implied chance for one generation to pass the creative torch to the next. In James’ novella, the young Overt approaches St George and suggests he can’t wait for the next work from the Master because it is going to be “surprisingly better”. St George wants to disabuse him:

“Look at me well, take my lesson to heart — for it is a lesson. Let that good come of it at least that you shudder from your pitiful impression, and that this may help to keep you straight in the future. Don’t become in your old age what I have in mine — the depressing, the deplorable illustration of the worship of false gods.”

“What do you mean by your old age?” the young man asked.

“It has made me old. But I like your youth.”

St George has compromised. His wife has taken over his business affairs, his children are in the best schools (with appropriate excessive bills) and his art is now a testimony to the worship of false gods:

“The idols of the market; money and luxury and ‘the world'; placing one’s children and dressing one’s wife; everything that drives one to the short and easy way. Ah the vile things they make one do.”

You don’t have to know a lot about Henry James to know that relationships (especially with women) were a bit of a challenge for him. And (not unlike another writing genius, Dostoevsky) while he needed the money that writing generated, he hated that dependency. As a final bit of seasoning for this work, as Colm Toibin notes in his introduction to this novella, it was written in 1888 which, in commercial terms, was Henry James’ best year.

Overt has another issue besides his writing and possible future success — he has fallen in love with the beautiful and intelligent Marian Fancourt, who has not only read his latest novel but has recommended it to St George. She has put in place all the elements that will allow him to benefit from the attention of the Master. And perhaps prove him wrong about the damaging artistic influence of a wife.

The Lesson of the Master may have been written more than a century ago but (particularly when book prize season arrives) the relationship between the established and still publishing author and the eager newcomer remain a part of the agenda. For example, why have Anne Enright and Joseph O’Neill put blurbs on Ed O’Loughlin’s first novel, Not Untrue & Not Unkind, and how much influence did this have on Booker judges? Are some of the Masters who published books this year now well past their prime? What future looms for the up and comers?

It is no spoiler to say that James being James, those who have power will abuse that power to the disadvantage of those who don’t, even in a novella. It is one of the things that he does best and, it must be said, that after completing this excellent short work there is a fair bit of thought that can be devoted to just what lesson the Master chose to impart to his pupil. While in no way one of the Master’s best works, it certainly holds up to the very high standard that he sets himself. And did meet the challenge of offering some very worthwhile impressions — albeit more than 100 years old — for this interesting time in the reading year. Highly recommended.

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8 Responses to “The Lesson of the Master, by Henry James”

  1. Trevor Says:

    Great review, Kevin. I especially like the ties to our contemporary prize season. I would like to read this one at this time of year too.

    The Lesson of the Master is available also in the wonderful Art of the Novella series from Melville House, so I have my eye on it. I just got a hold of their latest James addition to the series: The Coxon Fund. I know nothing about it, but I look forward to reading it any day now!

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I have the MH edition of The Coxon Fund on order as well. Their edition of this one was out of stock when I ordered — given the beautiful cover of this Hesperus one (and I do like Hesperus books) I’m pretty sure I would have chosen this one anyway.

    Given the mix of “masters” and rookies in this year’s Booker publication schedule, this novella did seem appropriate — especially since I believe a number of our current masters (Atwood, Byatt to name just two) are producing work that is simply not up to their previous standard. (I knew that aspect of the novella before starting it.) It did help me get through some of this year’s drudgier works.

  3. Colette Jones Says:

    After reading your review I’ve managed to get a copy of this through a book swap site. It seems just the ticket as I’m starting to agree with you that it is a somewhat disappointing Booker year.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    It is a “middling” Booker year for me — and I did find this novella a useful reminder of perhaps why that is the case. Hope you like it, Colette — I certainly did.

    • Colette Jones Says:

      After having a look through the longlist to ascertain my shortlist (having two left to read) I see that I have five that I would be happy to see on the shortlist so not really disappointing after all. What is different for me this year is I had read six of the novels by the time the list came out whereas normally I would be lucky if I’d read one (I only started following the Booker when I discovered I had read a book on that year’s longlist, not many years ago – David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green). This is the first year I made a concerted effort at Booker speculation and was thrilled that it paid off, but in some ways it makes it seem like there is less to discover in the remaining books.

  5. Frances Says:

    Like Trevor, I really appreciate the meld of Booker brouhaha and James. And as this might be the only James I haven’t read, I also appreciate the suggestion right now of a few steps back as I wade through the embarrassment of riches that is the present through fall book season. Oh, and I love that cover design. I can feel it. Can’t you? Happy reading!

  6. Isabel Says:

    You must make a trip across the pond and go book shopping.

    I went to Wigtown, the book town of Scotland and had a blast.

    I am hoping to go to the Edinburgh Book Festival, when I feel it will be a quiet hurricane season. I know that I could buy a bunch of books then.

    Henry James is hard to read. I have to be in a restful mood. Otherwise, I won’t care about the characters.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Frances: You’ll note from my review that there is no explanation of why such a fancy dress would be appropriate on the cover of the book. It is quite appropriate, but a reviewer has to be very careful of Jamesian spoilers. Good luck with the book.

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