Let’s play a game. Is it “The Portrait of a Lady,’’ Henry James’s 1881 masterpiece that is, for my money, the most perfect novel in the English language? Or is it“Mrs. Osmond,’’ John Banville’s latest, a sequel that takes up the story of Isabel Archer, James’s dazzling, intelligent, tragic heroine, right where the master left off?
Here’s the first quotation, in which we hear a youthful Isabel lament her lack of experience: “It appeared to Isabel that the unpleasant had been too absent from her knowledge, for she had gathered from her acquaintance with literature that it was often a source of interest and even instruction.” Here’s another passage similarly describing what it’s like to be young and untried: “she had felt acutely the want of a finish that only time and the accumulation of experience could effect.”
Let’s try another pair. Here, we encounter a more chastened Isabel. Her marriage to the gold-digging aesthete Gilbert Osmond has long since soured. As Isabel talks with her best friend, the journalist Henrietta Stackpole, we see “the peculiar stillness and fixedness of [Henrietta’s] gaze,” which “had the effect on those around her of making them feel suddenly and strangely isolated, of having been abandoned to their own agitatedly self-conscious devices.” And here’s another description of Henrietta’s unbending stare: “She fixed her eyes on him, and there was something in their character that reminded him of large polished buttons — buttons that might have fixed the elastic loops of some tense receptacle.”
James fans might recognize that the first and fourth passages come from “The Portrait of a Lady.’’ But the point is that it’s difficult, even for those who have lived with and loved the novel for years. That’s because “Mrs. Osmond’’ shares more than characters with its predecessor. It also shares a style: symphonic, wildly metaphorical, with nightmarish images of dead-end alleys and predatory beasts used to describe the smallest shifts of consciousness and social interaction. Like its source text, “Mrs. Osmond’’ investigates what happens when liberty runs up against those forces that would constrain it: personal history, secret plots, money, evil itself.
Throughout his career, Banville has proven himself a stylistic chameleon. He can do exquisite lyricism (see 2005’s Booker-winning “The Sea’’); he can do arch metaphysical comedy (see 2009’s “The Infinities’’); he can even brilliantly do hard-boiled noir (see his Quirke novels, published under the pen name Benjamin Black). Add to this list “Mrs. Osmond,’’ which is as impressive an act of stylistic channeling as anything I’ve read. Indeed, the best way to appreciate the novel is simply to list some of its many Jamesian moments — little turns of phrase that demand savoring on their own merits and send us scurrying back to the original for similar gems.
Considering Isabel’s wealth, for example, the narrator writes, “She was not of so coarse a cast of mind as to imagine that mere money constituted the temple of liberty, although it was perhaps one of its pillars.” Riding in a hansom cab, Isabel “felt dulled and dazed, like one who after a long illness is taken out for a supposedly invigorating ‘spin.’ ” The alliteration, the figurative comparisons, the little scare-quotes around the colloquial “spin”: It’s James to a T.
“Mrs. Osmond’’ reads like highbrow fanfic. If that sounds like a slight, it’s not meant to be. But it’s true that James’s original characters aren’t deepened by our reencounters with them. If anything, Osmond, James’s most chilling creation, is lessened. I loved Banville’s description of the “physical pain” Isabel feels at seeing her husband “fall so far below his own standards”; I hated the drawing out of Osmond’s back story, in particular his mustache-twisting role in the demise of his first wife, the previous Mrs. Osmond. In the original, Osmond is so terrifying because he’s hollow, a true cipher. Fleshing him out, as Banville does, paradoxically makes him less rich.
As for the plot, it’s well-paced but unexceptional. Isabel moves from place to place — London, Paris, Florence — worrying over what to do with her money and the husband it drew to her, like a fly to honey. The conclusion is neatly satisfying, though I missed the radical openness of James’s original. (The openness, of course, is partly why Banville chose to continue the story in the first place.)
But what remains after finishing the book, and what really matters, is Banville’s style — the sentences, the figurative comparisons, the music. To echo such a great text is itself a remarkable achievement. At one point, Isabel feels “that she was part of a funeral cortège, and that she was in the hearse — no, that she was the hearse, somehow, carrying inside her some small expired thing, the cold little corpse of her own heart, her own self, her own life.” James couldn’t have said it better.
By John Banville
Knopf, 384 pp., $27.95
Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.”
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