Virginia Woolf remarked that Middlemarch was one of the very few novels written for grown-up people. In The Portrait, however, fiction itself grew up. Henry James’s triumph was to discover a way of presenting the processes by which life is actually lived, which is not the way that most novelists before him, even Flaubert, had dared or had the pathfinding skills to follow. As Michael Gorra writes, in that scene in which Isabel sits before the low-burning fire in the Palazzo Roccanera, James “learned to stage consciousness itself”. Henry James’s brother, the philosopher William James, had coined the term “stream of consciousness”, but it was Henry who followed that stream to its source. The novels that came after The Portrait, especially the three great “late” works, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors – James’s own favourite – and The Golden Bowl, take place in a kind of cloud chamber in which are tracked the tiniest particles of his characters’ feelings, motives and desires. As Michael Gorra notes repeatedly, James was forever exploring the gap that lies between what we know and what we admit to knowing. The late novels, Gorra writes, do not simply depict a developing consciousness but “also take sex itself as the focal point of that development”, for sex is the great revealer of what and who we are.
more from John Banville at The Irish Times here.