Sunday, 23 January 2011

The Lesson of the Master – The perfect antidote to too many long books

The Lesson of the Master by Henry James (Melville House 2004 – first published in Universal Review, 1888). A novella from the Victorian New Yorker, in which he follows the course of a young writer grappling with what he needs to give up to fulfil his artistic talent.
Novellas are great, though I still stumble whenever I need to say the word, in the same way it took me a couple of years to be comfortable saying the word “latte” in a coffee shop. It just sounds too dainty whenever I say it, and is always followed by a couple of seconds of silence in which I fully expect anyone that’s overheard me to giggle a little at my awkwardness with such a fragile word.
But, nevertheless, I do like novellas (just as I like lattes). And after one or two long books, I was looking forward to something shorter. Not quite the quick fix of a short story, but something that I could read over a weekend and feel good about.
In The Lesson of the Master, I found something that fit the bill. I’d never read any Henry James before, but he’s one of the long list of writers I felt I should at least give a try at some stage, and this short book seemed the perfect introduction.
The trick with novellas, it seems, is to pick a topic that has enough weight to deserve its own book, but perhaps not enough depth to command attention throughout an entire novel. The topic Henry James picked for this novella is the sacrifices an artist needs to make to create something perfect. He gives the theme a setting in the experiences of a promising young novelist, and an ageing one that refused to make those sacrifices.
It works well. The first two thirds of the book canter along quite gently, but they act to set up the climactic scene where, late one night in his opulent home, the elderly writer explains what lies ahead if his younger protégé is serious about creating something worthy of his talents.
I won’t go into the storyline anymore than that. This blog isn’t about telling you what happens in a book. I’d prefer to tell you what’s good/bad/average about it rather than give away entire plots, robbing you of the fun of finding out for yourself. Suffice to say that James treats the theme at hand with a great deal of insight, and you can certainly imagine him facing the same dilemmas in his own writing career.
I felt better for having read this book. And that’s enough for me to recommend it. It’s a quick read, but one that leaves you thinking seriously about the issues it raises. You’ll agree with some of what James puts across, and disagree with parts as well. You’ll feel sympathy for the main character, and you’ll feel conflicted about “the master.”
But most importantly, you’ll feel stimulated by it without having to plough through 800 pages of masterpiece. So another high score...
That’s two high ones in a row. I need to read something bad next, else you’ll think I’m far too generous...

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