I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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Words and Glances

Shane Barry
The Portrait of a Lady was first published in serial form by The Atlantic Monthly and Macmillan’s Magazine in 1880/81 and in book form in 1881 by Houghton, Mifflin and Company in Boston (though with a title-page date of 1882) and Macmillan and Co in London. In his surprisingly thoughtful bagatelle How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Pierre Bayard challenges the binary division of books into those we have read and those we haven’t. He suggests a more nuanced approach, reflecting how we really experience literature. To buttress his argument, Bayard throws out the concept of the collective library, “the larger set of books on which our culture depends at that moment”. Anyone acquainted with the collective library is granted a degree of latitude: To a cultivated or curious person, even the slightest glance at a book’s title or cover calls up a series of images and impressions quick to coalesce into an initial opinion. […] For the non-reader, therefore, even the most fleeting encounter with a book may be the beginning of an authentic personal appropriation. The work of Henry James would seem to merit at least a shelf in Bayard’s hypothetical repository. Educated readers with only a glancing knowledge of James feel they can intuit what the adjective “Jamesian” denotes: a prolix prose style, tortuous conversations, and a cast of usually wealthy and sometimes effete individuals gathered in well-appointed drawing rooms. Familiarity with the putative characteristics of James’s writing can easily curdle into a certain contempt. For example, The London Train, a 2011 novel by Tessa Hadley ‑ a writer to whom the “J” adjective has been sometimes attributed ‑ includes the following brittle exchange between two train passengers who later become lovers: ‑ The Golden Bowl is my favourite novel. I reread it every couple of years. ‑ Well, you’re one, he said. – You’re the one. You’re a rarity. You’re the rare, exceptional reader that the book was looking for. It found you, across the years. Rather you than me. As the centenary of James’s death appears on the horizon ‑ he died in Rye, Sussex, in 1916 ‑ the “Master” has become a remote deity in the literary pantheon. Writers and readers still genuflect before the altar, but many do so with an agnostic’s indifference. Even when he was alive, James’s success, in commercial terms at least, was modest. The opening pages of Michael Gorra’s new book-length study of The Portrait of a…

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