Impossible Dreams: Henry James and Philip Roth

April 10, 2015 2:27 PM

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At the age of 50, Henry James created a detailed portrait of an experimental novelist in old age, in his story "The Middle Years." Terminally ill, the novelist Dencombe receives in the mail the published version of what he realizes will be his final work, a novel titled The Middle Years. As he reviews it, he realizes that it is "extraordinarily good," but he fears that this will not be perceived by others. The book was a culmination, "somehow a result beyond his conscious intention: as if he had planted his genius, had trusted his method, and they had grown up and flowered." With this recognition, however, came the painful realization of how slowly his skill had grown: "His development had been abnormally slow, almost grotesquely gradual...[H]e had for long periods only groped his way. It had taken too much of his life to produce too little of his art."

Dencombe - like James - is thoroughly experimental: "a passionate corrector, a fingerer of style; the last thing he ever arrived at was a final form for himself." He was a late bloomer, who "had ripened too late and was so clumsily constituted that he had had to teach himself by mistakes." Tantalize...

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