Me and Mr James

As of late last night, I have read all the prose fiction that Henry James wrote.

That’s 20 novels and 12 volumes of short – and not-so-short – stories. I didn’t include two unfinished novels, nor a collaborative novel he wrote with 11 other authors.

It’s taken me a little over two years to read through the work of a lifetime.

I’ve never done this with an author before, but I have a bit of history with James. I first read The Portrait of a Lady – more of which later – when I was 17. I can’t even remember why I read it – it wasn’t a set text, I don’t think.

Soon after finishing reading it my English teacher at the time asked if I fancied having a punt at the Cambridge entrance exam, on the understanding that neither of us thought I had a particularly good chance of getting in. I said I would, but didn’t take the exam at all seriously. I mean, I wasn’t going to get in. Why should I? I didn’t even tell my parents I was taking it.

The exam itself must have fallen on a day very soon after I read The Portrait of a Lady. So I looked for a question that would allow me to shoehorn a ton of references to the book that was freshest in my memory. I can’t even remember the question now, but I can remember a line that the 17-year-old me put in the essay:

The Portrait of a Lady is the finest novel ever written.

I know, I know.

A few weeks later, I was invited for an interview at Peterhouse, the college I’d applied for on the scientific basis that it was very old. I hadn’t even been to Cambridge at this point. I took the train from Kent, wandered into the town, found the college, stood gawping for a while, made my way up a stone staircase, and found a man in an academic gown sitting before a fire sipping tea, surrounded by books. Books and books and books and books.

I introduced myself, though writing that makes me sound a lot more self-assured than I actually was. The robed ancient said: ‘Ah! Mr Shepherd! It is a rare delight to meet someone who has read all the books ever written! And so young!’

I don’t remember how I got out of it. I must have done, because to my even greater surprise they offered me a place. The man in the gown with the tea and the books was a splendid fellow called Martin Golding, who would become my director of studies. And I genuinely think that he offered me a place because I showed an insane enthusiasm for a single book – and didn’t back down when I was pushed on it. I did believe at the time that I would never read a better book than The Portrait of a Lady.

And, so far, I never have.

Peterhouse. You get the idea.

I had read perhaps half-a-dozen other James novels before I embarked on this new journey, and maybe a dozen stories. Which seems a little odd to me now – given how much I’d enjoyed that one novel, why did I not devour the rest of them? I don’t have an easy answer, but I do have a theory. Life intruded, and life in my late teens and into my twenties involved activities not conducive to reading long books. If you know what I mean.

And I suppose this always slightly bothered me. Not enough to do anything about it, until recently. But enough to think I should perhaps fill in some of the blanks. I didn’t feel that about any other author – that need to be a completist. But I sort of did about James. But I never got down to it.

So it was with a sense of guilt, almost – sorry, Henry, for not spending more time with you sooner – that I set out to rectify things.

I nearly gave up near the beginning, I’ll be honest. Watch and Ward, the first novel, is a seriously weird and not very good little story, which James later disowned. If I tell you it’s about a man who adopts the daughter of a suicide, and then later marries her, you’ll get a sense of that icky weirdness. But I would also say there is something about that weirdness that captures what was to come.

Roderick Hudson, the second, was a good deal better, but still felt incredibly forced. It was the third novel, The American, that really got me going. Here, I thought, were all the things I loved about James: incomprehensible emotions and passions, luscious settings, and glittering sentences and paragraphs which masked deep, dark, dangerous chasms of feeling.

Also keeping me going were the stories, which I read in real time along with the novels. Again, some of the early ones are awash with stylistic noodling, but there are enough gems, and enough signs of serious artistic progress, to keep one enchanted. There’s one tale in particular from the early 1870s, ‘The Madonna of the Future’, which I absolutely loved.

And so I came to the period that is often thought of as James’s ‘peak’, the great middle years: this is the time of Washington Square, Daisy Miller, The Aspern Papers and, yes, The Portrait of a Lady. The sense of reading James through this period – say, the 1880s – is of a man at the absolute peak of his powers, full of confidence, successful, presumably delightful company, but always conscious of the dark side, the swirling undercurrents of fate.

James doesn’t do the working classes (apart from perhaps The Princess Casamassima, which seems to be a warning to steer well clear of the nobility), he doesn’t really even do work. His world is drawing rooms and parties and deer parks and Florentine palaces and English estates. But he emphatically does do economic and social anxiety, disloyalty and adultery, betrayal and despair. A nice frock doesn’t protect you from evil.

And money. Always money. It’s startling to find how much James worried about money even at this time of his greatest artistic success, although the relative failure of his sequence of three novels The Princess Casamassima, The Bostonians, and The Tragic Muse – and to be fair these can be pretty hard going – didn’t help. Money worries were so acute that, like a thriller writer getting the train to Hollywood in the 1930s, he started eyeing the theatre.

The result: disaster. In 1895, James’s play Guy Domville opened in London. At the curtain, he went out to take a bow, presumably hoping that this new medium would unlock the riches he craved, as well as providing a new channel for artistic experimentation. And they booed him. They actually booed him. He left the theatre white-faced, his dreams of being a playwright shattered.

Reading the novels and stories in order, the crisis is obvious, like a black seam in the fossil record telling of a cataclysm. For a period, his stories get seriously weird. This is the time of the major uncanny tales like ‘Turn of the Screw’ and ‘The Figure in the Carpet’. There is also the short, and exceedingly good, short novel The Spoils of Poynton, which feels like an experiment in style which did him the world of good. And also What Maisie Knew, a terrible story of divorce and abandonment told through the eyes of a young girl, through whom we see the old social order of the glittering parties fracturing and decaying (you can sort of read James through the lens of the social history of divorce, though it’s impossible to see quite what he thinks of it). What Maisie Knew is chilling and amazing and extraordinary.

And then there are two very, very odd books indeed. The Sacred Fount is about…. well, what is it about? An unnamed narrator goes to a weekend party and tries to unpick the relationships and secrets of his fellow guests entirely through their public behaviour, sharing his theories and thoughts with the guests as he goes. It feels like a very – dare I say it – modernist take on reality and fiction. To me, it even reads like a satire on the theatre. It’s very weird indeed.

But not quite as weird as The Other House, which James originally envisaged as a play, and features a twist so mad, so shocking, so downright enraging in its on-the-noseness that I wonder if he went a little bit mad writing it. It came out the year after Guy Domville. Maybe that’s all you need to know about it.

Henry James, photographed by Frederic Hilaire D’Arcis in 1913 (National Portrait Gallery)

During this time, James moved out of London to a (surprisingly big, given his money troubles) house in Rye. There’s an amazing picture of him some time after this which I have had, at intermittent times, as my desktop wallpaper. It reminds me very much of Graham Sutherland’s infamous portrait of Churchill, combining as it does bulldog determination with ageing rage and incipient, growing exhaustion. I love it.

Now we enter James’s final, some would say imperial, phase, the time of the great trilogy: The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl. It’s here more than anywhere that the stereotype of Henry James is located – where sentences and even paragraphs curl and extend and occasionally seem to fade away into nothingness, where you can read entire pages in a fugue-like state of incomprehension. Some people love this phase and these books best of all. I am not one of those people. I applaud and admire the attempt to do something genuinely new – and James was always, always, always an innovator – but occasionally I feel like people sometimes feel about jazz, that the artist is having more fun than the audience.

The novels end – apart from a few collaborations – with The Outcry, which, like The Other House, was originally conceived as a play but then adapted into a novel. In fact, by all accounts The Outcry is very faithful to the original play, and for me it’s delightful. A simple story, well told, and very, very different to the great trilogy that precedes it. Maybe he was exhausted. Maybe he was trying something new again. Maybe we would have seen another phase – one of shorter, more direct books, inspired or even goaded, perhaps, by HG Wells, whom James publicly admired (and isn’t that, in itself, interesting?) and who, in a satirical novel called Boon in 1915, described a Jamesian paragraph as a hippo trying to pick up a pea in a corner. James was intensely wounded.

Which brings me back to The Portrait of a Lady which, as a reminder, is The Greatest Novel Ever Written. I saved it till last in my readathon, the only thing I read out of sequence. It was my third reading of it, I think – I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel three times through unless I wrote it. I’ll read it again. And again. And, probably, again.

It’s a delight, this book. It makes you smile as you would at a beautiful painting or a lovely park; it even makes you laugh. And in Isabel Archer, it has a heroine who is intelligent, mysterious, infuriating, captivating and ultimately heroic (or is she?), whose inner life and motivations are both unknowable and transparent. It has two villains, Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond, who are each worse than the other. There is no hunger or deprivation or even discomfort, but there is a bleak sadness at the heart of everything, because love and fate are beyond our control, and there is always evil in the world, even if it wears nice things and always knows the right thing to say.

As I said at the top, I have yet to read a finer novel, and the word ‘fine’ seems to capture so much of why I love it. It is very fine indeed, and like all the finest things – wine, poetry, food, houses – there is always more to it than you thought there was, and always more to discover.

John Milton, Screenwriting Don

I’ve just listened to the first episode of the BBC’s adaptation of Paradise Lost, with Ian McKellen as Milton and Simon Russell Beale as Satan. The adaptation, by Michael Symmons Roberts, is?exquisite, but I had some thoughts on Milton’s work itself, and why it’s endured for so long. Yes, the poetry is transcendent, but it’s the?storytelling that comes through beautifully in this adaptation.

Basically, Milton was a screenwriting don. Look at the evidence.

Start in the middle of the story

We open with Satan and his hordes groaning in the pit. How did they get there? What will they do once they’re there? We’re right in the story, with zero exposition.

Establish motivation

Milton uses the demons themselves to explain Satan’s plans. One suggests war. One suggests doing nothing. One suggests revenge, in cold, hard verse. Guess which one the Fiend goes for?

Use flashback creatively

Raphael tells the story of the Fall to Adam and Eve, which allows Milton to absolutely go to town on describing the bloodbath (plasma bath?) on the fields of heaven.

Set up the what before the why

We know what’s going to happen to Adam and Eve. But Milton’s got a better plan to keep us on the hook. It’s not?what they do, it’s?why they do it. In fact, it’s not even?why, but?what in Heaven were you thinking, Father and Mother, given how clearly the danger had been laid out for you. The inevitability of the sin is remorseless. We’re locked into it as surely as Eve is. It’s cold and hard and awful.

So, if you’re thinking of trying your hand at an epic poem about Original Sin, the Fall, and the Birth of Humanity, remember this: it’s gotta have a story. However good your versification is.


Things to do in Berlin

I went to Berlin last year and asked Twitter what to do there. I got a ton of responses so I’m putting them here for the Public Good (and more immediately because Rachel asked for them and I needed something to link to).


DDR Museum
Checkpoint Charlie museum (two people)
Museum Island
History Museum
Stasi Museum
The coins in the Bode museum
Head of Nefertiti on Museum Island
Jewish Museum




Brandenburg gate and museum
Holocaust Memorial
‘Art installations on the water towers, built over the Nazi stadium’
Wall Memorial
‘Best bit of Wall is at Bernauer Str.’
Telecom tower


Friedrichstadt Palast (get last minute tickets from box office)


We ate at Fes in Sudstern and it was AMAZING
Roast pig’s knuckle (two people)
Pasternak in Prenzlauer Berg (Russian)
Diener Tatersall
Peter Schlemihl
Beer gardens: Prater, Schleusenkrug (by streetlamp museum)
Cafe Oper
Pfannkucken @Brammibals


Original Walking Tours of Berlin (two people)
Rent bikes
‘Poor but sexy’ bike tour
1930s dancehall
‘Avoid the big cat enclosure at the zoo. Appalling overpowering stinks’
‘Take the tube’
Walk Tiergarten to Brandenburg Gate
Swim a lake
Hang out in Neukoln

The Power and the Story: “The Power” by Naomi Alderman

Naomi Alderman?s The Power has had momentum since it was published in 2016. It won the Baileys Women?s Prize For Fiction in 2017. It?s been acquired for television adaptation. And, most enticingly of all for impenitent liberals like me, it was one of Barack Obama?s best books of the year.

The premise is disarmingly simple: what would happen if women were to develop, almost overnight, the capacity to seriously injure others – and by others I mean, in the main, men? How would the world shift if the fundamental determinant of sexual relations – that a man is physically stronger than a woman – was turned on its head?

Out of that, Alderman develops a novel that is one part dystopian thriller and one part sly deliberation on gender politics. The book works perfectly well as a thriller. As a satire, it?s bravely magnificent, although it is occasionally really hard to read. It contains scenes which some readers will find distort their impressions of the whole book – one good friend of mine found herself disliking the book because of some of these scenes. I guess this post is a kind of argument with her, even though she doesn?t know I?m writing it.

You have to say this about The Power: man, it?s cold. I mean really, really cold. The logic of the inversion of gender power that she has invented leads Alderman to treat of sexual assault, and she follows that logic down into depths which some readers won?t want to descend – it is these scenes which my friend objected to. Those scenes are some of the most chilling things I?ve ever seen or read or heard (and I consumed The Power as an audiobook, more of which in a second). One particular episode in a refugee camp towards the end of the book is so extreme that it might lead you to push the whole book to one side, in some disgust.

But the political logic of what Alderman is doing in The Power demands that scene. Nothing she describes in it hasn?t happened the other way around. There are places in the world where it is probably happening right now. It happened in Europe within living memory. It will happen, and it will go on happening. That?s cold, woman. And it?s true.

I think these almost satirical aspects of the book are more powerful than the story itself. Just before I started scribbling these words, I read a fantastic profile of Jordan Peele in the New York Times, and it got me thinking about the resonances between The Power and Peele?s magnificent Get Out. Both are works wearing the trappings of popular entertainment that make potent remarks about political injustice. Peele uses horror movies as his framework, Alderman apocalyptic thrillers.

But because Peele?s story is so focussed on individuals, on a single sequence of events that could happen over a weekend, the narrative is more concentrated and, I think, more powerful. I?m talking here, as I always talk about these things on this blog, as a writer who?s trying to understand how other, better, writers do things. I think Get Out is a work of narrative genius because of its compression, and because of its humour.?The Power?is more sprawling, more epic in its scope – and I know (from bitter personal experience) how hard it is to maintain narrative tension on a broad canvas.

A quick word on the audiobook. The main narrator is Adjoa Andoh, with whom I?ve been a little bit in love for most of my adult life, and it?s a hell of a thing she pulls off here, because there are so many voices to encompass: an American politician and her daughter, a British gangster, a Nigerian journalist, a Moldovan maniac. I?ve only come round to audiobooks recently, and I?ve come to the realisation that the performance of them is as much to do with their success as the words being performed, and Andoh?s performance is prodigious.

And there?s another thing. Alderman very cleverly frames her story with fragments from a correspondence between a man and a woman of the future, discussing the events of the story from the ?other side? of the gender shift. This man and woman are historians and writers, and they are debating the book itself. The final exchange – the epilogue, I suppose – rounds off the book magnificently. The last line is an absolute dream and punches as hard as anything that goes before it.

Adjoa Andoh doesn?t read these sections. There are four other voices on the credits: Thomas Judd and Phil Nightingale are the two male voices, but there are two other female voices. One is Emma Fenney, and the other – the one who might be reading the words of the female historian and writer which close the book – is Naomi Alderman. You’ll have to read the book – or listen to the audio – to discover just how delicious that is.


Mark Zuckerberg’s Year of Books (2015) #booklists

In 2015, Mark Zuckerberg – he of the social media leviathan and the sweaters – started a book group on Facebook, the idea being to open up a publish (ish) discussion of a book a fortnight for a year. The final list is pretty interesting – you can get more details on it here.

jacket illustration: ? Disney ? Pixar
jacket illustration: ? Disney ? Pixar

Creativity, Inc -?Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

Sapiens -?Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

The Rational Optimist?– Matt Ridley

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – Thomas Kuhn

Why Nations Fail -?Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

The End of Power -?Mois?s Na?m

The New Jim Crow?-?Michelle Alexander

Genome -?Matt Ridley

Portfolios of the Poor -?Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford

Dealing with China -?Henry M Paulson

The Varieties of Religious Experience -?William James

The Better Angels of our Nature -?Steven Pinker

The Three-Body Problem -?Cixin Liu

Gang Leader for a Day –?Sudhir Venkatesh

Energy: A Beginner?s Guide -?Vaclav Smil

Orwell?s Revenge – Peter Huber

Rational Ritual -?Michael Suk-Young Chwe

The Muqaddimah –?Ibn Khald?n

The Player of Games – Iain M Banks

On Immunity: An Inoculation -?Eula Biss

The Beginning of Infinity –?David Deutsch

World Order -?Henry Kissinger

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation -?Jon Gertner