Henry James Meets Proust’s Characters

One of the pleasures of reading literary biographies is learning what happened when famous “writer A” met famous “writer B” for the first time. Some of the great encounters are a young James Joyce meeting W.B. Yeats (or later Samuel Beckett meeting Joyce), Oscar Wilde hiding in the Proust family bathroom, because Marcel was late, and Wilde couldn’t deal with Marcel’s parents alone. More recently we have the clash of East Coast/West counterculture sensibilities when Ken Kesey met Jack Kerouac.

Until I came across the following paragraph in Leon Edel’s one-volume biography of Henry James Henry James: A Life, I had never heard of a writer meeting the future fictional characters of another writer.

That’s what happened on July 2-3, 1885 when the famously polite Henry James agreed to show three French gentlemen (bearing introductions from painter John Singer Sargent) around London. The three men later become some of the principle characters in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost time. Edel writes:

“We now know that James had spent his two days with three of Proust’s famous characters. Montesquiou would become the model for the Baron de Charlus. Elements of Polignac apparently went into the fashioning of Bergotte, and of Pozzi into Dr. Cottard. A novelist of the nineteenth century had been cosorting with the real-life characters of a novel of the Twentieth.”

Interview with New Henry James Biographer

Henry James is the novelist whose writing straddles two centuries as well as two continents. He was an American by birth, English by residence and a European in his sensibilities.  It’s generally agreed that the definitive James biography is Leon Edel’s five-volume work (I myself have the one-volume abridged version, fearing I might miss out on an entire decade of my life while trying to hang in there with Edel).

Picture of five-volume Henry James biography by Leon Edel

There is now a new biography of James that examines his life through the prism of one of his more famous (and accessible) novels Portrait of a Lady. The new book is titled Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece and it is written by literary critic Michael Gorra.

Gorra gave an insightful interview with Leonard Lopate on WNYC radio. Here is the full interview.