There’s a passage in Henry James’s notebooks where he faces up to the awful fact that he’s about to turn forty, and declares that if he does not write something truly great in the next few years, he will have been substantially a failure. (This is after he’s already written Portrait of a Lady.) Future perfect, that worst of tenses.
It’s fruitless to envy people their luxuries; even more fruitless to envy the past, where even if James’s novels tended not to sell, he could make a comfortable living writing stories. Since I can’t write stories, that option would have been closed to meI would have had to work as a Pinkerton detective or something. If there’s something more humane in the modern system, where writers teach in order to have health insurance, it also produces a lot of inept and unhappy teachersthis isn’t what we signed up for! Fruitless to envy James his Italian hours and London days accountable to no one but his museand not because of an inheritance (after his father’s death, he made over his entire legacy to Alice) but because of his work.
Writing is difficult, but it’s an elected difficulty; I know at least that I’m fighting on my own ground with my choice of weapons. The difficulty of teaching is a difficulty alien to my temperament, even if I do a passable job of it. I do not know if this is the best life I can go in for. I’m a retiring animal and I should be making my nest in secret. In the ventilation system.
Around the time of his dread fortieth birthday, James moved into a larger set of London apartments and got a dachshund, which he named Tosca. “Well, that should remove any doubts about his sexuality!” said J. “It’s so gay. And so modern.” Pause. “You, on the other hand,” she said to me, “you’re kind of a throwback.” And by way of explanation: “You don’t think that the world, or art, or anything good, has a future.”
Well, I know that the apocalyptic imagination is usually a lack of imagination; it refuses to face the dull prose of suffering, refuses to understand just how bad things can get without history coming to an end. Empires can limp on for centuries.
I’m spoiled, hoping that when I fall it will be into some soft grass; in my mouth I have one long, monotonous, irresolute vowel, instead of an apothegm.