Oh Henry!

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Dec. 19 1996 3:30 AM

Oh Henry!

What Henry James didn't do with Oliver Wendell Holmes (or anyone else).

(Continued from Page 1)

Writing to his sister Alice, James characterized Zhukovski as "the same impracticable and indeed ridiculous mixture of Nihilism and bric-à-brac as before." He adds that Zhukovski always needs to be sheltered by a strong figure: "First he was under Turgenev, then the Princess Urusov, whom he now detests and who despises him, then under H.J. Jr. (!!), then under that of a certain disagreeable Onegin (the original of Turgenev's Nazhdanov, in Virgin Soil) now under Wagner, and apparently in the near future that of Madame Wagner." Novick bypasses these letters; he avoids looking at facts that might spoil his case. He does allude to the James remark about Zhukovski's bric-a-brac, but he seems to misunderstand its irony. He claims that James was "cautious" about this visit because of crime and disease in the Naples area--all this, says Novick, is "out of keeping with the collection of bric-à-brac with which Zhukovski was surrounded." James may indeed have been referring to the villa's human bric-a-brac.

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In a letter written from Sorrento to Grace Norton in Cambridge, he described a group of English persons he visited in Frascati after leaving Posilipo. They were of an "admirable, honest, reasonable, wholesome English nature," in sharp contrast to the "fantastic immorality and aesthetics of the circle I had left at Naples."

So Novick is deprived of the happy romance he wanted to chronicle at Posilipo. He consoles himself by a detailed account of Zhukovski's adoption into Bayreuth, his painting the sets for Parsifal and being considered a kind of son by the Wagners. Novick seems to be trying to walk down two streets at once--the street of the refinements of literary biography and the more rigid roadway of the prosecutorial argument. He attempts to turn certain of his fancies into fact--but his data is simply too vague for him to get away with it.

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