Two new articles, one in the Independent and one in the New York Times, puzzle over the coming swarm of Henry James-based fiction, beginning with Colm Toibin’s The Master and soon to continue with forthcoming novels by Alan Hollinghurst and David Lodge. I feel about this trend the ambivalence you might expect of someone greatly invested in James: plenty intrigued, a little possessive, and a little bit wary of the media’s easy conversion of interest into fad.
Mel Gussow’s piece in today’s Times is reportorial and unadventurous. It’s more or less a melange of quotations plucked from interviews with the authors in question and some James biographers, framed with little anecdotes about everyone tripping over each other while doing their research at James’s Lamb House. But one item in this article stopped me in my tracks:
Each novelist approaches James from a different vantage. Mr. Toibin’s initial response was to the book “Epistemology of the Closet” in which Eva Kosofsky Sedgwick suggested that James’s entire work was written in code. Mr. Toibin took the opposite view. As he said: “You can’t make a blanket assumption about James’s sexuality or his fiction or his life. This was not a game between concealment and disclosure.”
Huh? I’m still scratching my head over this. First, it’s not Eva but Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. More important, charging her with the crazy-sounding proposition that “James’s entire work was written in code” is just plain strange. It sent me back to Sedgwick’s book, in case I was massively misremembering it. But no. She suggests nothing remotely of the sort.
Eve Sedgwick is that rare thing, a contemporary literary theorist whose theory is firmly grounded in aesthetically sensitive close reading. James makes his appearance in Epistemology of the Closet in “The Beast in the Closet,” a long chapter on “The Beast in the Jungle” and male homosexual panic in the age of the Oscar Wilde trials. Even if you don’t want to buy Sedgwick’s overall argument about the making of the closet in nineteenth-century culture, her chapter offers many shrewd and illuminating local readings of James. She may marshal James’s works to help her fry some bigger fish, but she never reduces them to mere theory fodder. She’s a wonderful reader who on more than one occasion has made me shake my head in appreciation. Elsewhere Sedgwick has written perceptively about James and shame.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Heawood’s think piece on the same James trend in the Independent gives a hint that the New York Times reporter may have scrambled Toibin’s meaning in referring to Sedgwick. What Toibin says about James’s sexuality here is not opposite Sedgwick but a reasonable, if necessarily shorthand, approximation of her thinking:
But as Toibin acknowledges, James’s own life was largely lived, “before the Wilde case consolidated a certain kind of identity.” In other words, the fact that James was attracted to men and found women sexually confusing doesn’t necessarily mean he defined himself as gay, nor that he lived his life with a constant eye on the closet door. There are other reasons for fear than repression, and it is not only closet homosexuals who are afraid. James always cautioned against putting a definitive label on anyone: “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.”
Heawood’s piece, in which he asks why James is appearing in multiple new novels at this particular moment, is deeply informed, provocative, and well written. It’s especially good at sketching James’s historical contexts. Everyone should read it. That said, his James is not precisely mine. In Heawood’s version, James’s major unifying theme and emotional keynote is fear. He argues the point eloquently:
Fear stalks James’s pages like grotesquerie in Dickens, like testosterone in Hemingway, like magic in Angela Carter. Most of his characters are afraid, most of the time, and most of their actions are motivated by fear. They spend much of their time avoiding blows which are slow in coming, which make a noiseless impact, yet which are potentially lethal. Fear is the unspoken force which knits his books together. Without fear, there would be no Henry James.
This talks a good game, for sure. But it’s just not how James’s writing feels to me, except perhaps in some cases–usually in shorter works–like “In the Cage” or “The Pupil.” If I were to replace “fear” in the last sentence of this passage (a sentence that slyly blurs what seemed, at the beginning of the paragraph, a clear line between James’s characters and the author himself), I would be inclined toward something in the neighborhood of “desire” or “wonder.” I agree with Heawood that James’s characters tend fear their very desires. In my reading, though, desire is the dominant animating force. For every fearful character there is another with a frightening will to power. To chalk up the latter to a deeper-seated fear seems overly pop-psych and overly flattening.
Heawood concludes that something about James speaks to something in our present cultural moment:
Just as the Nineties fascination with Victorian Sensation literature indicated a hunger for blood-and-guts storytelling, so this new vogue for Henry James indicates a move beyond sensation, and a heightened interest in the processes of information. In a period where the media is consumed by stories about newsgathering, James’s convoluted narratives–grounded in speculation, half-truths and distorted perceptions–make for surprisingly familiar reading.
Readers in the 21st century are used to debating every last flick of Rachel’s hair on Friends, familiar with Carrie Bradshaw’s hermeneutic labours in Sex and the City, accustomed to spending each summer discussing in minute detail the movements of a group of individuals closeted in a house where all they can do is talk, whose least misdemeanour makes front-page news. Who said anything about short attention spans? We, the psychobabble society with the tabloid morality and infinite patience for the minutiae of celebrity gossip–we are more than ready for Henry James.
It’s awfully ingenious to connect the dots of James and reality shows, I have to say. Instead of the now-dead rituals and codes of propriety that used to structure social interactions from above (and that both appalled James and impressed him), you have the interventions of television producers in the form of challenges or artificial plot twists. In both cases, the interest (such as it is!) comes from observing characters as they negotiate given situations, or what James might call donn