Reviews 2015

Henry James’s Enigmas: Turning the Screw of Eternity?

Henry James’s Enigmas: Turning the Screw of Eternity? Jean Perrot. Brussels: Peter Lang, 2014. 309 pages. $58.95 (paperback).

Jean Perrot’s book, published within New Comparative Poetics series, offers analyses of Henry James’s stories and novels in context of these texts’ relation with their potential literary sources, which, in Perrot’s view, had an influence on James’s writing. These sources include literature, philosophy, James’s biography, and fine arts. The titles of the book’s chapters and numerous subchapters reflect their interpretative ideas (e.g. "A Caricature of Biographical Interpretation: The Holy Family," "Harmonian Space: The Dog and the Violet"), and from time to time include the title of James’s text, or the author or title of the compared text (e.g. "Balzac and Swedenborg: Angel or Maximus Homo").

A major disadvantage of the book is its lack of scholarly back matter, that is, the index and a list of texts referred to in the study, both James’s and those of the authors to whom Perrot compares him. The titles of literary works are not distinguished by format, which disables a reader less familiar with James (or with the authors of compared texts) to recognize if these are novels or stories. From time to time there appear other editorial errors, such as misspelled words and faulty punctuation (e.g., pp. 18, 209). Finally, the author’s preference for incomplete sentences (e.g., p. 128) clashes (perhaps) with the book’s formal style.

The author’s selection of people and works that had an influence on James is at once vast and absurd. Chapter IV, "Henry James and Sacher-Masoch," is a case in point. "It remains unclear if and when James read this novel," writes Perrot (102). Yet the comparative analysis of "The Last of Valerii," Roderick Hudson, and other works of James with Venus in Furs, does convince the reader James was quite familiar with the idea of masochism.

Chapter V, titled "Investigating the Victorian Nursery: James’s Self-Analysis of the 'Frightened Cry-Baby' in the Hands of Dr Skinner," expressively deals with subjects related to children. Perrot recalls James’s "adult infantilism" (caused by illnesses) and that James liked to hold babies (134-35); an example of James’s interest in children is also "Principino’s education" in The Golden Bowl (137). What Maisie Knew points to James’s "childhood memories" (140). About "The Pupil" Perrot insists that the story was influenced by Lewis H. Morgan’s Ancient Society (1877), although "[n]othing actually proves that James had read" (142) it. Yet the boy-character’s name is Morgan, and Morgan’s family is "ancient" because "nomadic"—which might be a more convincing connection with the L. H. Morgan narrative (142). Having considered the above texts as well as "The Turn of the Screw," Perrot insists, "From the perspective of psychological realism, James wished to denounce the abuse of children by unworthy parents...and servants" (148). These are merely examples of the theme of childhood tackled in this chapter; the profundity and number of references is impossible to summarize here. Still, the omission of The Other House, in which a child is ultimately murdered, seems to suggest that the author overlooked some important works.

The subject of childhood appears in other chapters as well. In Chapter I the author announces James’s longing for "the eternity of childhood," followed by the examples of "The Turn of the Screw," A Small Boy and Others, "The Author of Beltrafio," and "The Pupil" (20). Chapter II analyses "Beltrafio" in context of Freud and Leonardo Da Vinci. In Chapter VI there appears an absorbing interpretation of "The Turn of the Screw": Peter Quint is "[t]he Hun lust[ing] after the young doe," that is, Flora—the idea suggested by an eighteenth-century text, Observations on the History of France. Chapter VII deals, among others, with What Maisie Knew; here, the number and obscurity of allusions may either confuse or inspire the reader (especially pp. 225-26). Aptly, Mrs. Wix is referred to as "necrophagic insect" (226), and Maisie’s mother is compared to Sacher-Masoch’s Venus (232). Chapter VIII returns to "The Turn of the Screw," finding parallels between the Governess and Mrs. Wix, and later arguing that James’s story was influenced by Florence Montgomery’s novels Misunderstood and Seaforth.

Perrot moves around associations freely. This may be joy for a very James-informed reader, who, additionally, is well versed in world literature (not always canonical), or who is willing to read the texts to which Perrot alludes. Perrot writes for a James lover, not for a modern-day researcher who wishes for clarity, "searchability," and in general, a reader-friendly organization of a critical text. The book is more novelistic than scholarly, notwithstanding its greatly impressive array of facts, analyses, and learned associations. A scholar wishing for a coherent analysis of James’s texts and for a dependable comparison with their potential literary sources will be disappointed. The author packs paragraphs with too many references and leaps from one association to another, thus creating an effect of a rough, grainy texture. There are so many points that he undertakes, so many references to often obscure literature, that the reader gets an impression the book is going nowhere, that it lacks a controlling idea or central focus.

Yet Perrot’s book has a questionless appeal. The previously mentioned James aficionado/a will recognize another one of his/her kind—the enthusiast. Surely, the expression of enthusiasm in a book of criticism would be a poor advantage if it was the text’s only merit. But there is certainly solid scholarship behind this book, even if that is occasionally obscured by problems such as the ones I have noted. Perrot, however, leaves the academic clarity, logical organization of the argument, and even the objectively detached mode of writing, to college-level teachers of James, who, in the scale of James scholarship, might rate a step behind him. Perrot does not teach; he speaks to his equal. In the jungle of poetic chapter/subchapter titles, without the usual scholarly apparatus, a novice will get lost. Yet in this very jungle a modern scholar, weary of ready-cut perfection, will see things recognizable, shocking, or far-fetched. With them, the scholar will argue; they will make the scholar puzzled; they will cause scholarly irritation. A representative feature of Perrot’s text, the one which suggests, in my opinion, that this is a lovingly written account of one’s lifetime relation with James, is its style—the unabashed use of exclamation points, rhetorical questions, and even the sentence fragments. It all creates the work’s ultimate appeal.

Beata Williamson
University of Gdańsk, Poland