The Jamesian Style and “The Horror! The Horror!” of uncertainty

(originally posted on the blog for my film adaptation course, November 2, 2013)

No one could accuse Henry James of never beating around the bush. This, of course, is my own lame approximation of a Jamesian sentence, at least an attempt to using multiple negatives as productively as he does. Only Joseph Conrad, who was profoundly influenced by James, used “not,” “no,” “never” and “nothing” as fruitfully as James, who wrote, in his great novel What Maisie Knew (1897), of his young heroine Maisie Farangue, this:

Nothing was less new to Maisie than the art of not thinking singly…

I defy anyone to paraphrase this statement in less than 10 seconds. Is he saying that Maisie is now just learning to see the complexity of things, as I would have initially read it? Is he saying that she does see the world in simple terms, even though her situation–to be passed around between divorced parents like a badminton shuttlecock–is anything but simple? My reading, after some slow, careful reading is closer to this: that Maisie has always had to see the world in its complexity: that “thinking singly” is something she, unlike many children, has never had the luxury of being able to enjoy. But the difficulty of reading this passage’s sense, and the many false possibilities, also forces us not to think singly about what is, after all, a terribly confusing problem for a 12-year-old girl.

Why would James ask so much of his reader? Why not simply say what I have just said, in relatively straightforward language? The reason that makes most sense to me is that James wants us to experience Maisie’s (or, in the case of The Turn of the Screw, the governess’s) uncertainty, the shades of grey in her thinking, the complexity and hesitancy. This is something James cultivated carefully. Even when he revised his novels for each new edition, he would get into the text and further complicate it. Here are two examples from the first edition of What Maisie Knew (1897) and the “New York” edition of 1907:

It glimmered back to her indeed that she [Maisie] must have failed quite dreadfully to seem responsive and polite…. (1897)

It glimmered back to her indeed that she [Maisie] must have failed quite dreadfully to seem ideally other than rude… (1907)

This was a new tone … and it could strike a perceptive person as the upshot of a relation that had taken on a new character. (1897)

This was a new tone … and it could strike a young person with a sharpened sense for latent meanings as the upshot of a relation that had taken on a new character. (1907)

(Henry James. What Maisie Knew. Ed. Adrian Poole. Toronto: Oxford UP, 2008. 292-93.)

This is a style designed to force nuance onto the reader, which is perhaps why James is so good at both psychology and horror–psychological horror, that is. It’s hard work reading James, especially his longer, later novels, where the style becomes, effectively, the substance and, in a sense, the plot. Not everyone agrees that the work pays off.

Incidentally, I just watched the recent film adaptation of What Maisie Knew (dir. Scott McGehee and David Segal, 2012), starring Julianne Moore, the ever-awesome Steve Coogan, and the little Onata Aprile as Maisie. A very fair review in The Guardian can be found here. It was well received as an adaptation of a difficult text, though at least one critic, the novelist Francine Prose (what other career could she have, with that name!), found that it failed to capture the scandalous nature of Maisie’s situation in the novel–the fact that divorce in 1897 would have made Maisie predicament socially as horrible as the governess’s predicament is psychologically in The Turn of the Screw–and the fact that adultery in James’s novel immediately marks some characters as at least partly shady, while it’s not at all a moral issue in the film. That is, that the film failed to update this situation for the 2010s, when divorce and adultery are hardly scandalous, and that it has found nothing to take their place as shockers of the moral imagination. The upshot, then, according to Prose’s excellent and insightful review, is that by failing to update the scandal the film fails to capture the pathos and complexity of little Maisie’s situation.

I agree that the film doesn’t capture the complexity of Maisie’s experience of the situation, something James can do thanks to his command of the third-person subjective voice and his subtle use of free indirect discourse. But I’m not sure I agree with Prose about this being a failure: a simplification, yes, but this does not mean the directors have betrayed the novel. This is a way of thinking we’re trying to challenge in this course. I’m not saying this is a perfect movie, because it isn’t. (Among other problems, the freakish beauty of everything: Manhattan is clean enough to eat off of–weird–and the people are all so good looking and stylish you can’t help suspect they’re saying something bad about you by implication.)

Nor am I saying that the directors simplify because film must simplify, because that’s not true. Arguably, Maisie’s parents in the film are less scandalous for being divorced, but they nevertheless approximate James’s supremely self-involved and cynical Mama and Papa. How? Precisely because the film has them treat Maisie with such carelessness that it borders on abuse and criminal neglect–without ever quite unambiguously crossing that line. And if anything in our day is as scandalous–without being criminal–as divorce was for James, it is forgetting one’s child, not noticing that she notices so much, ignoring the fact that she knows something–what that something is, or whether it is accurate, is less important than the fact that she knows something is up, that it involves her somehow, and that she is playing some kind of role in a drama she’s too young to understand. Perhaps the best scene in the film is when Maisie’s father Beale (Coogan) takes her out to breakfast and thoughtlessly suggests she move to London with him permanently, only to realize once Maisie agrees while asking if her mother could come too, that he didn’t really mean it. More than the neglect and self-involvement, then, it is the parents’ good intentions and cliched expressions of endless love that supply the scandal, for these only survive until the next incoming call on the cellphone, or the first inkling of having to compromise their grown-up priorities. If James was responding to a disturbing social change in his time, the film of What Maisie Knew applies the same (more or less) plot to the use of children as fashion accessories, something to be paraded out once in a while, but inconveniently taking up time and space at other times. It’s immensely hard to watch Julianne Moore suggesting to the little girl that they should “hang out” some time.

In short, it’s worth seeing as a movie, and it’s worth watching closely as an adaptation. Francine Prose is right, I think, in everything she says, except her conclusion that her criticisms reveal a failure of adaptation. If anything, these differences help us see what the novel was saying over a hundred years ago, and which has become so hard to see as James’s audience would have read it.

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