- Writing and Reading in Henry James by Susanne Kappeler
Macmillan, 242 pp, £15.00, January 1981, ISBN 0 333 29104 2
‘The starting-point for this study is Roland Barthes’s theoretical aphorism that the reader is properly the “writer” or “producer” of his text.’ By the end, it appears that the original author has changed places and become ‘the reader of his text’, while the critics go on writing it for him. And not necessarily a better reader than you or I or Ms Kappeler: ‘there is nothing in [James’s] prefaces apart from some trivial biographical data of little interest, that we as readers should not be able to trace on our own.’
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 3 No. 4 · 5 March 1981
SIR: Since my attitude to Professor Rawson, and to your paper, has always been one of friendly respect (indeed I have collaborated with both), I cannot conceal my astonishment that he should have written, and you published, his review of Susanne Kappeler’s book on Henry James (LRB, 5 February). He sets the tone by expressing contempt for critics with funny foreign names like Lugowski. The name of Roland Barthes is the trigger for another uncontrollable fit of sneering, accompanied by an unreliable allusion to his book S/Z. Perhaps Rawson knew without reading it that it wasn’t worth his time, but it wouldn’t have taken long to ascertain that the whole of Balzac’s ‘Sarrasine’ is set forth in the body of the book; it is repeated, for convenience, in an appendix. S/Z may be foreign rubbish, but it cannot be called an ‘indecency’ for the reason given.
Dr Kappeler is also a foreigner, and perhaps should not expect a reasonable and fair account of her book. Nor, on the evidence of the review, can Henry James, also a foreigner though his name isn’t funny. I am hard put to it to find a way of describing this kind of reviewing by any other term than vulgar chauvinism, of which there seems to be a lot around just now. I hope Professor Rawson, and your journal, will come to see it as a form of prejudice to be resisted rather than fed with easy jokes.
Claude Rawson writes: Let’s spell it out. ‘Sarrasine’ is a 30-page story broken up in S/Z into 561 numbered bits, some only three or four words long, interlarded and surrounded by a Barthesian commentary of many times that length, running to about 220 pages, not counting Annexes: an initial barbarism which compounds rather than removes the particular indecency to which I referred. I hadn’t supposed that I would need to spell it all out in a review dealing mainly with another book, or to explain to informed readers that this is what I referred to as Barthes’s text, which has after all been around for a number of years and has acquired some notoriety as an object of a rather particular kind. But there it is. Let it be clear that Barthes’s text contains Balzac’s and that one could go through the latter within it, much as one might go through a built-up area by jumping over or by knocking down all the houses on the way.
The indecency which my review had been concerned with was the relegation of the unrescripted ‘Sarrasine’ to an appendix, ‘in ways which suggested that its chief interest was as an adjunct to Barthes’s text.’ Balzac’s story is printed as one of three Annexes to S/Z, and is numerically keyed (from 1 to 561) to the Barthesian script as an interesting ancillary exhibit, like the pieces of source-material printed at the end of some scholarly editions. There are, of course, ways of appending a primary text to a critical discussion which do not suggest ‘that its chief interest was as an adjunct,’ as when Trilling printed the ‘Immortality Ode’ after his essay on it. ‘For convenience’: yes, to make it easier for the essay to throw light on the poem, and not, as in Barthes, to add an optional seasoning to the critical dish.
On vulgar chauvinism what Kermode says is honourable and right. I share his feelings and he has mistaken the direction of my comments. When I spoke of multi-national co-productions, I was objecting to a kind of hollow internationalism which is largely, in my view, an extension of parochial narrowness. I meet an increasing number of professional colleagues who are perfectly at home with the code-words of international hermeneutics, but fewer and fewer who know a foreign language, and fewer still who will choose to read a book in that language when a translation is available. As someone who has spent a large part of his academic life trying to keep alive the idea that students of English and their teachers should learn foreign languages and have some unmediated access to a literature other than their own, I find this very depressing. It is depressing in much the same way, however, as the reduction of English as well as non-English writings through the shorthand of what sometimes passes for ‘theory’. This shorthand can indeed be more corrupting than the short cut of translation, for it may become a substitute, not only for the original text, but for the act of reading itself.
Dr Kappeler knows several languages and she deals with particular texts. The disappointing thing is that she nevertheless writes at a level of abstraction where particularities disappear inside reductive and often arbitrary systems of formalist and socio-linguistic taxonomy; where one text can easily be made to look much like another; and where any text might just as well have been read in translation, because very little that is said pays sensitive attention to the full individual immediacy of what the author actually wrote. I have already reviewed Dr Kappeler’s book and don’t think it right to subject it to a repetition of my original strictures merely because Professor Kermode has intervened in her defence. But the point about her parade of international authorities is specifically at issue, and as in other recent books on fiction this tends to offer simplifying short cuts rather than a widening of perspectives. The names of Otrik, Lugowski and the rest, whatever the merits of their own writings, are here used to provide a kind of magical cover for Dr Kappeler’s schematising, with accompanying intimations of analogy with those scientific laws which are sometimes known by the name of their founder: scientific pretension is an old feature of magical practices. Meanwhile the texts themselves become so much cold meat, packaged, computer-tagged and stacked on refrigerated display shelves. The supermarket is the most international of institutions and the most parochial. They exist in every neighbourhood, and they’re all the same; and the critical cosmopolitanism to which I object is about as genuinely international as the outlook of someone whose horizons are bounded by the local Safeway store.
I felt no particular impulse to point out, as Professor Kermode and at least one other reviewer do, that Dr Kappeler ‘is a foreigner’, and I deliberately held back from noting that her command of English idiom is occasionally uncertain. The degree to which this is manifested is not seriously disabling. But it produces some local oddities and does not enhance her credentials as a commentator on an author whose language is as elaborately and idio-syncratically nuanced as that of James, whom Professor Kermode (a shade obsessively, I think) also insists on calling a foreigner. Since all these things are being laid on the line, I should make it clear to anyone who might be interested that my own racial origins are at least as outlandish as those of any of the victims of my xenophobic malignancy.
Finally, Lugowski’s name. My predilection for puns is doubtless to be reprobated. I thought I was having my bit of fun, not at the expense of his foreignness, but in mimicry of a routine practised with much seriousness by some celebrated exponents of the verbal sign. But I confess that the sinister overtones which my unamusing ribaldry extracted from the name happen to chime with a not so mirthful feeling that a menace really exists, though not of course from Dr Lugowski in person. And what is menaced are things for which I know Professor Kermode cares as much as I do.