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Writing and Reading in Henry James 
by Susanne Kappeler.
Macmillan, 242 pp., £15, January 1981, 0 333 29104 2
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‘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.’

Ms Kappeler concedes that James is in it somewhere, having initiated the script for the critic to ‘produce’. Perhaps we should think of the whole enterprise as a co-production, like one of those glossy multi-national movies. A glittering all-star cast includes Barthes and Lacan, Propp and Bogatyrev, Olrik and Ozick and Ora Segal and Cesare Segre, and our own English Brooke-Rose. A critical heavy called Lugowski, whose very name is generatively fraught with echoes of Luger, Lugosi and a diffused Slavo-Germanic menace, stalks sinisterly across the screen at intervals, for the movie is one of detection and international conspiracy. A reviewer (or co-co-producer?) might suspect that the conspiracy is against humane letters.

At the third hermeneutic level, that is. For Ms Kappeler has already added a second to the one Barthes found sufficient. Such numerical orderings and re-orderings belong to the genre: witness Barthes’s deuxième lecture, which is not a second reading but a first reading undertaken as if it were a second, or Lacan’s ‘third ear’, which Ms Kappeler uses in a manner ‘directly contrary’ to his, so as ‘to be able to tell ... ears from ears’. The first hermeneutic is concerned with the level of ‘ “plot” or story’ and operates ‘at its purest’ in the detective story. Ms Kappeler’s script not only resembles a spy-movie. It is also aptly concerned with two Jamesian fictions which have a pronounced element of suspense in something like the detective-story sense: The Aspern Papers and The Sacred Fount.

The first of these is said to exhibit many standard folk-tale motifs (like the ‘law of three’ but not apparently the ‘law of top-weight and sternweight’) for which Ms Kappeler has discarded her Propp and gone to the rival taxonomist Olrik. But it is only the narrator who has a ‘vested interest ... to present his story as an archetypal folk-tale’ and who ‘thinks he is constructing a single-stranded plot.’ You might not have thought he thought this, and assumed he was mainly giving an account of his quest for a dead poet’s papers, but then these literary manuscripts correspond for him to the hidden princess who would be the hero’s reward in a folk-tale. The second hermeneutic decodes not the plot but ‘the narrator himself’ and is concerned, here and in The Sacred Fount, ‘not solely with “what really happened” ’ but also with ‘the plot of the novel’s form ... the formal aspects of the narrator’s telling and presenting’.

Between the discussion of these two tales are several readings of shorter stories mainly about writing and including (of course) ‘The Figure in the Carpet’. There is an argument about the ‘literary taboo’ which forbids critics to seek information from authors, is ‘comparable to the taboo of incest’, and also forbids an author to marry. Some stories lend themselves to this thesis more readily than others, and some have to be bent a little this way or that. The result is a jejunely anthropologised blend of Freud and water. A second argument concerns James’s conception of the ‘use-value’ and the ‘exchange-value’ of a writer’s work in society, and is a form of latterday folk-Marxism and water. The water in both cases comes from the same inexhaustible Barthesian well.

No wonder the figure in the carpet is a little moist. It might almost be called a seminal figure, given the term’s etymological or phonetic associations with both semen and seme. The very title of The Sacred Fount ‘recalls venerable beliefs about sex and the life juices’. Popular theories that sperm-conservation preserves potency (though somewhat ‘faded’ in their ‘literal form’) and that ‘every loss of precious fluid means a reduction of the overall stocks’ underlie James’s tale about the transfer of qualities of youth and wit from one partner to the other.

Here Ms Kappeler postulates a ‘third sacred fount’. This has to do with the narrator’s love-object if any, which really turns out to be ‘the flower of his theory’, which then becomes his ‘intangible “work of art” ’, which like all works of art separates itself from its creator, from which it follows as the night the day that the narrator (like the author himself on another plane) becomes a reader or critic like any other reader or critic, even to the point of signing up for several post-Jamesian interpretative schools. He becomes at one point a Freudian analyst who takes denials for confirmations, and later comes ‘closest’ to Lacan’s description of the analyst’s task, which ‘is also a description of the narrator’s, and indeed of that of the literary critic’. Of such totalitarian circularities is this book made.

It is not surprising, in such a context, that a high creative standing should be claimed for critics, with both James and his narrators adopted into the fold. Given a certain dearth of common-or-garden first-level correspondence between Ms Kappeler’s bombinations and what most normal humans will recognise as taking place in the novels, nothing less than a declaration of the critic’s unfettered rights over the polysemic work, and of his parity of standing with the author, can give her enterprise any semblance of intellectual pertinence. After a somewhat high-handed extension to critics of James’s view that ‘the novelist’s task is “to reproduce” ’ she tells us: ‘Nature or Life may serve as an arbitrary starting-point, yet there is no doubt that all its plants and flowers are already producing patterns and embroideries that cry out for interpretation, for the retracing of their history of perception and reproduction’ (my italics).

It is a feature of the rhetoric of this book that James’s views and Ms Kappeler’s are often merged in a warm fog of wishful and more or less tacit equivalence. Not that this is necessary, given the critic’s independent authority to produce the texte intégralement pluriel. Such ghoulish simulacra of the reading process have become an institutionalised ego-trip. Neo-Romantic notions of polysemic fecundity, enforced at times by appeals to an older ‘organic’ imagery of gardens and plants, co-exist incongruously with an apparatus of scientific pretension complete with charts, diagrams and pseudo-algebraic symbols. The ostensible expansiveness frequently contracts to a narrow schematism, but without reduction of wordage. Barthes’s S/Z, one of Ms Kappeler’s models, is a 220-page lucubration on a 30-page story by Balzac. Such disproportions are of course not new. We have been committing them for years, though usually on poems rather than prose fictions. The new indecency was the relegation of Balzac’s ‘Sarrasine’ to an appendix in ways which suggested that its chief interest was as an adjunct to Barthes’s text.

Ms Kappeler’s wordage is about the same as Barthes’s, but less than that of the Jamesian fictions she discusses, and she does not print them in an appendix. Perhaps they were too bulky, and she cannot match the Barthesian effrontery anyway. Her Appendix is devoted to previous critics of The Sacred Fount, to whom the privileges of unlimited pluralism seem not to extend, and whose errors are catalogued for 19 pages, a little less than the length of ‘Sarrasine’.

Not having ‘followed a secondary hermeneutic, and read the novel on the level of its third articulation’, the critics have sometimes taken a dim view of The Sacred Fount, and James was not over-delighted with it himself. This ‘detective story without a crime’, set in a country house, has something of the stylish and unsettling inconclusiveness of L’Année Dernière à Marienbad, though Robbe-Grillet’s script carries this feeling to a higher pitch of sinister discontinuity. Ms Kappeler reminds us that the French new novelists have seen their work ‘as a direct development from the detective story’, minus the sense of a fixed reality or the promise of a ‘well-made’ tying-up of loose ends. If we have learned to respond to The Sacred Fount with less puzzlement, or a more knowing puzzlement, than some earlier readers, it is perhaps because our awareness has been enlarged by later fictions, and not thanks to the chromium-plated interpretation-kits supplied by recent hermeneuts. And if anyone wanted their Aspern Papers pluralised, I would recommend J.I.M. Stewart’s novel The Guardians. This attractive and civilised imitation, witty and archly allusive, is, as an interpretative act, worth more than any amount of socio-linguistic decoding.

Perhaps I am being ungrateful. I once read a reading by a Ms Johnson of Derrida’s reading of Lacan’s reading of Poe’s ‘Purloined Letter’. When I returned to Poe, it was with a freshly enhanced feeling for his story, which I attribute not to any insights vouchsafed by these masters but to the sheer relief of having moved on from their commentaries. One of the minor pleasures I now get from The Sacred Fount comes from its not resembling the book Ms Kappeler has ‘produced’.

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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.

Frank Kermode

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.

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