Purloined Author

Claude Rawson

  • 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.’

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’.