Sunday, August 14, 2016

"Brooksmith" (1891)

This short story by Henry James veers awfully close to tales of faithful pets, forever loyal and true blue, though the subject is technically a servant, a butler. That's Brooksmith, who spends most of his life as the head manservant for a certain diplomat. The story is told first-person by an anonymous regular visitor to the diplomat, who conducted a kind of salon after he retired. The diplomat was a popular fellow and all, but the narrator believes it's Brooksmith, as de facto gatekeeper of the house, who is responsible for the great success of his master in retirement. Brooksmith is described specifically as being five feet three inches in height, which is unusually short, especially for a butler. The implication is that a certain force of personality—or something ineffably powerful—attends Brooksmith, and thus somehow he is an extraordinary man. He's a servant but secretly the real master of the house. Well, maybe. The weakness of his position becomes evident when the diplomat dies, leaving only meager provision for Brooksmith. There are many small mysteries in this story: how or why Brooksmith was such a force in the household, why the diplomat left him so little, and ultimately what becomes of Brooksmith at all. Also why the narrator takes such an interest in him. There's a strange erotic tension to it, especially between Brooksmith and the diplomat (who is entirely offstage), but it's so subtle I worry I'm reading too much into it. Or perhaps answering some of my own questions. The narrator reports seeing Brooksmith a couple of times in fallen circumstances, and, when he doesn't see him for a long while, fears that the old butler is avoiding him. Brooksmith is last seen as a waiter at a banquet in a private home. He won't meet the narrator's eye. Not surprisingly, all things considered, in the end Brooksmith disappears altogether. No one seems to know what became of him, and death may be presumed, though the mysteries only multiply. The story is quite compact, especially for James—the ruminating memories of the narrator, with very little dialogue. The main dynamic is familiar, with the same kinds of tensions as Huck and Jim, or Ishmael and Queequeg, a disquietingly unconscious assumption of the subhuman told with affection and regard, but using them to make some obscure larger point. In a way, a fictionalized abstracted way, they are still treated as servants. Something very sad about this one.

"interlocutor" count = 0 / 17 pages

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

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