Sunday, March 19, 2017

What Maisie Knew (1897)

Behind all the typical crosshatchings and shadings of language in this Henry James novel is something at once so homely and such an example of social realism that it's almost hard to believe he wrote it: the story of a girl who only serves as one more item to fight about between two divorced parents. It's surprisingly modern too, given that widespread acceptance of divorce would not begin to occur for the better part of another century—even maybe a little daring (or "European"). Somehow, James manages to pack some humor around a tale that is otherwise nearly appalling. It's funny and tragic and stupefyingly complex, as relations between the parents shift from fighting about who gets to have Maisie to fighting about taking her off one another's hands. Over the course of the narrative, each takes multiple lovers—indeed, at one point, former lovers begin to be involved with one another, and sometimes they have responsibility for Maisie awkwardly thrust on them. Governesses come and go, loom large, depart, return again. Maisie grows from a toddler to adolescence. She is so guarded and low-key it's hard to see the effect of all this, except that she is so guarded and low-key. We rarely see her in notable pain, but the litany of detail piles quite high, forcing us to consider, how can she not be in pain? It's impressive all the things James manages here, keeping the focus on the child's-eye view, the way cat and mouse cartoons only show the knees, shins, and shoes of grown-ups. Yet the madness swirling around her could not be more apparent, as we repeatedly see adults lying or exaggerating to the child for their own gains. It's impossible to miss how much harm and damage are being done over and over. The best here are weak, the worst unspeakable. Maisie is merely an innocent cipher. It's true James might have had more open compassion for her—as an element in this story, it's notably missing. The humor derives from the painful clarity of each adult's particular style of weakness, their vanities and repeated foibles, with all their transparent psychological sources. Ultimately these laughs, such as they are, provide no relief from the situation. But as nothing is much of a relief here—again, perhaps the problem of the missing compassion—one is grateful for the light even as the downward spiral only worsens by the page.

"interlocutor" count = 3 / 272 pages (includes "interlocutress")

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

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