Review: What Maisie Knew by Henry James

I was going to start this review by explaining how reading Henry James is like eating the most delicious, delicate and non-crumby pastry you've ever had: you're enjoying the flavor and at the same time wondering at the skill that made it all possible. Me being me, however, a great lover of pastry and Henry James, it all turned to food porn and I had to delete it. But this is the impression rereading What Maisie Knew left me with. I felt like I was given a dessert. This is a book that's shorter and perhaps lighter than some of James' masterpieces, but no less accomplished.

The Subject

As he explains in the preface*, James drew his idea for the novel from a dinner conversation in which the strange fate of a little girl used as ammunition in the war between her divorced parents was mentioned. In a decision unusual for that period, the child's custody was shared and she was to spend half a year with each of her parents. While at first they were both eager to take revenge on the other by depriving them of the child's company, at some point one of them remarried and the situation changed. The responsibility for the child became a punishment fit to be inflicted on the ex-spouse and the two irresponsible parents outdid each other in trying to get rid of their charge. This is the core on which James built the story of Maisie, a girl whose childhood was spent "rebounding from racquet to racquet like a tennis-ball or a shuttlecock" in the power games between her parents and, later, her stepparents as well.

The subject is surprisingly modern, and James, being James, wraps it in layers upon layers of elegant language and meaning. Maisie, his young heroine, is raised in an environment marked by high-class immorality (meaning selfishness, lies and adultery abound, but outright criminal offenses do not). In a way, she knows the things that go on around her. She is a direct witness to them and she's a very sensitive child. But in a different and very important way, she doesn't know them, because she can't yet grasp their moral value. Her factual knowledge seems to much exceed her moral knowledge, and this raises interesting questions about both knowledge and morality.

What Maisie Knew and Henry Told Us

This discrepancy between the things Maisie sees and her ability to interpret them is the driving force of the novel and the major source of its delicious irony. But the most interesting aspect of James' strategy is that he doesn't entirely limit his narrator to Maisie's perspective. We see the exact portion of the world Maisie sees, but we are allowed to make more of it than Maisie ever could. After all, Maisie can hardly be aware of her own ignorance or signal it to us. So Henry James finds a way for us to have our pastry cake and eat it too. We have a narrator that excels at capturing nuances and playing with various styles  (like the legalese/high-society gossip mix in the first chapter), but then this narrator  seems content to adjust his own perspective to reflect that of Maisie and borrow some of her concepts. It's one of the most charming juxtaposition of sophistication and ingenuity in a narrative voice I have ever seen.

But there is a second reason it's important to have a voice distinct from Maisie's tell the story. There is a certain ambiguity building as the story progresses. Maisie keeps learning more and more things about the world, and at some point one starts to wonder, what does she know? Is there a point at which she becomes aware of the moral implications of the things she's seeing? The evasive impersonal narrator is essential to maintaining this uncertainty to the very end, when we get to see a test of Maisie's moral faculty.

My Favorite Passage

This book contains one of my favorite passages from the whole of literature:
[...] it had taken her but an extra minute to arrive at such a quick survey of the objects surrounding Mrs. Beale as showed that among them was no appurtenance of Sir Claude's. She knew his dressing-bag now—oh with the fondest knowledge!—and there was an instant during which its not being there was a stroke of the worst news. She was yet to learn what it could be to recognise in some lapse of a sequence the proof of an extinction, and therefore remained unaware that this momentary pang was a foretaste of the experience of death.
The feeling you get when you don't find the familiar signs of someone's presence is a foretaste of the experience of death. This moves me every time I think of it.

The Bottom Line

I feel I can never be eloquent enough in praising Henry James. What Maisie Knew is one of my favorite books, so 5 out of 5 stars and endless squeeing are a given. But, more than that, if you are looking for a good gateway drug to James, this book could be it. It has all the wonderful features of his style, but it's less dense than some of his other books.

*What Maisie Knew was published in 1897 and is copyright free. You can find it online on Project Gutenberg among other places, but beware, most of the editions floating on the internet lack James' preface discussing the inception of the book and his narrative strategy. I am of the school that thinks the author's intentions are more entertaining trivia than indispensable instruments to reading, but still, there is no reason to deprive oneself of entertaining trivia. Here's a link to the preface.

No comments:

Post a Comment