The Perverse Novel (2): Henry James, The Sacred Fount
If Pierre delights or infuriates by refusing to remain the kind of book it’s supposed to be, then The Sacred Fount achieves this effect through the opposite device of uncompromising consistency. The book is so dedicated to its own world that it forgets to connect with ours.
Michael Wood points out that novels with unreliable narrators generally aren’t themselves unreliable, since our expectation of unreliability allows us, with the help of context, to construct appropriate interpretations or translations as we go. When the narrator of Pale Fire assures us that “My free and simple demeanour set everybody at ease,” we know that more or less the opposite has happened. Ray Davis notes in passing that detective novels whose investigators reach their conclusions through rules of inference don’t require us to infer the conclusions as well. So long as it looks like a deduction, it’ll do: “Given how poorly most human beings follow a logical argument, does anything more than lip service have to be paid to rationality?” Narrative convention gives us the appearance of unreliability on the one hand and the appearance of rationality on the other, and since we know how to negotiate the conventions we don’t have to grapple with the real thing.
Mind you, this is no complaint. I’m interested in arguments against narrativity, but they don’t sock me in the end because I don’t need fiction to faithfully reproduce self-experience, whatever exactly that isany way you slice it, it’s not the same kind of thing as a book. I’m okay with fiction being allegory at the core. Still, it makes you ask: what would an unreliable novel look like if you couldn’t use convention to stabilize that unreliability? What about a detective novel where lack of convention forced you to share the detective work? Well!
With sentences vast as the granite blocks of the Pyramids and a scene that would have made a site for a capital he set about constructing a story the size of a hen-house. The type of these unhappier efforts of Mr James’ genius is The Sacred Fount (1901), where, with a respect for the mere gross largeness and expensiveness of the country house which almost makes one write the author Mr Jeames, he records how a week-end visitor spends more intellectual force than Kant can have used on The Critique of Pure Reason in an unsuccessful attempt to discover whether there exists between certain of his fellow-guests a relationship not more interesting among these vacuous people that it is among sparrows.
We all learned in fiction workshops that the way you draw a reader into your story is to cover the duck blind of structure with the leafy camouflage of detail; just having the narrator tell you that something is fascinating doesn’t make it so. But James’s narrator doesn’t have time for such niceties. Obsessed with the idea that the people around him are practicing a kind of covert emotional vampirism, he can’t help but communicate that obsession at extreme length, in his own weird and abstract vocabulary, with almost none of the concrete detail that this kind of story is supposed to use as corroboration. As an example, see the long exchange in Chapter 3 between the narrator and his confidant Grace Brissenden. It’s well-nigh impossible to follow if you haven’t read the preceding chapters, and extremely difficult if you have; the talk of screens, signs and maneuvers is not easily translatable into our everyday conception of human relations, so that the usual novelistic props of physical description, tone, and so on are little help in figuring out what is happening. The only way to do it is actually to follow the narrator’s inferences step by step, adapting ourselves to his vocabulary, which I at least found as difficult a task as reading philosophy. Unsurprising that West should think of Kant, and unsurprising that she refuses to get on the train.
What is surprising is that, as the presence of Grace Brissenden shows, other characters do get on it. The narrator’s weirdness would be easier to handle if he were the only person in the book who thought this way; then we could peg him as a nut. It would also be easier if this narrative style were set against more standard dialogue and action, as in James’s later novels; then we could say that this language shows the deep nuances of consciousness that mere narration of externals doesn’t get at. But when the whole book is like thiswhen even other characters talk this waywe get no hints about how its world is supposed to hook onto ours. It follows its formal principles too faithfully. The narrator’s deductions move, he tells us, “in resisted observation that was vivid thought, in inevitable thought that was vivid observation, through a succession, in short, of phases in which I shall not pretend to distinguish one of these elements from the other.” The blurring of observation and thought means that we never get to observe for ourselves.
The conclusion ought to be where the narrator is told that he is insane and that his house of cards has collapsed. This does indeed happen, more or less; but we have no reason to trust these declarations any more than what has come before. No final theory is presented, nothing falls into place. After being upbraided by Grace, the narrator concludes that “I should certainly never again, on the spot, quite hang together, even though it wasn’t really that I hadn’t three times her method. What I too fatally lacked was her tone.” Grace brings off her triumph with the tone of certainty that the narrator can no longer employ, the tone of a novel that knows how we ought to read it. Any method without this tone, no matter how airtight, leaves the narrator, leaves the book, leaves the reader in pieces.