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Henry James, The Beast in the Jungle

Jamesian studies in my department were so strong that three courses of my curriculum dealt with Henry James, of which one was monographic and a second analyzed American history and institutions through the works of the James Bros. (I shan’t dwell). As a consequence I developed a barely-concealed and strong dislike for the novelist. On the other hand, years afterwards I still maintain a fond memory of his short stories.

James was an American master of the short story, the worthy heir of Poe and Hawthorne. His stories, besides, have the not secondary quality of offering the complexities and subtleties of his prose in a manageable measure. The Beast on the Jungle, for instance, was conceived and composed at the same time as James’s celebrated major phase, and published in 1903, the same year as The Ambassadors. The story shares the source of inspiration, and has many themes in common, with the first novel of the trilogy to be published, The Wings of the Dove (more on this point later on).
It is the story of John Marcher, a man who has “the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen” to him: a mysterious event he refers to as the Beast in the Jungle of his life. During a visit to an English aristocratic country house he is re-acquainted with May Bartram, a young woman he had met ten years before in Naples. On that occasion he had told her about the Beast. As they talk about it, May confesses she has never forgotten his revelation, and proposes to ‘watch’ with him the coming of “the thing”.
The tale accordingly becomes breathy, as it spans the years of their lives: a lifelong wait for something momentous that never happens. Through James’ prose, a magnificence of sensitivity and delicacy, it becomes clear that while May’s unswerving dedication implies deeper feelings than the friendship they develop, John’s self-obsession prevents him from finally seeing beyond curiosity and firmness. The ‘watch’ is his only concern, and it makes him incapable of serious commitment: “a man of feeling doesn’t cause himself to be accompanied by a lady on a tiger-hunt”.

As Leon Edel has pointed out, the inspiration for the story, the ‘seed’ to use the author’s terminology, was autobiographical. James had been deeply affected by the death of his friend and fellow novelist Miss Woolson, who killed herself in 1894 while in Venice. James was fond of her, but had not understood the real nature of her feelings towards him. So deep was the mark that the event left on him that nearly a decade later he adapted it as the climax of The Wings of the Dove. In the novel as in the real event, the heroine dies alone while her friend is in London. For The Beast in the Jungle, though, written in four mornings just after The Wings of the Dove was finished, James decided to give the characters the chance for a final confrontation, before the death of the woman—what he did not have with Miss Woolson.

At this point in his career, James had refined his prose into an instrument capable of recording and rendering the subtlest emotion, the least variation of a feeling, with a precision that makes my jaw loose and my brows fly. James’ late style is both infamously convoluted and greatly admired for its psychological accuracy, “closer to Joyce than to Balzac” * as one of my professors used to say—before adding that readings of James as a Modernist ante-litteram only make sense in retrospect, from our point of view. The truth is James hated Modernism. Yet, at sixty, he anticipated it with his 20th century trilogy, his ‘major phase’, according to F.O. Mathiessen’s career-defining definition. And, guess what, his short stories are only 40 pages long rather than 400.
Besides, there’s more. James’ skills in weaving his texts is always impressive. One example among many would be the many references to the seasons, starting with the characters’ own names: such as May and Marcher (and if you think James wasn’t prone to play with names, you haven’t read such works as The Beldonald Holbein). And then: when Marcher and Bartram meet at the country house it is autumn. Their final encounters at her London house, instead, take place in the spring: “she was presented to him in that long fresh light of waning April days which affects us often with a sadness sharper than the greyest hours of autumn”. In between, the cold and sterile winter that is their entire acquaintance, a long wait for a blooming that never takes place—not even belatedly. And then there’s the Jamesian touch, the tiny detail that goes unnoticed at first reading: the country house where they meet is called Weatherend.

The Beast in the Jungle is justly held as one of James’s finest short stories. It is NOT, however, a ghost story, not even one without a ghost. James called it one of his ‘ghostly tales’, which is quite another matter, since he was more interested in the psychology of a character convinced of the existence of supernatural presences, than in ghosts per se. And the guy knew what he was about.

* The laborious progress from Naturalism to Modernism reminds me of Pirandello, who similarly moved from Verga to Ionesco.

Henry James
The Beast in the Jungle (1903)
pp. 48, €8/copyleft
Dodo Press, 2007

Giudizio: 4/5.

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