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Books and Things

It was off and on through a wakeful night that I read this book. This I read while waiting for an honest broker to impart the bad news. This I read after eating too much luncheon. Which of these sentences tells the truth about the book reviewer? He hardly ever lets us know, yet his review is dyed in circumstance of this order. Nor should we be less surprised, most of us, if he told us such things than if he mentioned his pulse, temperature, or systolic and diastolic blood pressure. We prefer to take him for granted as a reviewer without moods, precisely as we take our own freedom from moods for granted when we're talking about a hook we've just read. Such a convention is a convenience, precisely as it is convenient to forget that nearly every book makes upon nearly every reviewer more or fewer impressions than he records, that in choosing among his impressions he has an unconscious preference for those which can be made to hang together, that even those impressions which he does choose are somewhat deformed by the act of composition. Whether I like a book or not I am always let down a little by the mere fact of finishing it. Nor do I ever begin to review it without feeling depressed by the obligation to write. Yet what would be the use of recording, in every review or in any, these by no means unusual feelings? Am I the less sincere because I try hard to wipe every trace of them away?

These remarks are occasioned by the discovery of a book review which is almost fifteen years old, and as to which I am quite unable to recall my mood at the time of writing. "Unlike 'The Awkward Age' and 'The Other House,' " I said, "Mr. James's latest book, 'The Sacred Fount,' contains nothing to make one think of his essays in dramaturgy. It associates itself with 'The Turn of the Screw,' with certain stories in 'The Soft Side,' with that part of his work in which he tries to bring spirit directly in contact with spirit, to overcome the material obstacles to their intercourse. It differs from them in this, that it is less frankly supernatural, that it attempts to get by nature results which 'over-nature' alone can give. ‘The Sacred Fount' is a ghost story in which there are no ghosts. Like most of his later books, works of difficulty and charm, it is not easy to attend to, though it makes one eager to attend to it. The inferences which may be drawn, without too much exertion, by an ordinary reader of 'The Other House,' and which only an exceptionally alert reader of 'The Awkward Age' can draw with the required frequency, are in The Sacred Fount' drawn for us by the narrator, who is, I imagine, not altogether different from the reader whom Mr. James might think worth pleasing. Nothing escapes this perspicacious, constructive observer. From remarks which have the air of being ordinary remarks, from juxtapositions that most of us would have been content, if we regarded them at all, to regard as accidents, his sleepless ingenuity, his morbid vigilance, builds an astonishing edifice of theory.

"The relations of character to character are not so many as in 'The Awkward Age,' but those which are presented at all are examined still more relentlessly. The work of omission is carried further. Nothing is left of a single character save that which enables him or her to bear a certain relation to somebody else, and to be affected by that relation in a particular way. Though adultery happens to be the soil in which these relations flourish, this circumstance is plainly, for Mr. James, of little importance. In itself adultery does not interest him. What he cares for, and cares for with steady intensity, is to make out the new and complicated feelings derived from a situation so old, and, in the world presented in ' T he Sacred Fount,' so common. Throughout the book, save for such an occasional beautiful passage as that which fixes a moment in the waning summer day, Mr. James's narrator gives us no hint of care for anything else. This preoccupation imparts to the book an uncanny unity. Everything appears in the light of an insane obsession. A curiosity not vulgar, though bent exclusively upon men and women taken in adultery, an intellectual curiosity, active at every moment, fatiguing, monstrous—this pervades Mr. James's latest work of art.

"It is noticeable that a man who has had so many interests, to whom life has made its appeal from so many sides, should have left so many things out of his maturest works. They contain little to feed the ear, little except now and then an exquisite landscape to feed the eye. Now and then Mr. James pauses to render some aspect of fallen light, of silence broken by sounds that make it deeper. But nearly all the stuff of human interests is omitted. Little is presented except the power to feel, in special predicaments, in very special ways, in ways that surprise and touch one by their unexpectedness and beauty. Mr. James tries often, and seldom fails to give one—from incidents so apparently trivial as the trying on, by a young woman, of a pair of glasses; from sights not more startling than a man standing smoking a cigarette, on a terrace, in a summer evening, alone—a sense of adventure. But what he finally teaches, so far as he may be said to teach anything, is that the adventure which endures, which never loses its edge, is either to feel or to appreciate feeling. 

"The defect of Mr. James's method is not that he tries to appreciate too nicely, but that he tries too hard. The attention which he pays, and makes his successful readers pay, is too concentrated. In the end I fall to wondering whether an equal nicety might not be attainable by a method more casual, more negligent of the things described. I wonder also at his ability to remain so long, and without one redeeming sign of fatigue, in an attitude so eagerly curious. A little ease, a touch of unconcern—these are the missing qualities one longs for. The picture is spoiled not because the painter has taken too much pains, but because he has included his pains in the picture.”

When that review was written I was certain that in "The Sacred Fount" from me no secrets were hid, that I understood. Yet nowhere in the review, reread to-day, is the knowledge so painfully won handed on to anybody else. That knowledge must have perished soon after the review was born. When I read "The Sacred Fount" over again, a few years ago, I didn't feel at all certain what Mr. James was up to. Was I right fourteen years ago? Was I right at the time of rereading this most difficult of his books? Or was I never right about it? These are leading questions. They lead directly into wonder whether the reviews I've written this winter, if they should turn up again fifteen years hence, would seem equally far from contact with the authors reviewed. But the questions are not wholly disheartening. On the contrary, they should encourage a reviewer to set down his impressions with confidence, to remember that unless one achieves dogmatism when "fresh from perusal," when impressions are vivid and contradictory, dogmatism will never be achieved.

This article originally ran in the July 3, 1915, issue of the magazine.