February 25, 2015

The Art of the Novella challenge 15: The Coxon Fund

by

the coxon fundTitle: The Coxon Fund

Author: Henry James

First published: 1894

Page count: 103

First line: “They have got him for life!” I said to myself that evening on the way back to the station; but later on, alone in the compartment (from Wimbledon to Waterloo, before the glory of the District Railway) I amended this declaration in the light of the sense that my friends would probably after all not enjoy a monopoly of Mr Saltram.”

Oh Henry, oh Henry James! What did the English language ever do to you, that you felt impelled to treat it so, with such a stern yet loving hand? If he is ‘the Master’ then he is the master not just of his peers, but of the language itself. He bends it to his will as fiercely as any sadist in his Red Room, yet the contortions he produces are beautiful, the knots sure and certain, the strike of the whip exact; there is no charity in clumsiness, after all.

The Coxon Fund—there is something delightfully Ludlum-esque about the title, isn’t there?—may not be James’s best short fiction (this series also includes The Lesson of the Master, which comes higher praised, and by God I’ll read it next) but it shows his natural understanding of the limits and uses of the form. An incident is recounted, with detail sufficient to its inherent complexity, and yet with a sense of the world continuing outside of it.

(An aside: James’s oeuvre is clearly of a piece, in terms of its milieu and purview, but certainly it is not interlinked. It would be horrible if it were. As it is, the books form something like a panorama—but of the homemade, collage type, that you used to construct post hoc laying multiple photographs alongside each other, annoyed at the gaps and overlaps and minute discrepancies in perspective. Now, of course, you have a panorama function on your smartphone’s camera app, and the ease of producing an image negates the fun of doing so.)

The incident at hand in The Coxon Fund is the arrival into London society of Frank Saltram, a writer and thinker (of sorts) who dazzles everyone in person, at some late hour in some Wimbledon salon, but singularly fails to replicate his brilliance either in print or in the public lectures his friends fruitlessly organise. If he can be made a success, you get the feeling, he will be the making of them all too.

The figure of Saltram was inspired, James’s notebooks tell us, by the figure of Coleridge, but I’m reminded of Mynheer Peeperkorn, the charismatic but unfathomable ‘great man’ of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, so wonderfully drawn in his comical incapacity to ever finish a sentence, and yet so powerful in his effect on other people that you feel there must be is something there: something if not entirely creditable, then surely absolutely human.

Mann at least gives us something of Peeperkorn’s speech

“Gentlemen -,” the Dutchman said, raising his lance-nailed captain’s hand in a gesture that both implored and commanded. “Fine, gentlemen, agreed, excellent! Asceticism – indulgence— sensual lust—let me say that—by all means! Eminently important! Eminently controversial! And yet, permit me to say—I fear that we are about to commit a – ladies and gentlemen, we are avoiding, we are irresponsibly avoiding the holiest of –” He took a deep breath. “This air, ladies and gentlemen, this day’s foehn air so rich in character, so tenderly enervating, suggestive and reminiscent of spring’s fragrance—we should not breathe it in merely so that in the form of—I implore you: we should not do it.”

And so on.

By contrast, we must take Saltram at the word of his disciples, of which group the novella’s narrator is a doubtful and inconstant member. Here he is, pushed to justify himself when he denies that Saltram is a “real gentleman”. (The nudger is a young American, Ruth Anvoy – more on her later.)

“Do you say that because he’s – what do you call it in England? – of humble extraction?”

“Not a bit. His father was a country schoolmaster and his mother the widow of a sexton, but that has nothing to do with it. I say it simply because I know him well.”

“But isn’t it an awful drawback?”

“Awful – quite awful.”

“I mean isn’t it positively fatal?”

“Fatal to what? Not to his magnificent vitality.”

Ah, that James-speak, as recognisable, even at 50 yards, as half a page of Mamet.

“Positively fatal… magnificent vitality”. A couple of pages later. “She triumphed in what she told me and she may have triumphed still more in what she withheld.”

Did people ever talk like that? And if not quite (or even if so), then exactly how satirical is James being in putting these cries of emotional extremity in his characters’ mouths? Emotional extremity is after all something he is interested in, is invested in, even. Sometimes you have to magnify a problem, to yourself, in order to be able to discern the nuance. That’s all that James is doing, in his dense and convoluted paragraphs: teasing out nuance, as if the human psyche were an incredibly – a fatally – tangled bundle of string, or headphone cables, and the writer simply the person with the most patience. (Terrible image! Henry James untangling your tangled headphones. He’d do it! He’d do it! You’d wish he didn’t, but he’d offer – you’re sat next to each other on the glorious District Railway, and you’d not be able to refuse – he, who’d never think of using a set of earbuds himself!)

His characters, by contrast, don’t have the patience – or the visual acuity – to see the knots they’ve got themselves into at normal size, so they exaggerate them, in talk.

I started off by comparing James to a sexual dominant, bending the English language to his will – rather like the narrator of Ian McEwan’s early story ‘Solid Geometry’ manipulates his wife according to the occult writings of his great-grandfather – but there are other ways of looking at it, other analogies.

The writing is hard, yes. It is abstruse, and requires concentration and doggedness. But it is hard not just because it is dense, but because it is indirect; it is flighty. The writing always seems to hover a foot above the facts of the matter. The facts of the matter need interpretation, or reformulation, because James has already abstracted what he wants from them. Abstraction is his great technique.

From a page picked at random:

If that first night was one of the liveliest, or at any rate was the freshest, of my exaltations, there was another, four years later, that was one of my great discomposures. Repetition, I well knew by this time, was the secret of Saltram’s power to alienate, and of course one would never have seen him at his finest if one hadn’t seen him in his remorses. They set in mainly at this season and were magnificent, elemental, orchestral.

Exaltations, discomposures, remorses.

Remorses magnificent, elemental, orchestral.

James is the tell-don’t-show author your creative writing tutor warned you about. But by writing around, or above, the point – by treating his stories essentially thematically, rather than narratorially – he ends up producing something that seems all decoration, no solid matter, all iced flowers, and no cake.

And yet, there is sustenance there, and nutrition. Here is the narrator on Saltram’s estranged wife, who hangs around the story for no apparent reason, except to give off a general bad smell – though she will have her part to play when the narrative does actually kick in, which it does after the halfway mark. She is, for our man:

a deeply wronged, justly resentful, quite irreproachable and insufferable person. She often appeared at my chambers to talk over his lapses; for if, as she declared, she had washed her hands of him, she had carefully preserved the water of this ablution, which she handed about for analysis.

How good is that! A Biblical phrase, long domesticated into idiom, is most delicately turned inside out. The distaste the narrator feels towards the awful woman is sublimated into his snide evisceration of the cliché. It is beautifully done, but viciously, too. He takes the language and twists it, leans into the manoeuvre, has his knee on its back. He can do anything he wants to it, for it is at his mercy. This is admirable, but also, isn’t it, rather perverse? What’s the English language ever done to him?

What am I saying? I suppose I’m saying that The Coxon Fund is nearly a great book. It is vintage James, certainly, and shows his style as it is approaching its state of greatest… of greatest magnificence, but there is something lacking. Perhaps it is scale. Saltram is dealt with, he plays himself out, according to the plot, which turns on an endowment that might be gifted him (a sort of MacArthur Genius grant) by the young Miss Anvoy, or might go to fund her own dowry; yet though we are given brief sight of him as a tragic figure, we don’t know him in the round, as we do with Mann’s Peeperkorn.

Nor really do we get close to Anvoy. The narrator clearly fancies her something rotten, and has a grimly antagonistic relationship with her fiancé, who is an old friend of his, but this romantic rumble is not allowed fully above ground. Would The Coxon Fund have been better as a novel? Possibly. (James thought so.) Does it work as a novella? Oh, most definitely. It is wickedly good.

 

Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press, and lectures in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels.

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