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Porpoise-iveness Without Porpoise: Why Nabokov Called James a Fish by Robert Gregory, Carnegie-Mellon University It is a pleasure to perceive how again and again the shrunken depths of old work yet permit themselves to be sounded . . . and we fish up such fragments and relics of the submerged life and the extinct consciousness as tempt us to piece them together. —Preface to The American Brought up into the air, the word bursts, as burst those spherical fishes that breathe and blaze only in the compressed murk of the depths when brought up in a net. A commonsensical approach to relations between writers rests on certain apparently self-evident ideas about what reading is and about the relation between desire, language, and representations. But, as James once suggested, the path of reading or of influence can involve both a circuit and a subterfuge neither of which are self-evident paths. In a letter of 1899 to Mrs. Humphrey Ward, James writes, "I'm a wretched person to read a novel ... I begin so quickly and concomitantly, for myself, to write it rather. . . . The novel I can only read, I can't read at all!" (TF 156). In a curious sense, this rewriting crosses a conceptual boundary usually assumed to be impassable because to rewrite is to become not a reader outside the text but yet another character/writer within the play of readings that is the Jamesian text. For James, Leo Bersani writes, "ideas by themselves are neither attractive nor powerful in conversation; the appeal of civilized speech comes from our recognizing those detours . . . which 'being civilized' imposes on the expression of a desire. The greatest Jamesian . . . sophistication is to find a kind of sensual pleasure in following the ingenious evasions and indirections with which language deflects and serves insistent desires" (129). The point is not only that this is what the Jamesian novel offers but that such an offering makes the reader one among those he reads reading each other. To read The American is to join the novelist Mrs. Tristram as she finds a situation to bring out her donnée (Christopher Newman), rather as James does with Isabel in Portrait Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading of a Lady, to join Valentin's version of Newman and Noémie's with Newman's of himself and the others and Noémie's rather more gaudy success story about herself, essentially to watch Newman's story rewritten by the others. But to do so is to become one with those whose fictions rewrite others' to match their desires; it is not a position of removal but a subtle immersion in the shimmering medium created, like shadows and lights on moving water, by the play of readings against readings across the surfaces of the text and those hints that seem to flicker in the cloudy depths. In addition to the complications involved when writers and readers read about writers and readers, there is the "detour" (Bersani), or perhaps what James calls the "circuit", a curious and frivolous network of relations that is not the relational, analogizing movement above but a relation that skirts the link between signs and meanings to pursue the link between signs and other signs. If desire plays beneath or detours around the usual paths of signs to meaning, it may be the path of levity that brings things to the surface, not the path of gravity, which submerges them, so that we must renounce any kinship with that Emerson-caricature Reverend Babcock in The American: "do remember that Life and Art are extremely serious" (TA 65). Thus to determine and thereby limit the question of Jamesian influence can be a tricky and paradoxical undertaking, like chasing the rich folk that Morgan Moreen's family pursue in "The Pupil": "Just when we Volume VI 52 Number 1 The Henry James Review Fall, 1984 think we've landed them they're back in the deep sea" (NY 570). Critics of Nabokov rarely mention James as a formative factor in his art, and the echoes of James in his work are often obtuse parodies of the pace and angle of the late style; for example, from Ada: "He noticed...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 52-59
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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