- Spolia: The Henry James Issue ed. by Jessa Crispin
“Musicians get to do this all the time,” writes Jessa Crispin, introducing the tenth issue of Spolia, a literary magazine.
They get to take apart a Leonard Cohen song or a Beatles song or a Joni Mitchell song and make it their own. They get to play with it, burn it to the ground if they like. Pay tribute, in the form of fucking up their shit. I thought it would only be fair if writers had the same opportunity. To take apart a master’s work and write their own cover versions. And who better to start with, than the Master himself.(3)
The “covers” of James’s writing that follow do, indeed, fuck up his shit. They take apart his language, his plots, his characters, and his genres and reconstrue them across various axes and in various styles. In fiction and nonfiction, poetry and photography, several pieces explicitly engage with a James story or text1; others work more obliquely with a Jamesian motif.2 Taken as a whole, the collection raises the question of what constitutes James’s “shit.” That is, when contemporary writers “cover” James’s work, what do they target as their object for transformation or obliteration? What do these texts identify as the quintessential Jamesian element that calls for adaptation? Some answers are immediately discernible: Rebecca Brown engages James’s language; Kevin Frazier works with his plot; Patrick Dunagan titles his piece “The Theme of ‘Too Late.’” Mia Gallagher draws from character (an impressionable governess) and mood [End Page E-23] (apprehensive), while Gary Amdahl confronts James’s philosophy (his ideas about death). Yet there are less obvious echoes, too, that emerge on several pages, such as the subtle pulsation of opacity within the prose, or the depiction of a character whose psychology is not obscured but also not quite fathomable. Three pieces stood out for the precision with which they struck the latter note. McBride’s “After ‘The Private Life’” (7–9), Brown’s “The Great Good Place” (23–26), and Shum’s “Queen of Spades (Excerpt)” (69–88) have strikingly different styles, yet each was remarkably Jamesian in its gently baffling resistance to easily explicable characters.
At first glance, McBride’s “After ‘The Private Life’” reads more like a twentieth-century modernist text—Gertrude Stein comes to mind—than a Jamesian one: sentences are compressed, syntax is stretched, words are surprisingly placed. Here is an example of McBride’s language: “So wend they down through book and who. Here in the skitterns and smatters of others she hides from his seek in soap, giving only what dictaphones need: flapply learned words scabbed from half-delved reads for the setting out of stalls” (7). Despite the lack of stylistic resemblance to James’s work, McBride’s adaptation recalls the disorienting premise of the original. In “The Private Life,” an artist character disappears when alone; another, a writer, is split in two, one who works in solitude and one who socializes. McBride’s story seems, more realistically, to follow a writer eluding a nosy interviewer. Yet her character is, like James’s, fragmented due to the unconventional prose. Thus what James renders through plot, McBride produces in style. Given the resemblance of her prose to that of the moderns, her text suggests that James bequeathed such fragmentation of persons to the generation of writers that followed him.
Rebecca Brown’s “The Great Good Place” fragments its characters more subtly and engages James’s language more directly. In a headnote, Brown explains that she “slices James’s words (in italics) in their original order, though edited extremely . . . with mine (in regular typeface)” (23). Her story is written from the perspective of the story’s servant, also named Brown, and focuses on his longing for George Dane, who ignores him in favor of queer encounters in a “retreat place where Brothers are” (25). Brown’s “slicing” is clever as well as revealing. It is as if she has used a sieve to lift the sex out of James...