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The Beast in the Jungle and Other Stories (Anglais) Broché – juillet 1993
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May decides to take a flat nearby in London, and to spend her days with Marcher curiously awaiting what fate has in stall for John. Of course Marcher is a self-centered egoist, believing that he is precluded from marrying so that he does not subject his wife to his "spectacular fate". So he takes May to the theatre and invites her to an occasional dinner, while not allowing her to really get close to him for her own sake. As he sits idly by and allows the best years of his life to pass, he takes May down as well, until the denouement wherein he learns that the great misfortune of his life was to throw it away, and to ignore the love of a good woman, based upon his preposterous sense of foreboding.
James' language can be a bit stilted at times, and some of the dialogue may strike modern readers as out-dated. However James was a master of the novella format, and with The Beast in the Jungle he has written an engrossing psychological drama, which left me speechless at the very end. Pick up a collection that also includes The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller if you haven't already read them, they are accessible (more so than some of James' full length novels) and great examples of the format's potential.
All three stories are about an unhealthy obsession, an unwholesome idée fixe, which leads a man to stray from a sensible and virtuous to an evil or foolish path. The stories tell us much about the human capacity for folly, delusion, error and sin and, though they are written to amuse, they are also meant to chill, even horrify, and instruct. These stories are rather old-fashioned, and will feel very dated to a fan of contemporary fiction, but their very old-fashionedness gives them a great charm, I believe. Many writers of James’ era dabbled in occult stories, and not infrequently. Edgar Allen Poe was the master and first practitioner of the genre, but several other authors of classical literature tried their hands at this, including Wilkie Collins (whose Woman in White is a masterpiece of that time period and genre), Edith Wharton and even, rarely and experimentally, W. Somerset Maugham.
A word bout James’ style. It is famously ornate and rather convoluted. At times it seems a bit, well, auto-intoxicated and modern readers will find him rather heavy going. I had an amusing thought while reading this: wouldn’t have been great if a young Earnest Hemingway had been assigned to James as his copy editor? “Too many damned adjectives, James! Sentences much too long. Way too much punctuation. Plus, nobody gets killed ever. We need fewer adjectives, dammit, and more death!” Or, if I were a high school English teacher, it would be a good writing assignment to have my class produce a parallel text of a James short story, as you can buy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with the original version on the lefthand page and the modern language “translation” on the righthand page.
But James is what he is, the lofty an irreproachable master of style. His prose is a beautiful thicket and he demands that you slow down your ingestion of words and images and plots, and let him take control of the story-telling and do it his way. It is a surrender that is well worth it, and the reader is amply repaid in fictional dividends. Read these short stories and see if you have any obsessions in your own life, any monsters in your own attic.
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