Book Reviews

The Reception of Henry James in Europe. Ed. Annick Duperray

The Reception of Henry James in Europe. Ed. Annick Duperray. London: Continuum, 2006. Pp. 379. ISBN: 978 08264 5880 3.

Belonging in a larger series of books investigating the reception of British and Irish authors in Continental Europe, this book aims to trace the European response to Henry James’s writings taking into account both the author’s cosmopolitan perspective and his Irish/American descent. This notably ambitious research project examines the way/s in which James’s writings (both fictional and non-fictional) have been translated, published, distributed, read, reviewed and discussed in the continent of Europe from the critical perspective of the reader-response theory and reception studies as they have developed during the last half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. The aim of this critical approach is to illuminate “the activity of the reader in bringing the text to life and stress the changing horizons of the reading public or community of which the reader is a part” (viii). The author’s work is then viewed and analyzed against the historical and socio-political circumstances prevalent at the time of its reception in each specific country aiming to account for potential shifts of readers’ interests as attributable to corresponding changes in social reality. The study also includes theatrical, operatic, film and TV versions and adaptations of James’s works and contributions to it have been made by twenty-four distinguished scholars in the field of literary and cultural studies.

Overall, the account of James’s European reception is divided into three major phases: a) the early phase which spans the years coeval to James’s authorial production, b) the interwar phase, i.e. the years between World War I and World War II and a little after and c) the 1960s to the present day, i.e. the years which have been characterized as the “heyday” of Jamesian criticism in Europe (11). This division is sustained by the changing political and social circumstances in both Eastern and Western Europe covering years of intense political turmoil and social upheaval.

Chapters 1 and 2 trace the reception of James’s work in France underscoring the striking discrepancy between the writer’s familiarity with the French culture and the scantiness of the critical reception of his works in France during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Partly due to the linguistic barrier posed by the English language but mainly because of the author’s stubborn resistance to translation, James’s writings were inaccessible to many influential literary figures of the fin-de-si?cle such as Gustav Flaubert or Emil Zola while Paul Bourget, a writer of a lesser rank, seems to be the only French author of the time to claim Jamesian influence. Likewise, James’s early reception in Italy, recounted in Chapters 3 and 4, was limited to the favorable reviews of Gustavo Staforello, an Italian translator and critic. According to Sergio Perosa, the Italian disinterest in James involved both the author’s subject-matter as well as the fact that “he was perceived not as an American but rather as an aristocratic snobbish and fastidious European writer” (50). With the rise of the fascist regime in Italy James’s reception often functioned as a two-sided coin with contradictory criticism between the subtle reviews and prefaces to James’s writings by his translators and the criticism of the politically biased intelligentsia of critics and academics of the time.

Under the influence of American politics, things evolved differently in Germany as presented in Chapter 6. Thus, the post World War II era is noticeable for a marked revival of the interest in James’s work which had been neglected until then. Twenty-five adaptations and translations appeared between 1946 and 1959 despite the fact that James was still considered as an elitist writer, an aestheticist associated with Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka.

Chapters 8 to 13 attempt to give an account of James’s reception in Eastern Europe as influenced by the cultural and political split between East and West. James’s aestheticism was considered to be politically incorrect and Theodore Dreiser’s comments of the author’s presumed narrow, class-oriented approach to life only reinforced the general negative tendency. In 1947, the pre-eminent Jamesian critic F.O. Matthiessen was the first Professor of American Literature to lecture in the University of Prague in Czechoslovakia, a fact which instantly promoted the publication of eight translations of James’s works. Chapters 14 and 15 account for James’s reception in Spain and Portugal. In the Iberian Peninsula, interest in James developed only in the 1940s in connection with the New Critics’ theory and practice. James’s reception in post-war Greece as described in Chapter 17 was limited to the translation and distribution of Washington Square as late as 1956. During the interwar period Scandinavian reception was also rather slow. In Chapter 18 it is argued that interest in the writings of James in Scandinavia was stimulated by the visit to Helsinki of K. B. Murdock, a Harvard Professor and Jamesian scholar.

After World War II, with the advent of formalism in the 1970s and 1980s a different understanding of James’s international theme paved the way to the ahistorical formalist approaches to his writings both in the U.S.A. and in Europe. From the 1960s onwards, as argued in the preceding chapters, the impact of structuralism, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis and deconstruction marked a revival in Jamesian studies and criticism. Tzvetan Todorov’s, 1969, structuralist essays on James’s writings included in his 1971 volume The Poetics of Prose, marked the last phase of Jamesian reception in Europe. Similarly Hél?ne Cixous’s groundbreaking, psychoanalytical reading of James’s narratives, Shoshana Felman’s post-structuralist interpretation of the Turn of the Screw and the new aesthetics introduced in the 1980s by Gilles Deleuzes, signaled the new approaches to James’s critical reception across Europe. A similar revival was evident in the countries of the post-communist Eastern Europe in which many scholars pursued dissertations in the field of James’s studies from a post-structuralist, deconstructive approach.

In Chapter 19, Jeremy Tambling’s essay on operatic adaptations of James’s works “discloses the transgressive malleability of the musical texts in their aesthetic connivance with the Jamesian ‘unacknowledged’” (13). Likewise, Marguerite Duras’s theatrical adaptations of James’s texts, as accounted for in Chapter 1, attest to the proximity between James’s sub-text or unspoken text and the words actually spoken by the actors on stage. Chapter 5 investigates James’s connection with visual arts and finally Chapter 20 discusses screen adaptations of James’s novels marking a significant change in the profile of the author for the general public.

In the field of Henry James’s studies the book provides us with a careful, indeed meticulous study of the different stages of Jamesian reception in Europe at the interplay of culture, authorial production, world politics and social reality. The contextualization of James’s work discloses both the intrinsic – and often misunderstood and misinterpreted—features of James’s fictional and non-fictional production and the extraneous, hyper-textual factors which influenced it. Possibilities for new valuations of James’s work and for more radical, subversive readings of his narratives are thus opened up. The critical approach of W. Iser’s reader-response theory not only provides a contextualized understanding of the reception of James’s work but also reveals new perspectives from which the author’s moral vision, along with his cultural dislocation/expatriation can be seen, perceived and /or interpreted. Needless to say, the conceptual space within which James moved and worked cannot be delimited to the descriptive accounts of his reception by the Europeans and this is hardly the aim of this study. Instead, this book is unique in its reflection and re-production of James’s socio-cultural milieu from the late Victorian Age to the present day shedding light on the different aspects of the author’s texts from the point of view of the reader who partakes in but also transcends the socio-cultural and political circumstances of James’s time. In this light, this volume becomes an important addition to both students and scholars interested in deciphering the international impact of James’s work.

Maria Pirgerou
University of Athens