Here’s a common literary conundrum: who much should you assume your readers know going into your novel? Explain too much, you risk condescending; explain too little, you risk being esoteric and possibly confusing. With small aspects of a book, it’s all about deciding what’s necessary information. If a certain piece of information is absolutely vital, then err on the side of explicitness. If not — if, say, the information is merely for thematic or subtextual reasons — then depending on a reader’s knowledge (or their inquisitiveness to go and look it up) is probably best.
But what if your entire book is based on another one? What if a certain piece of information (in the cases of these books, a writer or a specific novel) is foundational to your text? How, then, should you proceed? Should you explain the referenced work so that those unfamiliar with it can enjoy your book? Or should you simply accept that some readers will fall behind and end up befuddled? It’s a tricky enterprise, and since there are as many ways to pay homage to earlier literature as there are ways to create new literature, I thought it would be useful to see how some contemporary writers approach this finicky issue.
Let’s get right into some examples. The most straightforward way to pay homage to another writer is to simply write them into the narrative. Joyce Carol Oates’s story collection Wild Nights! uses the voices of famous authors on their final days. In “Poe Posthumous; or, The Light-House,” Poe keeps a diary tracking his new post as “Keeper of the Light” for a lighthouse in Viña de Mar. His first entry is dated October 7, 1849, which was the date of Poe’s death (hence the title). Oates has a lot of fun playing with both Poe’s style and his Gothic genre. On his second day, Poe wakes from “fitful” sleep that seems to “cast off totally the morbid hallucination, or delusion that, on a rain-lashed street in a city not familiar to me, I slipped, fell, cracked my head upon sharp paving stones, and died.” Oates captures the language of Poe, as well as his ceaseless morbidity. Would readers unfamiliar with Poe’s biography recognize this description of Poe’s actual death in Baltimore? Or will they miss the hint? Will it matter if a reader does not know that “The Light-House” was the last piece of fiction the real Poe was writing before his death? And that Oates here even quotes from it? Does any of this really matter? Oates, consummate (and unbelievably prolific) storyteller that she is, makes the narrative compelling even for the uninitiated, but it’s interesting to consider how knowing certain things will change the experience of reading the story. Those who know something about Poe will instantly spot the date of his death and know that this is the tale of some sort of afterlife, while those who don’t know Poe will figure it out as the story unfolds. Which is the better experience? Who is reading the story in the right way?
Of course, there are plenty of historical novels that feature authors as characters, but those aren’t the kind I’m interested in here. I’m more interested in those works that aim to riff or play with past fiction, the kinds that are unafraid to run with the ideas of other writers, too, not merely their biographies.
Michael Cunningham wrote two books that take as their inspiration other writers’ works. His Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours examines Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway via three women engaged with Woolf’s novel in different ways: composing it, reading it, living it. But it’s Cunningham’s lesser-known Specimen Days that I’m interested in here, because it explores its foundational text in such unusual ways. Though its title is taken specifically from Walt Whitman’s book of autobiographical essays and sketches, Cunningham’s novel could be said to take Whitman himself as its foundational text––Specimen Days celebrates Whitman’s spirit as much as any individual work, though obviously Leaves of Grass is the primary model. The novel is really three thematically linked novellas, each focusing on a man, a woman, and a young man. Whitman’s presence pervades the stories, yet he remains elusive. In the first section, “In the Machine,” Lucas, the boy, refers to the great poet as “Walt,” like a close friend. Set in the late 19th century, “In the Machine” recounts a fire at the Mannahatta Company (named, of course, after a poem of Whitman’s), a factory near Washington Square. As the blaze ravages the building and innocent workers leap from windows to escape the flame, Lucas thinks he sees something: “Was that Walt, far off, among the others, Walt with his expression of astonished hunger for everything that could occur?”
“The Children’s Crusade,” the second piece, features a detective in 21st-century New York investigating a series of terrorist bombs instigated by an old woman who quotes Whitman. “What are you saying, exactly?” the detective asks the woman, who replies, “Urge and urge and urge, always the procreant urge of the world.” To which the detective says: “You know your Whitman.” Her minion of boys, who call her Walt, since she believes so much in the beauty of the world as Whitman wrote it:
To someone a hundred years ago, as recently as that, this world would seem like heaven itself. We can fly. Our teeth don’t rot. Our children aren’t a little feverish one moment and dead the next. There’s no dung in the milk. There’s milk, as much as we want. The church can’t roast us alive over minor differences of opinion. The elders can’t stone us to death because we might have committed adultery. Our crops never fail. We can eat raw fish in the middle of the desert, if we want to. And look at us. We’re so obese we need bigger cemetery plots. Our ten-year-olds are doing heroin, or they’re murdering eight-year-olds, or both. We’re getting divorced faster than we’re getting married. Everything we eat has to be sealed because if it wasn’t, somebody would put poison in it, and if they couldn’t get poison, they’d put pins in it. A tenth of us are in jail, and we can’t build new ones fast enough. We’re bombing other countries simply because they make us nervous, and most of us not only couldn’t find those countries on a map, we couldn’t tell you which continent they’re on. Traces of the fire retardant we put in upholstery and carpeting are starting to turn up in women’s breast milk. So tell me. Would you say this is working out? Does this seem to you like a story that wants to continue?
A far cry from the America Whitman described, isn’t it? (Though the world of the first story, Whitman’s world, serves to considerably undermine this nostalgic, revisionist view.) That Whitman would be used as motivation for terrorism seems plausible here. Cunningham engages with Whitman’s texts (and Whitman-as-text) in as many ways as he can: what did Whitman’s poetry mean to those who were alive when he wrote it, who could witness the same New York depicted in the pages of Leaves of Grass? What does Whitman’s America say about our America now? What does all that suggest about the future (which is dealt with in the final story, “Like Beauty,” set in New York 150 years from now)?
I read Specimen Days concurrently with Leaves of Grass, which at the time I was reading for a class. It was a wonderful pairing: I grappled with Whitman’s absorbing poetry at the same time I got to read a novelist do the same thing. Cunningham doesn’t expect you to have read Whitman, as he provides quotes and even some analysis along the way, but I would wager that my experience was greatly enhanced by my immediate knowledge of Whitman’s writing. For no matter how much shorthand Cunningham provides, Whitman defies summary. Leaves of Grass enfolds you with its endless lists and keen observations and joyous optimism. One can read Specimen Days and “get” Whitman’s place in it without having read a word of his poetry, but to feel it, to attach more philosophical and emotional resonance to the book’s themes, to understand its “multitudes,” you need Whitman himself.
Memories of those books ran through my mind as I read Maya Lang’s debut novel The Sixteenth of June, which has the rare claim of being a book based on a book that’s based on another book. The title date is, of course, Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses is set. It is also the date fans of Joyce’s modernist epic come together for an annual celebration. The Sixteenth of June features such a party, but not just any Bloomsday, but the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday. The party is thrown by the Portmans, a wealthy couple in Philadelphia. Their two sons, Stephen and Leopold, are name after Ulysses’s protagonists, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. Leo, the younger son, is engaged to a woman name Nora, like Joyce’s wife. Long’s novel has the same number of chapters as Ulysses and employs many of the same techniques. It is, in other words, wholly dependent on Joyce’s novel.
Ulysses, famously, is based on Homer’s The Odyssey. The idea was to take one of literature’s greatest epics and pare it down to a single day of a human life. The grand in the ordinary. But Joyce goes so much further: he meticulously crafted Ulysses to mirror Homer’s tale of Odysseus and his journey home. He famously said of the book, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” An egotistical claim, to be sure, but one that has yet to be disproved––here I am today, still writing about this goddamn book. In a letter to his Aunt Josephine, Joyce suggested that she read The Odyssey first. “Then buy at once,” he continues, “the Adventures of Ulysses (which is Homer’s story told in simple English and much abbreviated) by Charles Lamb…Then have a try at Ulysses again.” Joyce, then, expected his readers to not only enter his book having already read The Odyssey, but he also wanted them to pore over the text to decipher its innumerable mysteries.
Maya Lang, in The Sixteenth of June, expects no such thing. Her novel is a lovely, light-on-its-feet production, a flowing narrative of young people trying to find their way. Twenty-somethings Leo and Nora have reached an impasse in their relationship: engaged with no wedding date, in love but static, together but growing apart. Leo’s brother Stephen, also Nora’s best friend, plods along at grad school, seven years into his dissertation. Their day begins with the funeral of their grandmother, a woman the family had mostly forgotten about, relegated as she was to a nursing home (“And nursing home is a misnomer,” their father says, “It’s a social living community for seniors”). But before she died, Stephen had begun to pay visits to her, unbeknownst to the rest of the Portman clan. When Stephen’s secret is exposed, questions abound about his intentions. Michael and June Portman, the parents, decide to hold their Bloomsday centennial despite the funeral happening on the same day, a decision that irks Stephen considerably.
One needn’t have read James Joyce to understand this kind of family dynamic. In fact, for the first 50 pages or so I wondered if maybe intimate knowledge of Ulysses might hinder my enjoyment of Lang’s book. I couldn’t help but trace Joyce’s influence on every page, even occasionally spotting some passages lifted directly from Ulysses, as in the introduction of Stephen: “Stephen fills the white bowl with hot water. He cups the bowl in his hands and carries it to his desk, where a mirror and razor lay crossed.” This echoes the famous opening of Ulysses, which goes: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed.” A bit later, Leo recalls his time in London, where “[there] was no freak-out about cholesterol, fat. They ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls,” which Leopold Bloom also did in the beginning of his day. Other references aren’t direct quotes: as Stephen contemplates his life, he considers:
How much easier to just go along and agree. To watch the trajectory of the ball long ago set in motion and see where it will land, as though you are not the product of its outcome. To watch as though you have no hand in your own life. As though the only words we have available to us were written long ago in a blue book. As though we cannot make our own stories, decide our own fates.
Ulysses, when it was first published by Shakespeare and Company in 1922, featured a blue cover with white lettering, so people eventually referred to it surreptitiously as “the blue book.” Lang is having a bit of funny in this pensive moment: Stephen, as a character, can’t make his own story; he’s stuck in someone else’s.
Strange that my knowledge of Ulysses actually distracted me from a story predicated on it. Typically, I would imagine the opposite being the case. But luckily Lang’s wonderfully engaging prose and her believable characters overtook me, and soon I forgot to look for allusions and just enjoyed the novel.
One of the most enjoyable things here is the way in which Lang traces her characters’ thoughts. Leo, Stephen and Nora alternate the point of view, and Lang settles herself comfortably in their skin, a fitting technique for a predecessor of Joyce, who mastered free indirect discourse better than maybe any other modernist except for Virginia Woolf. But the spark that makes Lang’s methodology unique in its own right is the way her characters think about the things they might have said to someone. Repeatedly, Leo and company imagine conversations that did not happened, almost as much as we’re given conversations that actually did happen. This is not unlike the “double stream of consciousness” that Morris Ernst emphasized when he defended Ulysses in court in 1933, (“Your honor,” Ernst said in court, “while arguing this case I thought I was intent only on the book, but frankly, while pleading before you, I’ve also been thinking about that ring around your tie, how your gown does not fit too well on your shoulders and the picture of John Marshall behind your bench.”) except here it is as if Lang’s characters, like all of us, are trying to live out a hypothetical other life for themselves, to experiment privately with a life that could have lead but ultimately did not. And sometimes these unspoken words contain within them the thing most necessary to say: Leo wishes he could ask Nora “what it feels like when she pulls” her hair, a condition known as trichotillomania that has afflicted Nora since her mother’s death; Nora wishes to confront Leo’s mother June for her haughty and cruel condescension; and Stephen dwells on the things he would have said to Nora about her relationship with Leo, which Stephen thinks has hindered her development as a person and artist.
This kind of thinking takes up much of our lives. We regret the things we said as well as the things we didn’t say, and moreover, we think about those things all the time, a constant process of rewinding and rewatching and dreaming of rewriting. But, as Joyce points out, “It’s always flowing in a stream, never the same, which in the stream of life we trace. Because life is a stream.” We can only move forward, but that doesn’t mean our minds are not stuck in the past.
Most of the characters in The Sixteen of June either don’t like Ulysses or haven’t read it (or, often, they attempted it and stopped). Stephen is even skeptical that his parents, the ones throwing the party, don’t even really like Ulysses: “I sometimes think,” he says, “they’re more interested in what Ulysses says about them than what it actually says. Our truest relationship with books is private. I love Gatsby. I love Mrs. Dalloway. But I would never throw a party for them. A party ends up celebrating not the book but its title.” Nora never got through and it seems that Leo never even tried. This accurately reflects contemporary attitudes of young people toward Ulysses. To them, it is not “the great repository of everything,” as one character puts it, but a pretentious, irritatingly confounding book, with few rewards and annoying champions (“His work is Everest,” the same character says, “No one climbs Everest and says nothing of it!”). Yet here they are, these young people, caught in a story, a world inescapably shaped by Joyce, for no matter what you think of his most notorious novel, it has influenced you, it has defined and refined your ideas of literature, art, obscenity, human thought––even if you disagree, even if you are indifferent.
Homage is a way of acknowledging our forbearers, to celebrate where we came from by updating the past, calling back to it, poking fun at it, challenging it, embracing it, adoring it. Oates goes at it directly, Cunningham a little more abstractly, and Lang indirectly and directly. There is no right way to pay homage any more than there is a right way to love something. And asking yourself how much information you should expect your readers to know is ultimately fruitless. They’ll come into your book with so much more baggage than a knowledge of or respect for a given writer or novel. They bring their pasts into it, too, with all its force and unaware influence. What they know doesn’t matter, because the division between a reader who isn’t familiar vs. a reader who is amounts to a false dichotomy. There is actually an infinite number of ways to experience a story, and no writer can predict them all. Oates and Cunningham couldn’t foresee how much their readers know, just as they couldn’t foresee anything about them. Lang doesn’t know if you’ve read Ulysses; probably she doesn’t care. She wants you to feel her characters think and live (and think about living); the Ulysses stuff reinforces many of the themes, functions as a big blueprint, and serves as the occasion of the novel’s central set piece, but its nuances are not crucial the work as a whole. So if you’re paying homage to someone, to something, to anything, just write it the way you love it––passion is more important than knowledge, anyway.
During a recent semester spent studying abroad in the UK, I had the opportunity to take an undergraduate course on Henry James. I seized the chance, having never taken a class devoted to a single author before. Previously, Henry James had existed in my mind as a hazy legend in Anglo-American letters who wrote hefty novels and dense stories in an ominously opaque prose. The only thing I had ever read of his was “The Middle Years”, a short story about an aging writer resting in Bournemouth, who befriends a doctor who also happens to be a fervent admirer of his work. It sounds awfully boring but I was impressed by the story, which reveals a great deal about reader-writer relations, although of course I found the writing itself a little impenetrable at times (the number of commas in the first sentence alone would send a good number of readers packing). It’s easy to lose your way in a James story if you’re not careful. Your eyes keep scanning the words, but your thoughts tend to wander off. Often what’s literally happening is buried beneath endless looping sentences, words that lap like waves, eddies of thoughts and counter-thoughts. It all sounds beautiful, but the reader is left wondering: what does it actually mean?
It’s obvious that Henry James is ill suited for a text-heavy undergraduate course, which requires extensive reading in a very short time. It’s not so bad when you’re studying earlier James, which tends to be more straightforward (although with the novels the length can sometimes get to you) — but things get an awful lot worse with later James. The prose becomes denser, the metaphors extend into page-long emotional parables, the grammar is impossibly convoluted, and numerous adverbs cling to and clutter the sentences.
James’ prose is notorious for becoming more elusive and complex and he grew older (it may be in part due to the fact that he started dictating to a typist in 1897, just before the advent of his “late phase”). In a letter to the Duchess of Sutherland, dated 1903, James gave his correspondent a few tips on how to read one of his novels:
Take, meanwhile, pray The Ambassadors very easily & gently: read five pages a day — be even as deliberate as that — but don’t break the thread. The thread is really stretched quite scientifically tight. Keep along with it step by step — & the full charm will come out.
It may have been that the Duchess was a particularly obtuse reader, but I do think it’s true that James is much better appreciated with lots of time to take him in slowly, a few pages at a time, to let his magic quietly come through. But James’ own recommendations, of course, are impossible to follow when you have to rifle through a whole novel in a few days for a seminar.
The reading list for the class in question included:
A selection of tales: “Daisy Miller”, “The Aspern Papers”, “The Pupil”, “The Real Thing”, “The Figure in the Carpet”, and “The Lesson of the Master”
What Maisie Knew
The Portrait of a Lady
The Princess Casamassima
The Golden Bowl
The Wings of the Dove
I ended up quite liking most of the tales, especially “The Lesson of the Master”, about the relationship between a young, promising writer and an older one whose art is in decline. It has a certain ironic bite, which I found enjoyable — the “lesson” in question being that novelists shouldn’t marry, in order to concentrate on their art (James remained a bachelor all his life). It is apparent that there are quite a few gems in the tales of Henry James, which are often in the vein of the French nouvelles (Maupassant often comes to mind). Although writing many of these short stories was bread-and-butter work for James, they offer much insight into art and human expression.
Among the novels, I never finished The Wings of the Dove, What Maisie Knew, or The Princess Casamassima, one of James’ forays into more traditional social realism (with The Bostonians), which I found read like a bad imitation of Dickens. The Portrait of a Lady was by far the most readable and engaging of his novels, and Isabel Archer remains one of his most sympathetic characters — despite the famously unsatisfactory ending. The two later novels I read, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl — especially the latter, where so little happens for so long — initially put me off. They are demanding books, but in the end they proved more interesting to think and write about. The Ambassadors, for instance, through some intricate literary trick, manages to charm the reader into embracing the middle-aged protagonist’s point of view. Strether’s fascination for Paris, for Chad (whom he comes to Paris to save) and for Madame de Vionnet (with whom Chad is having an affair) becomes the fascination of the reader, while James masterfully pulls the strings behind the scenes. It’s a rewarding, beautiful reading experience; and there really is a kind of taut, charming thread running through it.
A certain reputation precedes Henry James, I think — and it’s not a very good one. Another preconception I had about him was that he was rather passé, in both style and content. He already seemed outdated in his own time (at the turn of the century, who else was writing novels about adultery among the rich and beautiful in such wordy prose?), so how could he possibly be relevant today?
I was wrong, of course. Although James was never read by the masses, he still generates a fair deal of critical attention and admiration. Many authors today use James’ life and work to inspire their own fiction: Colm Tóibín’s Booker short-listed The Master is a fictionalized account of a part of James’ life (more on that later), while David Lodge’s Author, Author (published six months after Tóibín’s novel) does something similar. Joyce Carol Oates’ recent collection of stories Wild Nights! includes a moving story about James visiting a wounded soldier in a London hospital during World War I, and Cynthia Ozick’s 2010 novel Foreign Bodies is a retelling of The Ambassadors. In the last decade, Penguin Classics has reedited most of James’ novels and stories in a new series under the general editorship of one of the most prominent Jamesian critics, Philip Horne. NYRB Classics has also included many of James’ little known titles in their series, while Cambridge University Press is planning a new, multi-volume critical edition of James’ works, to be published by 2016 for the centenary of his death.
It is clear that James is not passé, and never was. He is, in fact, perhaps more relevant than ever; but his works lie in a strange place outside of time, and they were written that way. James was and remains a demanding author because he found something intensely true about the complexity of human nature and felt compelled to communicate this truth in the stories that took hold of his imagination. He was a careful writer, true to his art and craft, and a meticulous revisionist. His works are deep, long, airless dives into the complexities and multiplicities of the self. It’s not an easy subject to write about. His stories, lacking in plot, are simple accounts: mere turning points in the lives of characters or revelations of social organizations. Yet in their self-consciousness and ambiguities, and even in the circumlocutions of James’ language — which in truth is closer to the fragmented consciousness of modernism than to Victorian verbosity — they reveal something irresistibly true about life.
It’s easy, of course, to call binge reading Henry James a joy when the term is over and the essay is handed in and corrected. For most of the duration of the course, I would’ve probably called the process “Henry James and the Woes of Binge Reading”. Often times it felt like I was out of breath as I jumped from one work to the next, trying to catch up on my reading just before class, and then having to move on to the next book down the list without having finished the previous one.
But, as anyone who has taken a class like this (or anyone who has ever binge read from a single author in a short period of time) will know, this type of reading can also be highly rewarding. One passes from one book to the next almost seamlessly, without having to adapt to a new style, witnessing (if the works are read more or less chronologically) the progression of the writer’s art over time, the evolution of his concerns, and the development of his authorial voice.
James’ themes become richer and more multi-faceted when looked at across his entire oeuvre: things like the so-called international theme, problematic endings, his obsession with art and reality (or realism v. romance), and the self-consciousness of his fiction. For instance, I noticed that in nearly all of his novels, whenever fate intervenes in a way that seems exaggerated, a character usually declares something along the lines of: “I feel like we’re in a novel!”
The binge reader also starts to notice stock characters as they crop up from story to story. One of the most common, in James, is the young, empowered American heiress: for example the eponymous heroine of “Daisy Miller”, James’ first successful story; Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, who struggles between her freedom and her duty; and Maggie Verver (aka The Princess) in The Golden Bowl, who starts off as a meek wife and manages to get rid of her husband’s lover (also married to her father) by the end of the novel through the most skillful, subtle social maneuvering.
Theater is another recurring (although not always explicit) theme in Jamesian fiction. James uses a great deal of theatrical metaphor throughout his stories to describe the shifting nature of his characters and the multiplicity of their personalities, which they project out into the world like carefully constructed roles. Thus the adulterous women in his novels — another stock character — like Madame de Vionnet in The Ambassadors or Madame Merle in The Portrait of a Lady, are often described as actresses. They put on masks, makeup, and costumes and bury their identities beneath layers of constructed characteristics to manipulate their audiences.
Perhaps the great number of theatrical metaphors relates to James’ involvement with the theatre, which more or less ended with the failure of his play Guy Domville in 1895 (again, shortly before his “late phase” began). It was a deeply traumatic experience for James (both Tóibín and Lodge make it a central element in their novels). He described the humiliating premier in a letter to Henrietta Rendell as “the most horrible hours of my life.” Thus James was forced to return to the less lucrative — albeit probably more comfortable — business of writing for print only (“thank heaven there is another art”), but it is clear that his failure in the theater left its mark.
It seems I didn’t want to get away from Henry James after the course was over because I continued to peruse his Life in Letters, brilliantly edited by Philip Horne, which has some really beautiful bits of writing in it. I also read The Master by Colm Tóibín, and I would like to end with a few words on this book. It walks the fine line between biography and novel, a tricky genre that Tóibín pulls off majestically. It proves an insightful way of writing and thinking about James, whose life and work are a complicated balance of fiction and reality.
Tóibín’s novel is a gripping, major work of literature, which I binge read with relish not because I had to, but because it offers a fascinating exploration of James as a character whose consciousness is revealed to be as complex and deeply moving as those of the characters he, in turn, created. Tóibín’s novel offers a prism through which many of James’ works are refracted, illuminating them with new meaning and a more directly human resonance. He also treats James’ probable homosexuality with subtlety and respect — no easy feat. The Master is a good read intrinsically, as well; intelligent, endearing, moving, and even funny at times (in a quiet, quaint, all too Jamesian way).
If you read nothing by Henry James or nothing else related to him, I urge you, at least, to read The Master. It seems almost disrespectful to the “master” in question to say so, but I am confident that if you do read Tóibín’s novel, you’ll be tempted to pick up one of James’ books afterward. I’m quite certain you won’t be disappointed by either.