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The Beast in the Jungle

beast

Author: Henry James
First published: 1903, by Methuen (London) and Charles Scribner’s Sons (New York)

What is it?

In this masterpiece of suspense, Henry James, true to form, withholds the answer while driving us ever increasingly toward it. John Marcher is a bachelor, haunted by something he cannot name, consumed by the horrible idea that someday—something—will happen to him. He’s a man who’s unsettled—someone who has “never been settled for an hour in his life”—and it is equally unsettling to us as readers, that nothing whatsoever is happening in this story, and yet everything is happening all at once.

     “I thought of dreadful things, between which it was difficult to choose; and so must you have done.”
     “Rather! I feel now as if I had scarce done anything else. I appear to myself to have spent my life in thinking of nothing but dreadful things. A great many of them I’ve at different times named to you, but there were others I couldn’t name.”
     “They were too, too dreadful?”
     “Too, too dreadful—some of them.”

May Bartram is the sole confidant of John Marcher’s feeling—the only one on earth who shares in Marcher’s sense of doom. Or understands it rather, because she does not dread the thing itself, but “watches” for it with him as they patiently wait, through years, for the beast to emerge. They are not lovers or even friends, for Marcher is so consumed by his idea that he can have neither of these. But their relationship binds them together with an intensity that even death cannot diminish.

The frustration of James’s narrative and his refusal ever to “come out with it,” as it were, border on cruel. And yet, sentence after sentence, he seduces us into obsessing, like his protagonist, over something that is never visible or within reach. What we care about in this story is something that is at once individual and universal. What is the beast? A demon? Desire? Shame, failure, fear, death . . . a terrible secret? Knowledge? The brilliance of this extraordinary novella lies not just in the blurring of the lines between our beasts, but in forcing us, with John Marcher, to confront an inevitable and horrifying question:

Are we destined to slay the beast, or will we, in the end, be slain by it?

Atonement

meissen vase

Author: Ian McEwan
First published: 2001, by Jonathan Cape

I have talked a lot about beginnings, but this book is all about the ending. Well, its endings, rather, because Atonement has many of them.

I won’t spoil it for you, and don’t skip ahead to the end! If you do you’ll be committing a crime. The ending(s) exhibit their greatest power only once you’ve been through the whole thing with Briony, and Robbie, and Cecilia . . . lives ruptured by a lie, the devastating consequences that follow, the brutal descriptions of Dunkirk during the war. From the first, Briony Tallis is a storyteller. It’s tragic that she and so many others should have to pay such heavy prices for her stories.

Some people think this book too “clever.” I don’t. Every time I reach the end, and then read on, and reach the end again, I marvel at how McEwan can change the reader’s entire perception with a single sentence or twist of phrase. The effect is in and of itself devastating, to say the least.

The 2007 movie adaptation of Atonement captured all of the pain and tension that makes this novel what it is.

Wide Sargasso Sea

sargassum

Author: Jean Rhys
First published: 1966, by André Deutsch

“Such terrible things happen,” I said. “Why? Why?”

Jean Rhys (Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams) was born in 1890 in Dominica—an island in the British West Indies. Her father was a Welsh doctor, and her mother was Scottish Creole, which made Rhys British, but no quite. This aspect of Rhys’s beginnings has everything to do with the development of Wide Sargasso Sea—the novel Rhys published in 1966 after producing a number of novels and short stories, living a wildly bohemian life in Europe, and finally coming to live in obscurity in Devon, England. It is the novel that expresses every expatriate’s grappling with their own place in the world: “I often wonder who I am,” her main character writes, “and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.”

The novel is lush, and wonderful, and menacing—Rhys’s answer to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It is the “backstory” of Bertha Mason—Brontë’s “madwoman in the attic”—who in Rhys’s masterpiece reveals a story all her own. To my knowledge Wide Sargasso Sea is the first major contemporary example of “recuperative fiction”—that is, a novel that re-imagines or “recuperates” a minor character from another novel. The trend is so popular today that it seems impossible to count these kinds of stories. Wide Sargasso Sea was a ground-breaker in its day.

There is no redemption for anyone in this novel, however. The text is unforgiving, to the point of brutality. And yet the reader is submerged from start to finish in an ocean of words that crashes with life—towering ferns and moss-covered walls, mango trees and frangipani, octopus orchids that flourish “out of reach or for some reason not to be touched.” There is something immediately contemporary about Rhys’s stream-of-consciousness prose, even though this story is set, like Jane Eyre, in the middle of the nineteenth century. “I knew the time of day when though it is hot and blue and there are no clouds, the sky can have a very black look.”

Wide Sargasso Sea won the prestigious WH Smith Literary Award in 1967, but Rhys’s response to her literary acclaim was that it had “come too late.” Everything seems to have come too late for everyone in this book. Sanity, freedom, love—even death.