Saturday 2 May 2020

All the Conspirators

Despite many appearances to the contrary, James's novels are tightly plotted. Even the late masterpieces, The Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl, apparently so distanced and cerebral, harbour sensational conspiracies at their heart. But in the latter novel James, in the second half, turns the tables - on the conspirators, and on the reader - as Maggie becomes less victim than victor.

The growth of her feeling of suspicion is difficult to trace but it predates the moment of revelation, that 'first sharp falsity she had known in her life, to touch at all or be touched by; it had met her like some bad-faced stranger surprised in one of the thick-carpeted corridors of a house of quiet on a Sunday afternoon'.

'Stories with a twist' - and in the Brookner canon one thinks of the last-minute reveals in Providence, Undue Influence and others - involve legerdemain, also often a degree of bad faith between writer and reader: we who have been led to believe one thing must now accept a quite different interpretation. Perhaps the narrator - and use of the first person is common - has betrayed enough clues; perhaps the author, somehow from behind the scenes, has been able to telegraph alternative truths; but the mystery's solution cannot but feel a little of a cheat.

Or there is James's way, in The Golden Bowl. In the second section, 'The Princess', James all but starts another novel, this time from Maggie's point of view. Patiently, stealthily, she begins the process of her own survival: it is she who is the novel's true conspirator, and the quiet house is Maggie's creation, and a trap for her unwary, her almost innocent foes.

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