Tuesday, February 23, 2016

What Maisie Knew in layers and riddles - deficient in something that would meet the general desire

After the opening rush of the opening chapters of What Maisie Knew, the novel settles into something more conventional yet also unusual.  We have the little girl’s divorced parents, for whom Maisie is just a weapon used to harm each other.  Each parent quickly remarries, so there are two step-parents who like Maisie so use her not as a weapon but a tool in a separate little drama.

Then there is the great Mrs. Wix, Maisie’s nurse, with her “sad and strange appearance…  a kind of greasy greyness,” hair of “a turbid, sallow, unvenerable white” and an attire that “reminded her pupil of the polished shell or corslet of a horrid beetle” (all from Ch. 4).  Maisie has a little bit of a cruel streak, although not anything incommensurate with her age.  Mrs. Wix loves Maisie, but is not above making use of her when necessary, too.

So the structure of the novel has the parents and their, hmm, active, romantic lives off at a distance, and a triangle of the two attractive, friendly step-parents and the unvenerable widowed nurse in the middle, politely working to further or prevent schemes that would by themselves make a dull novel.

Then in the foreground, constantly, with a great conceptual purity, there are Maisie and James.  Everything in the story of the adults is seen through the thick screen of Maisie’s perception and James’s prose.  Maisie knows a lot, as the title suggests, but she knows as a child knows, while the narrator writes in a prose that obfuscates as a matter of artistic principle.

And then there is me, trying to solve the riddle of the plot using Maisie’s clues.  Early on, for example, she is happy that her step-parents seem so friendly with each other, while a corrupt, cynical – I mean adult – reader is likely to ask “Hey, wait, exactly how friendly are they?”

As Emma writes in the comments to her post at Book Around The Corner about What Maisie Knew, “There’s a distance between the text and the violence of the words and the compassion the reader (and the author) feel for Maisie.”

So another layer for me.  While I cynically read the novel over Maisie’s head, I simultaneously read her pitiful novel head on.

These multiple layers completely solve the sex problem.  Maisie is too young and innocent to ever understand certain primary motives of the adults.  There is a hilarious scene near the end where the proper nurse tries to impart a “moral sense” in Maisie about her step-parents, who may be you-know-what, but is completely incapable of giving Maisie the slightest hint about what might be immoral about her step-parents living together while both are still married to Maisie’s original parents.  So Maisie of course has no idea what Mrs. Wix means.  They both want to live with her, which could hardly be immoral, right?

Thus the cryptic James style actually matches the way the novel almost has to be read.  James includes actual riddles in the story.  Maisie’s father’s vicious friends pinch her legs, which are like “toothpicks”; Maisie feels that “she was deficient in something that would meet the general desire” (she is probably six years old here), and realizes that she lacked “a congenital tendency to the production of a substance to which Moddle, her nurse, gave a short ugly name, a name painfully associated at dinner with the part of the joint that she didn't like” (Ch. 1).  What a distance to go for the word “fat.”  Which, I remind myself, is what Maisie lacks.  The entire passage is an inside-out riddle, one that James does not solve for me.  This is by no means the only such passage.

James makes me solve riddles while simultaneously reading on two stories, one told through a highly distorted perspective.  Maybe this is as impressive than doing without scenes.


  1. It is such a strange, interesting, gripping, frustrating book. A riddle indeed. I had to give up a little over halfway through and wait several months before I was ready to resume and finish it. One of its great strengths is its insight into the cruelty and callousness of which adults are capable in their dealings with children; one of its great weaknesses is that Maisie seems like no child who ever lived. She says and thinks the oddest, most unchildlike things, while at the same time coming across as almost a cipher. It's a grand idea to present these complex adult machinations through Maisie's perception but the problem is that James seems to have had only the vaguest familiarity with children as flesh-and-blood creatures.

    The other problem is the dialogue, which is reminiscent of some dreadful, would-be-sophisticated melodrama with pretensions. I have never read his plays, but I think I can get a sense of why they failed with the public.

  2. Well said. Maisie is at times less a character than a narrative strategy.

    I have secretly vowed not to complain about the dialogue - not to repeat my usual complaints about the dialogue. This is why I was so excited by the novel's opening - maybe James is going to avoid his stagy dialogue! And he did, for six short chapters.

  3. Thanks for the mention.
    This novel stayed with me for its violence said in velvety prose.
    I've never seen a novel of that time about a child in a divorce. Do you know another one?

  4. No, I do not know another. Writers had gotten more interested in the issue of divorce in the previous decade or two, but I don't know a novel from that time concerned with the perspective or welfare of the child.

  5. maybe James is going to avoid his stagy dialogue! And he did, for six short chapters.

    "You want it like this? I can do it like this. Now I've shown I can do it there's no need to bother." - I think that might be the way James thought. It isn't stagey dialogue really - as James found out, you can't say things like that on stage - but a convention, but, then, all dialogue in novels and plays is a convention. Realistic dialogue is a convention too, but it's a convention we accept more easily now.
    I wonder whether there are actually two time schemes in the book: Maisie's and perhaps her immediate carers and the grown-ups. Has anyone actually compared references and suggestions about her age and the apparent passage of time in the adults' lives?

  6. I love the idea of duel timelines. They don't have to be conscious, either (although I put nothing past James).

    You remind me that some of the James dialogue that I think of as stage-like is actually like a much later stage - movies of the 1920s and 1930s, really - so it is dialogue written by screenwriters who picked up their conventions from reading models like Henry James.