How are imaginary readers doing with my imaginary readalongs? Great, I imagine. I’ve taken Goethe to Sicily in Italian Journey, where he is horrified by the Villa Palagonia, a baroque folly near Palermo. “[Y]ou will sympathize with anyone who has to run the gauntlet of this lunacy.”
As for Henry James, I thought I would cover a couple of his ghost stories now, gentle ones, though, not scary, completely inappropriate for Halloween, “The Private Life” (1892) and “The Real Right Thing” (1899). Both are examples of James using ghosts to literalize a metaphor. Both are about – what else – writers.
The earlier one may be the least ghostly ghost story ever. The conceit is that people can be different in private and in public, which is true. One character has no private self. When not with people, he vanishes. Another, a successful writer, is so different that he simultaneously exists in private and in public. While his public self is socializing, his private self is back in his room, writing. “[B]ut why was he writing in the dark?” Because the private one is the supernatural creature, I guess.
The emphasis on the mechanics of the supernatural activity, once it is discovered by the Jamesish narrator and another character, an actress, is what makes the story a real ghost story. They take the business seriously enough to learn how it works and then cynically exploit it.
“I wish you’d let an observer write you a play!” I broke out.
“People don’t care for what you write: you’d break my run of luck.”
And this is before James had his smashup writing for the theater. There’s quite a bit of good self-deprecating writer comedy in “The Private Life.”
“The Real Right Thing” is of an entirely different hue, black to be specific. This is the deceased author’s wife:
her large array of mourning – with her big black eyes, her big black wig, her big black fan and gloves, her general gaunt, ugly, tragic, but striking and, as might have been thought from a certain point of view, “elegant” presence.
Middle James is transforming into Late James here, isn’t he? Mrs. Doyne wants the young writer Withermore (!) to write a biography of her husband:
It alarmed Withermore a little from the first to see that she would wish to go in for quantity. She talked of “volumes” – but he had his notion of that.
Some writer humor here, too, although this story’s tone is generally sad. Because Doyne is so recently deceased, all of his papers are in his study, so that is where the biographer works. He feels at times that he is in the presence of the dead writer, is even assisted by him. This “fancy” is so strong that he finds himself “waiting for the evening very much as one of a pair of lovers might wait for the hour of their appointment.” On the one hand, the biographer is so immersed in his task that he feels he is in the presence of his subject, on the other, he is having an affair with his subject’s ghost.
Unlike in “The Aspern Papers,” where the biographer becomes an outright villain, it is never clear in this story what “The Real Right Thing” might be. Should the biography be written or not? Is there really a ghost, or is the biographer’s experience all psychological? If there is a ghost, it is a gentle, undemonstrative one, who just wants to be left alone. This is a ghost story where the only fear (“’he makes us dim signs out of his horror’”) is experienced by the ghost.