‘The Figure in the Carpet’ by Henry James

“It’s the finest, fullest intention of the lot, and the application of it has been, I think, a triumph of patience, of ingenuity. I ought to leave that to somebody else to say; but that nobody does say it is precisely what we’re talking about. It stretches, this little trick of mine, from book to book, and everything else, comparatively, plays over the surface of it. The order, the form, the texture of my books will perhaps some day constitute for the initiated a complete representation of it.”

In The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner depicts a scene in which Ezra Pound meets Henry James. Of Pound, Kenner writes: “He liked James, he wondered at James, as at a narwhal disporting.” I too like James and wonder at him—narwhals disporting and all that—and, in a way, that’s what ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ is about. Like other sublime stories about obsessive literary critics, including ‘The Portrait of Mr. W. H.’ by Oscar Wilde and ‘Shakespeare’s Memory’ by Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ interrogates how artists entrance us with their woven tapestries, how we long to understand their genius in the hopes of better understanding ourselves, but also how in our obsessive attempts at interpretation we often miss the forest for the trees. Or might it be missing the vast ocean for the disporting narwhals? 

First published in the January/February 1896 issue of Cosmopolis, collected in some James story collections, printed individually as a novella, including as a Penguin Little Black Classic, and available online at Project Gutenberg

‘The Beast in the Jungle’ by Henry James

I was told of this short story (which I think is actually a novella) by Amanda Holmes Duffy, a writer and friend who now lives in Washington and works for the Politics and Prose Bookshop there. We became friends twenty years ago when we both lived in Brussels. She always recommends wonderful books. When she told me about this story, I was fascinated, and my interest only increased once I had read it. In this story, I think James manages to dramatize a problem which afflicts us all. Always there is that great, threatening, lurking fear. But what if our fear is only the fear of fear itself? 

First published in the collection The Better Sort, Methuen & Co., 1903. Currently available in the Everyman Collected Stories Vol 2, 2000. Published as a Penguin Mini Modern Classic in 2011

‘The Private Life’ by Henry James

NO ONE DOES A SPECTRAL PRESENCE LIKE HENRY JAMES! There are such a posse of good ones to choose from, but this story fascinates me. A group of creative friends are holidaying in Switzerland together: “We talked of London, face to face with a great bristling, primeval glacier”. The social life of the party is dominated by Clarence “Clare” Vawdrey, an excellent raconteur. However, does he find the time to actually write anything, the group wonders? (It’s like the ultimate short story for anyone who thinks their favourite writer spends too much time on social media.) Then, our narrator has a chance encounter in a corridor, which makes him suspect that Vawdrey’s ‘true’ self may have unsuspected hidden skills. Funny, slightly spooky, and enlightening about the weird ambivalence of the creative life. Henry James emoji. There is one right?

First published in The Atlantic Monthly, April 1892. Collected in the Everyman Collected Stories Vol 2. Available online here