When Henry Met Sigmund

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By Wendy Lesser,
who is editor of the Threepenny Review and the author of "The Pagoda in the Garden"
Wednesday, September 19, 2007


By Edwin M. Yoder Jr.

Europa. 239 pp. $14.95

Asturdy structure of fact holds up the fictional fabric of "Lions at Lamb House." Anyone familiar with the life of Henry James will recognize his edgy but loving relationship with his psychologist brother, his witty friendship with Edith Wharton, the author-centered stories with titles such as "The Death of the Lion" and "The Figure in the Carpet," the atmosphere of Lamb House and its semirural surroundings, the drunken butler Smith, and so on.

To this standard cast, though, Edwin Yoder has added a startling new figure: Sigmund Freud, on a visit from Vienna in 1908. (Freud did visit England that year, though he never visited James.) To arrange the amusing premise that underlies "Lions at Lamb House," Yoder has William James, the famous psychologist and philosopher, ask his colleague Freud to stop by for a look at his novelist brother, about whose "obsessions" he is clearly worried.

This is where fiction begins to depart heavily from fact, and the resulting distortions may put a few teeth on edge. William would never have involved a near-stranger in a family matter of this sort (and I doubt he would have used the word "obsessional" to describe Henry's attitudes). Henry, in turn, would never have submitted to even short-term analysis; his penchant for privacy was far too deep. And Freud himself could not really have been the humorless, rigid figure portrayed here, or we would not treasure his case studies as the literature they are.

Still, if you grant the premise, you can find enjoyable insights here. Yoder is particularly strong on two important qualities that defined James as a novelist: his tendency to be silent about the things that most required ambiguity, and his ability to insert a certain amount of comedy into even the most serious and desperate of situations. "The key to the whole business," writes Horace Briscoe, a fictional character who is Yoder's (and our) stand-in at Lamb House, "is what I shall call -- in my as yet unwritten thesis -- the 'Jamesian silence,' the name I give to the implied and inexplicit. . . . It is the concealed 'figure in the carpet' where the bumptious and credulous young critic assumes there must be some starkly obvious 'key' to unlock the theme of the master's work -- if only he could find it."

Anyone who has tried to convert Henry James to fictional uses (and there seem to be legions of us these days) is aware of the overwhelming temptation to imitate the master's sinuous, convoluted sentences. But it just doesn't work here. The whole doomed effort springs from admiration and longing and is understandable as such, but we've got to recognize that the sum total of Jamesian sentences already in the world are all we are ever going to have. In fact, the only really successful recent novel that used Henry James as a hero -- Colm Toibin's "The Master" -- did not try to recapitulate those rhythms at all and was the better for it.

Aside from the fact that "Lions at Lamb House" is not "The Master" (which is not a fair comparison anyway), I have only one major bone to pick with Yoder. He decided to conceal Henry James's casual anti-Semitism. I understand the reasons: It is hard to overcome this sort of problem in one's hero, especially if the novel is to end, as this one does, in 1941. But James's attitude toward the Jews was not a pretty thing to behold, and it is inconceivable that it wouldn't have come out in, say, his private letters to Wharton (written, as Yoder would have it, daily during Freud's visit). This is the author, after all, who once compared a crowd of Jews to a "vast sallow aquarium in which innumerable fish, of over-developed proboscis, were to bump together, forever, amid heaped spoils of the sea." Yet Yoder has his James refrain from any commentary whatsoever on Freud's Jewishness. I am not sure this is credible, but at any rate, it is kind.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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