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David Kurnick. Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-691-15316-2. Price: US$32.50

  • David Kornhaber

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  • David Kornhaber
    University of Texas at Austin

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Corps de l’article

In the realm of literary analysis, the boundaries between genres can seem relatively fixed: there is scholarship on the novel and scholarship on the theater and only rarely do the two intersect. Yet in the field of literary production, such divisions often do not firmly hold. A remarkable number of the novel’s most celebrated practitioners attempted works for the stage at various points in their careers, a fact that has largely been relegated to the status of the biographical arcanum. The most penetrating insight of David Kurnick’s pathbreaking new study Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel is that the theatrical dalliances of a host of canonical novelists, ranging from George Eliot to James Baldwin, are not merely minor instances of experimentation but an important key to understanding their work in prose fiction and the nature of their novelistic achievements. As Kurnick argues, many of the techniques of the novel have a “genetic relation” to their authors’ theatrical endeavors such that “these techniques thus smuggle the memory (or more properly the fantasy) of the crowded theatrical space into the psychic interior” (11).

There are any number of writers to whom Kurnick’s lens might be applied. From Charles Dickens to John Steinbeck, the list of novelists who also wrote for the stage—sometimes with a fair degree of commercial and critical success—is numerous. In many ways, Kurnick has staked out perhaps the hardest territory from which to advance his case: it is the novel of interiority that is Kurnick’s main point of focus, and the authors that he chooses to examine—William Makepeace Thackeray, Eliot, Henry James, and James Joyce, with an afterward on Baldwin—are those who are typically most credited with advancing the genre toward “the mapping of ever narrower interior geographies” (2). Kurnick argues that much of the formal character of the novel of interiority must be considered as a development that responds to and is shaped by the conditions of public theatrical performance that these authors experienced, both as spectators and, often, as playwrights. Consequently, he is concerned not so much with the nature of the interior psychology that is probed in the works that he examines as he is in the form that that mode of literary exploration comes to take: the tenor of an author’s narratorial voice or the kinds of spaces described and allowed within a novel. The formal features of the novel of interiority, Kurnick writes, frequently demonstrate “an impatience with the inward gaze of narrative fiction, in the process opening a self-critical perspective on these writers’ apparent project of making domestic and psychological interiors seem narratively important” (4).

A detailed formal reader, Kurnick is also deeply attentive to the political stakes of the novels he explores. Empty Houses is a study in the history of the novel told with sidelong glances toward the theater, but it is also an astute political defense of a form that has received no shortage of ideological critique. Both in its penchant for focusing on the individual subject apart from her wider social matrix, and in its reinforcement of that alienation in the solitary act of reading, the novel of interiority is often regarded as politically suspect. As such, it seems to always stand apart from the stage. Even at its most reactionary, the theater cannot be subjected to this strain of criticism: the act of performance is always a calling together of a public, an act of temporary group identity that both explores and is always composed within the social experience. Kurnick does not imagine that the novel allows for anything like the same degree of collectivity as the theater proper, but he is fascinated by what he calls “the theaters conjured by the novels” (22). Kurnick sees in the formal contours of these writers’ prose works an awareness of the novel’s political inertness and a palpable sense of longing for the social dynamics of the stage that have been lost. Far from promoting an agenda of social detachment and expanding privacy, the novel of interiority in Kurnick’s reading laments its own condition and attempts to call attention to its own political failures.

Kurnick’s rereading of the novel of interiority is undoubtedly far-reaching, yet it is far from monolithic. Part of the strength of his work lies in the varied texture that he gives to his ideas as he explores how writers spanning more than one-hundred years used their experiences with the theater to reshape their prose. Kurnick begins with a chapter on Thackeray, who was an avid theatergoer through much of his life. In Kurnick’s reading, Thackeray’s work—Vanity Fair (1847-8) in particular but also Lovel the Widower (1860), based on an unperformed play—is marked by a distinct yearning for the social spaces of public performance. Thackeray’s narratorial voice asks the reader to stand witness to the events that unfold as if in a public sphere or else actively laments the restrictive point of view afforded by the novel of interiority even as the author’s works grow more psychologized. Thackeray, Kurnick reminds us, came of age in an era of an active public theatrical culture, ranging from the fairgrounds to the stage, and for Kurnick his work laments the decline of “a pre-Victorian culture of performance” (12). Eliot’s connection to the theater in Kurnick’s second chapter is even more direct: both The Spanish Gypsy (1868) and Daniel Deronda (1876) were originally conceived as plays, and in Kurnick’s reading the near-drama of these works is evident in the texture of Elliot’s texts. Her stories, both in these novels and in Middlemarch (1871-2), tend to unfold as though they are happening before an auditorium of spectators, enclosed in their fixed boundaries of cast and as much oriented toward an outside observer as they are invested in interior probing. Eliot’s novels, Kurnick writes, “imagine a collectivity” (91) of shared experience and sympathies, one that defines the theatrical experience but that the novel can only point toward.

Kurnick’s third chapter covers two periods in James’s work: his experimental period at the turn of the century and the era of some of his greatest works, The Wings of the Dove (1902) especially. It is no coincidence, Kurnick posits, that the theater plays a prominent role in such novels of the experimental period as The Other House (1896)—originally conceived of as a play and written as though its actions were occurring on a stage space bounded by a proscenium—and The Awkward Age (1899)—in which the theater becomes an active metaphor, with the book’s readers located beyond the footlights of the diegetic universe. These experiments, Kurnick argues, deeply informed the development of James’s style in his more psychologized novels. What is most remarkable about Jamesian style to Kurnick is its uniformity, applied equally to narration and to dialogue regardless of character or situation. There is a “stylistic sharing among characters” that makes it seem as if each is playing a role in a performance that is bigger than any of their individual psychologies, pointing toward a “vision of collectivity and universalism” that “blurs the boundary between author and character” (146). James Joyce’s invocation of the theater is something of the opposite. Kurnick reads Joyce’s investment in epiphany as a fundamentally theatrical conceit: a laying bare of the individual through an evocative moment played before spectators, a theatrical showing of the self. It is a concept deeply complicated, though, by Joyce’s use of dramatic form in the Nighttown episode of Ulysses (1922), where the use of the conventions of the theatrical text leads us to question whether the characters are genuinely revealing themselves to us or merely playing the roles assigned to them. Written partly in tandem with Joyce’s unperformed play Exiles (1918), Ulysses evokes the theater as a means of destabilizing interiority and the supposed truth it reveals. Kurnick concludes with an extended epilogue on James Baldwin, who had a lifelong romance with the stage and who moved extensively in the social circles around New York City’s famous Actor’s Studio. Kurnick focuses especially on Baldwin’s lifelong attempts to craft a theatrical adaptation of the intensely interior Giovanni’s Room (1956), a project as formally difficult as it was politically utopian. The novelist’s desire for the public arena of the stage is, in Kurnick’s words, a measure of “the painful gulf that looms between the interior and the collective, between the psychological and the political,” a longing he sees as common to all the novelists in his study (206).

As the depth of these individual portraits shows, the ground that Kurnick breaks is rich. There is an extensive history to be told through the lens of generic interaction, a formal cross-pollination that is too rarely acknowledged or examined. Even beyond the novel of interiority, there is a history of interactions and cross-developments between the novel and the stage that to a large extent remains to be mined. Far from being opposed or isolated, the two forms, Kurnick shows, are in many ways entwined, and it remains to be seen what insights may still be gleaned from their joint examination.

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