For such small books, pocket Penguins sure burn big holes. From the 80p Little Black Classics to the £3 Mini Modern Classics, I’ve bought dozens of the blighters over the years at an estimated cost of shamefully-close-to-triple-figures. More shameful still, I don’t think I have even opened half of these, and I am certain I have read none from cover to cover. In a spirit of amends-making, then, and in full expectation of receiving more of the shelf-squatters at Christmas, I recently decided to call in the rent, beginning with one of my longest-owned pocket Penguins, Henry James’ The Beast in the Jungle.
I had every reason to fear this encounter. The title is scary enough, and as someone who has been properly scared by other of James’ stories (The Turn of the Screw, ‘The Jolly Corner’), I had no doubt that The Beast in the Jungle would live up to it. More terrors awaited me in the novella’s front matter, which states the year of its first publication as 1903 – the same year as that famously difficult James novel The Ambassadors. This was not going to be easy.
My fears were confirmed within a few pages. John Marcher is a man who, for as long as he can remember, has had the sense that “[s]omething or other lay in wait for him, amid the twists and turns of the months and the years, like a crouching beast in the jungle.” What this “something” is or when it will come, he doesn’t know; nor what it will do when it does. “It signified little whether the crouching beast were destined to slay him or to be slain. The definite point” – which is the definite point of all good horror and why my palms were already starting to sweat at this early stage – “was the inevitable spring of the creature.”
Marcher’s only confidant on this matter is May Bartram, though what is strange is he doesn’t remember when he first confided in her. All the same, Marcher takes comfort from their encounters, of which The Beast in the Jungle is effectively a highlights package. So do not read this expecting high teas on bright lawns, or grand tours to Italy. There is none of the jet-setting of Early James here. The outside world is barely glimpsed at all, and but for a passing reference to “his little office under Government” and “the people in London whose invitation he accepted and repaid,” you could be forgiven for thinking that Marcher lives in May’s drawing room.
This interiority – a hallmark and common criticism of Late James – makes perfect sense given the subject matter. Why would a doomed man be noticing the outside world? It also, to address the main criticism of Late James, justifies the prose’s prolixity. Marcher is a man who has been thinking about one thing and one thing alone all his life; naturally his thoughts would be tortuous and confused. And it is not like James isn’t aware of this, either. For as close as the point of view cleaves to Marcher, there is, every so often, a more external, ironical voice at play. I sense it in this sentence:
This was why he had such good – though possibly such rather colourless – manners; this was why, above all, he could regard himself, in a greedy world, as decently – as, in fact, perhaps even a little sublimely – unselfish.
Someone of Marcher’s supreme self-obsession would never think his manners “colourless”; would never use so self-mocking an adverb as “sublimely.” This is somebody else talking.
It may as well be us. For we too find Marcher pompous and insufferable. Yet we also, increasingly, care for him, no more so than when his fear of the beast is replaced, in old age, by a fear that the beast may never come, that he has wasted his life waiting for it:
He didn’t care what awful crash might overtake him, with what ignominy or what monstrosity he might yet be associated – since he wasn’t, after all, too utterly old to suffer – if it would only be decently proportionate to the posture he had kept, all his life, in the promised presence of it. He had but one desire left – that he shouldn’t have been ‘sold.’
It was about this point I realised that I had been sold; that nothing dramatic was going to happen; that The Beast in the Jungle is not really a horror story at all. But I did not resent this, for what follows is one of the most penetrating accounts of regret I have ever read, and some of the most moving prose. It packs a big punch for a little book.