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On Critical Fiction : Tom Whalen interviewed by Henry Wessells


Tom Whalen is a novelist, poet, critic, short story writer, and (since 2008) visiting professor of film at the Staatliche Akademie der Künste in Stuttgart — his essay on Lola rennt (1998; Run Lola Run, 200) is wide ranging in its allusions and compelling in its insights, and serves as an example of his writing inthis discipline. It is his critical fiction work in prose and verse in the  form that caught your correspondent’s attention, namely “On Henry James’s ‘The Great Condition’”  in the current issue of  Marginalia. His most recent book is a work of criticism (not critical fiction) published by the Dalkey Archive PressThe Birth of Death and Other Comedies: The Novels of Russell H. Greenan. His website is http://www.tomwhalen.com.

HW: Would you be amenable to answering a few questions about the critical fiction form and how it fits with your writing, for use on the CF Forum?

TW: Sure.

HW: Nothing onerous, I hope. I guess I am as interested in the why? underlying the critical as in the technical choices you make in your writing.

TW: Das ist eine gute Frage: why the critical mode?  It’s fun; it doubles (at least) the capacity of one’s brain; it offers strange, deviating paths for a fiction to follow.  I also appreciate its defiant, transgenre stance, which frees me to experiment.  Or maybe it’s as simple as: I read a lot, and sometimes I like to write fiction about what I read.

HW: Wendy Walker has observed that some of your other stories are very similar to your critical fictions.  Is this a case of same well, different shape bucket?

TW: Not quite.  I’m not sure which stories exactly Wendy Walker has in mind, but, yes, in, say, the Encyclopedia Mouse Quintet (Books III-V have yet to appear) I critique genres, parody styles, insert essays and philosophical musings, use writers and philosophers — Wittgenstein, Walser, Hegel, Poe, Heidegger (EM’s bête noir), Swift, Homer, etc. — as minor but important characters.

I’ve also published several essayistic fictions like “In the Restrooms of Europe” (Yellow Silk, and in the anthologies The Book of Eros and Brief Encounters), “Louisiana: A Gay Essay” (Fiction International), “Le Nouveau Roman” (Report from the Dump, Obscure Publications), the story as personal article (“Conversations with Godard,” Agni), and several works that to me are more essay than fiction, but still both.  “Is your piece ‘The Europeans’ nonfiction or fiction?” one editor asked.  I answered that it was about 85% nonfiction, but that the remaining 15% makes me call it fiction.  He quickly rejected it.

And then there’s the out-of-the-box (or in-the-wrong-box) comic novel I wrote with Daniel Quinn, A Newcomer’s Guide to the Afterlife: On the Other Side Known Commonly as “The Little Book” (Bantam, 1997), which employs a host of nonfictional forms and strategies.

So regarding some of my fiction, Wendy Walker is right, but it’s not always drawn from the same well.

HW: Does your approach to composition of a critical fiction differ from the writing of other stories?

TW: Yes, especially when you consider that most of my stories, whether realistic or fantastic, are more strictly character-centered.  Recent stories such as “Rudolph’s Story” (Fiction International), “The Children Beneath My Window” (Ninth Letter), “The Effect” (The Literary Review), “The Installation” (Green Mountains Review), “Apotheke” (Southern California Review), “From the Life of a Project Manager” (New Ohio Review), “German Female, 27” (Natural Bridge), “My Neighbor” (The Hopkins Review), and “My Father’s Coat” (Agni) neither partake of nor parody critical strategies.  Certain structural principles and dynamics stay the same, yes, but the mode of narration is different.

HW: And your literary and film criticism, any similarities with your critical fiction?

TW: Clearly they’re not fiction, but I try when possible to make my critical prose as lively, albeit not as imaginative, as my critical fiction.  In my essay on Conrad’s “An Outpost of Progress,” written for a teacher’s manual to an anthology of post-colonial short stories I co-edited with Angelika Hoff, I couldn’t take a bike ride with Conrad in the middle of my analysis, but in my critical fiction on the same story, “Carlier and Kayerts” (Witness), I did.

HW: Do you intentionally set off from a source text or do you find yourself drawing such material into a work of fiction as it emerges?

TW: Both can happen and have.

HW: You seem to come back to the work of Henry James and Robert Walser as subjects for critical fiction. What prompts this?

TW: Because they were both born on April 15?  I love the demands these two masters make on me as a reader, how both of their works (I’m thinking of late James when I say this) track and remake consciousness with their syntax.  My relationship to their works has been long-lasting, intense and thus personal.  Writing critical fictions with James or Walser as the subject is, in part, a way for me to pay homage to what they continue to give me.

HW: Who else are you reading?

TW: During the past two weeks I’ve read the prolific Argentine short novelist César Aira’s The Seamstress and the Wind and Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas’s Never Any End to Paris, both just out with New Directions.  (The three novels in English by Vila-Matas, by the way, are good examples of the novel as critical fiction.)  And I read Animalinside, a novella by the Hungarian László Krasznahorkai with art by Max Neumann, a German painter (New Directions), and Mark Ford’s translation of Raymond Roussel’s long poem New Impressions of Africa (Princeton).

Before that I had just come back from teaching a block seminar in Freiburg on American Crime Novels (1946-1969), my reading or rather re-reading for which included In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, A Rage in Harlem (For Love of Imabelle) by Chester Himes, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson, and The Tremor of Forgery by Patricia Highsmith.

Next up: Mark Polizzotti’s new translation of Roussel’s novel Impressions of Africa (Dalkey Archive) and an online translation of Thomas Bernhard’s Ungenach.

And of course I’m eager for October to arrive, when New York Review Books will bring out a new collection of Walser’s prose, Berlin Stories, translated by Susan Bernofsky.

[The interview was conducted in an e-mail correspondence, 2-3 July 2011.]

A selective checklist of critical fictions by Tom Whalen

“Henry James.” Northwest Review Vol. 41, No. 2 (2003), 124-25.

“On Henry James’s ‘The Great Condition.’” Marginalia 5, 89-90.

“Carlier and Kayerts.” Witness Vol. XXII, 101-02.

“Maisie.” Coe Review Vol. 37 No. 2, Spring 2007, 4-11.

Twenty-Six Novels. Black River Falls, WI: Obscure Publications, 2001.

Walser Wandering. Black River Falls, WI: Obscure Publications, 2009. (“Herr Walser on a Stroll Encounters Monsieur Satie Striding,” “Walser Wandering”).

“On Robert Walser’s Birthday.”  Crosscurrents Vol.5, No.3, 87. Maryland Poetry Review Vol.1, No.3, 6. From a Bend in the River: 100 New Orleans Poets.  Kalamu ya Salaam, ed.  New Orleans: Runagate Press, 1998, 209.

Winter Coat. Red Dust, 1998, 7.

“From Eleven Novels (“Rendezvous in Erlangen,” “The Bicycle and the Canary,” “Moon Story”).  Sentence 8, 115-16.

(“Lake Sketch for Little Girls.” Alice Redux. Richard Peabody, ed. Arlington, VA: Paycock Press, 2006, 317-319. On Carroll’s ‘Alice’.

“Le Nouveau Roman” (Report from the Dump.  Obscure Publications, 2001, 1-3).


Borges Walker Wessells

This post on the CF Forum takes the form of a brief self interview by Wendy Walker and Henry Wessells, on the subject of the writings of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (with citations from his work).

What aspects of the writings of Borges are most relevant to the critical fiction?

Wessells : Extreme concision, erudition and the certainty that careful scrutiny of the written text is both meaningful and revelatory.

Walker : Besides the ones you mention, which are basic, I would add (with the caveat that the first two do not appear in every critical fiction: a) the recounting of scholarship as a series of magical mini-narratives and forms of imagination; b) a juxtaposition of the target text with texts outside the western tradition, especially Chinese, Indian, and Arabic ones, and c) the use of metaphysical questions (about death, the soul, time, eternity) to move from scholarly disquisition and criticism towards story, in the form of parable, tale and critical fiction, or combinations thereof.

Borges : “but ambiguity is richness” 1

Which particular texts illuminate the form?

Wessells : “Kafka and His Precursors”, “The Garden of Forking Paths”, “Death and the Compass”.

Walker : “A Problem” (on Don Quixote), “The Enigma of Edward Fitzgerald,”  “The Dream of Coleridge,” and “Kafka and His Precursors” would make a good start. Most of the pieces in Other Inquisitions illuminate the form of the critical fiction in some way.  It is significant how often Borges wrote about Don Quixote, itself perhaps the longest and greatest critical fiction, which takes as its target the entire chivalric tradition.  If you compare “Partial Enchantments of the Quixote,” Borges’ essay about the metafictional aspects of Don Quixote, and “A Problem,” a critical fiction on the same book, the difference between an essay and a critical fiction immediately becomes clear. In both pieces Cervantes’ book has been scrutinized deeply, but in “A Problem” Borges moves beyond what normal literary criticism can do.

Borges : “The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.” 2

Does the work of Borges help to identify distinctions between  the metafictional and the critical fiction?

Wessells : Are you looking at the teacup or the world of which the teacup is part?  For me, metafiction implies a narrower, reductive purpose, whereas the critical fiction intends not only to illuminate a particular work (or body of work) but also to place that work in a wider context.

Walker : The particular comparison I indicated above certainly helps to identify such distinctions.  In “Partial Enchantments of the Quixote,” Borges discusses Cervantes’ metafictional strategies, showing how he makes the text echo within itself by using himself and his readers as characters in the story that the author continues to write and the reader continues to read, even as the story depends upon their presence inside it. The echoes operate within the immediate reading/writing area. In “A Problem” Borges orchestrates echoes among Don Quixote and other texts and landscapes that Cervantes himself probably did not know, because they were so remote or chronologically unavailable, any better than the reader. The echoes operate within an enormous, almost cosmological space, as though they were taking in all the books ever written and all the landscapes ever seen, as well as the implicitly included space of writer and reader.

Another way of distinguishing between metafiction and critical fiction is to say that in metafiction, it is not necessary to refer to another particular text, although this can be done (see Flann O’Brien); but in a critical fiction such a reference must be made as it constitutes a crucial pole around which the fiction is built.

Borges : Other things are making it seem larger: the dim light, the symmetry, the mirrors, so many years, my unfamiliarity, the loneliness. [ALL ITALICS] 3

Walker : How do you read “The Garden of Forking Paths” as a critical fiction?

Wessells : I read Forking Paths as a critical fiction of spy stories (Buchan and Chesterton), of the literature of WWI, of orientalism and chinoiserie, and of inevitability; and, like Borges at his best, of the writings of Borges himself. But more importantly, I read Forking Paths as a landscape architecture of the critical fiction, that is : a practical application of the architectural theory of the form. Carefully selected citations (to make a distinction between real and imaginary texts is largely beside the point here), attention to narrative form, and the collision of seemingly incompatible notions. I would also add the effect of suddenly altering the scale, as in the formal perfection of the frame created by the first and last paragraphs of the story.

Borges : Every one imagined two works; to no one did it occur that the book and the maze were one and the same thing. 4

Walker : Do you see (and if so, how?) the critical fiction as related to the tale about a magical, unknown or lost book, considered as a genre in itself?

Wessells : The motif of the mysterious book — lost, dangerous, unknown, magical — is powerful enough to define a vast and sprawling genre (the delineation of which is wonderful fun but outside the scope of this forum). It is surprising how many imaginary books appear in critical fictions (the enumeration of these titles is within the scope of this forum and will be great fun*), or, rather, it is not surprising, as the form is inherently suited to comment upon this genre. This relates directly to the primacy of the book in the writings of Borges.

Borges : In 1833, Carlyle observed that the history of the universe is an infinite sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, and in which they also are written. 5

Walker : How do you understand Borges’ intention in writing critical fictions?

Wessells : To me, his work is all about reading in the broadest sense: about attention and comprehension. So that the exploratory aspects of his writings are the flowering of a reader’s thought. The critical fiction, for me, is a mode of thinking about books and writings, of answering the questions that persist after essays and lectures have been completed or exhausted.

Borges: “later I understood why” 6


Sources of the passages from Borges :

1 : “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote

2 : “Kafka and His Precursors”

3 : “Death and the Compass”

4 : “The Garden of Forking Paths”

5 : “Partial Magic of the Quixote

6 : “Story of the Warrior and the Captive”

* a descriptive catalogue of imaginary books in critical fictions will be the subject of an upcoming post.

Temporary Culture is pleased to announce the forthcoming publication of

by Wendy Walker

Publication date : 25 October 2011
Original frontispiece portrait of Joseph Conrad and Wendy Walker by Joanna Ebenstein.
128 pp. Oblong 6-1/2 x 9-1/2 inches.
Twenty numbered copies will be specially bound by hand for subscribers and signed by the author and artist (details upon request).
Trade issue : hardcover, full cloth binding with printed dust jacket. ISBN 978-0-9764660-7-9 $22.50
(plus postage : $5.00 in U.S., $15.00 overseas). Trade discount available.
Special offer until 30 September : $22.50 includes shipping in U.S. for prepaid advance orders.

MY MAN is an original collection of 8 critical fictions on Joseph Conrad’s NostromoKing Lear, Olaudah Equiano, Harry Mathews, and other writers and texts. The critical fiction is a literary mode that takes as its subject another literary work and treats of that work’s construction, obsessions, and sources in narrative and poetic, rather than expository/critical terms. Wendy Walker is one of the chief proponents of the critical fiction today ; some of her predecessors include Jean Rhys, Jorge Luis Borges, Angela Carter, and Guy Davenport.

WENDY WALKER is author of a modern masterpiece, The Secret Service (1992) ; a work of poetic non-fiction, Blue Fire (Proteotypes, 2009), exploring the case of Constance Kent ; and two collections of short fiction, The Sea-Rabbit, or, The Artist of Life (1988) and Stories out of Omarie (1995). Her website is wendywalker.com.

To celebrate publication of MY MAN & OTHER CRITICAL FICTIONS, Temporary Culture is pleased to convene a Critical Fiction Symposium on Tuesday 25 October 2011 at the Grolier Club in New York City. Participants will include Wendy Walker, Ron Janssen, Jennifer Nelson, John Crowley, and Henry Wessells. Details on the Symposium page.


Tom La Farge writes:

Here’s what I’d say about critical fictions: that all writers are readers, that most
writers are magpies, reading for the shiny threads they snatch up and carry off
to their hoards, to be used in something they write sooner or later. You can’t call
this “critical” on their part, even though to a reader it will suggest an inflection
to the reading, if only because the borrowed thread, once perceived, emerges
even more shiny from the weave. In the critical fiction the entire fabric is woven
of stolen bits, selected and rewoven in a somewhat different pattern that both
makes a new and interesting object (the “fiction”) and comments holistically on
the original (the “critique”).

To discern the influence of an earlier text is not sufficient grounds to identify a literary work as a critical fiction (except in the broadest sense of the subtitle of this project, that all fiction is critical fiction and addresses earlier texts). To discern traces of influence in a literary work is analyzing seed and soil and climate, not eating the fruit and experiencing the author’s art. These are in fact two modes of reading that both have their purpose; sometimes they are narrowly linked — but not always.

This topic came up during a recent conversation about Joseph Conrad, when I mentioned that Guy Davenport noted clear textual and structural connections between Dickens’ Dombey & Son and Conrad’s Chance (in the essay “The Critic as Artist” cited earlier). It is always interesting to find influences and tastes and echoes of earlier works, for all writers are readers; but the points Davenport made do not make of Chance a critical fiction as we can identify Wide Sargasso Sea or “Belinda’s World Tour” as critical fictions. And then, of course, the conversation became even more interesting, as it always does when author  Tom La Farge is talking about books: he noted similarities between key passages of Poe and Conrad.

“As I endeavoured, during the brief minute of my original survey, to form some analysis of the meaning conveyed, there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense — of extreme despair.”

— Edgar Allan Poe, “The Man of the Crowd”.

“Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror — of an intense and hopeless despair.”

— Joseph Conrad, “Heart of Darkness”.

This post advances the discussion of critical fiction only sideways , perhaps, but to hear such echoes enriches our experience of literature and our knowledge of its continuities. Tom La Farge is one of the most attentive readers I know, and our conversations over the years have been rewarding. One of his remarks about the Magic of Class in American literature helped me to shape “Appraisal at Edgewood”,  my critical fiction of Little, Big by John Crowley.

In the course of writing yesterday’s post on Guy Davenport I pulled an offprint from an attic shelf, and this morning, leafing through it, I find the following:

“I’m reading Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, an hilarious and very good work. The only book I know that takes Proust’s habitual narrative gestures, Anglicizes them, and succeeds in the effort. In fact, Powell is the best critical study of Proust.”
Guy Davenport. “Fragments from a Correspondence”, edited by Nicholas Kilmer. Arion (Third Series) 13:3 (2006), p. 106.

I record this for several reasons. Firstly, because Davenport’s writings are very relevant to the discussion of the critical fiction but always with the caution that he is a tricky writer* given to his own bold narrative gestures, among which assertion is to be numbered. Secondly, because I do not know Proust or Powell well enough to weigh the assertion; perhaps a reader or two does, and will report on the causal and critical connection that Davenport claims.
And, thirdly, because it is evident from reader correspondence that the discussion (and indeed definition) of critical fiction is best advanced by example rather than by written definition. So that even examples which, upon examination, prove not to be critical fictions will demonstrate characteristics of the form.


* A very tricky writer, particularly when he makes such gestures as this: “I’m a janitor. I sweep up scraps other people have abandoned” (p.102).

“ I would go so far as to say that all modern writing is about some other text, and that this is so much the case that many writers are guardedly furtive about it, while knowing that their only hope of meaning is in our ultimately finding that other text. ”

— Guy Davenport, “The Critic as Artist”, in Every Force Evolves a Form (North Point Press, 1987),  p. 105.

“The Critic as Artist” is a fascinating and wide-ranging essay worth reading in its entirety. Much of the essay is connected with literary responses to the visual arts, but the passage cited above deals specifically with pretexts in the concrete sense of the term: source texts for literary works. Davenport writes, “Ulysses is the most obvious example to point to, yet on reflection we discover that we can go on and on looking at poetry that assumes another text — the legends underlying Keats and Shelley and Browning; the traditional forms being reworked, such as Byron’s Don Juan; all of Shakespeare. The Cantos are a collage of texts; so is the “A” of Zukofsky.” He discusses Beckett, Flaubert, Welty, Heidegger on Hölderlin, and many others.

And then Davenport composes a great paragraph:
“In 1960 technician in the Bell Laboratories discovered that he could make an image appear in a stereopticon that is in neither of the two images which the stereopticon is fusing. The example I have seen is of a spatter of dots, seemingly random, in squares side by side. Through the stereopticon one sees a sharp-edged isosceles triangle beautifully defined, suspended just above the spatter of dots. This floating, Platonic triangle is nowhere but in our head. It is an authentic vision. Its visual possibility is partly in the left-hand square, partly in the right. Without the stereopticon to serve us, there is no way of discerning what latent pattern lurks in either square, realizable only in the fusion of the two.”


Davenport discusses the rôle of the critic as advocate and interpreter of “the hermetic obscurity of the text” and it might seem that he is pointing to the discursive essay. “The next time you have a fresh reading of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey canon of novels and stories in your head, along with the four volumes of Lévi-Strauss’ Mythologies, ask yourself what’s happening in those novels when food figures in the plot. You will discover that there is a subtext of imagery in which you can discern a grammar of edibles, both poisoned and nutritive. When the critic can specify two spatter patterns, and hand us the stereopticon, to make the magic fgure appear in the middle of the air, he is indeed entering the artistic process.” Davenport’s own work shows how often he brought the scholar’s analytical tools to the doorway of fiction, and then, as fiction demands, wrote the story (not the essay). Among these are “1830” (Poe), “The Aeroplanes at Brescia” (Kafka and Wittgenstein); “Belinda’s World Tour” (Kafka again), and “The Concord Sonata” (Thoreau); echoes and allusions to literature are manifest throughout most if not all of his stories

In fact, the domain of the critical fiction is everything.

‘ Is the door like the threshold ? Is the grate like the fire ? Is the mask like the face ? ’

Today, « criticalfiction.net » is pleased to publish an original work of critical fiction :



— — —

Follow the link to read the story, The Man in the Yellow Mask by Lucien Verval (pdf with illustrations : 1.7 Mb) ; « criticalfiction.net » extends its thanks to the author.

— — —

Understand that none of the following is required to appreciate the story ; these notes are offered by the editor under the headings of Technique & Allusion.

The following citation gives some factual insight into the career of Robert W. Chambers (1865-1933). In the ANB entry on Chambers, Richard Bleiler writes : “The King in Yellow [1895] is one of the most significant volumes of supernatural fiction in American literature, integral in the transition between the standard Victorian fantasy and the more modern concentration on the nightmare. It has been read by virtually every American writer of supernatural fiction . . . His numerous romance novels featuring New York socialities were devoured by the shopgirl market but were less popular with critics, who attacked them for their vulgarization of marriage, divorce, alcoholism, and the morality of posing nude for artists. Calculatedly trivial though these works may be, they nonetheless provide insight into the attitudes of pre-Titanic America. . . . In comparison with The King in Yellow, the rest of his works are pallid, insipid, and unmemorable.”

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”  — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Thomas Dilworth, writing in the TLS for 22 April 2011, discusses Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, written in May 1819 (and shown above in the first edition of Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, 1820).

“Scholars once wondered whether Keats had in mind a specific urn or sculpted frieze, but long ago gave up trying to discover one. There is, however, a specific and identifiable work of art that Keats is using as his model and source, and is implicitly referring to. It is not a work of visual art, however, but a poem : Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle”. While the citation of the Keats poem in the essay is not terribly precise (many unnecessary capital letters in the closing lines), Dilworth makes a strong case for the intertextual nature of the Ode: “Shakespeare supplies the essential terms of the paradox, and he supplies an urn. He establishes that Beauty is Truth or, rather, that each is the other and points to eternity as the context in which the apparent contradiction is resolved.” Dilworth’s aim is to elucidate meaning and is not, fundamentally, reductive.

The “Ode on a Grecian Urn” must now be classed as a precursor of the critical fiction : allusion to the poem by Shakespeare is inextricable from the structure and meaning of the Ode.

This example emphasizes a key point about the critical fiction form : above all, the writing must function as an independent work of art. The power and poignancy of Keats’ poem is only increased by deeper understanding of the well from which some of its waters were drawn.

wide sargasso sea

Front panel of dust jacket for Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)


— Jean Rhys [pseudonym of Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams, 1890-1979]. Wide Sargasso Sea. Introduction by Francis Wyndham. André Deutsch, 1966.

Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of Antoinette Cosway, Creole heiress to lands in Jamaica and Dominica, who grows up almost a feral child on the ruined estate of Coulibri in Jamaica. It is a novel where the cadences and warmth of the West Indies sing from the first paragraph, when Antoinette’s servant Christophine says, “because she pretty like pretty self”. Set against the tumult of emancipation of the slaves in British lands in the 1830s, “(My father, visitors, horses, feeling safe in bed — all belonged to the past.)”, Wide Sargasso Sea is an indictment of a legal system that condones the assignment of a wife’s money and properties to the fortune-hunting husband : for it is also the story of the first Mrs. Rochester of Jane Eyre.

Helen Carr writes in the ODNB of her earlier novels, “Rhys explored issues of sexual morality, identity, power, and marginality, in a way now recognized as far ahead of her time.” Wide Sargasso Sea continues that exploration in a manner that illuminates dark corners and tacit assumptions of Jane Eyre. Antoinette’s husband is an English interloper so indifferent to her background and person that he calls her “Bertha” and spurns her for complaisant “light brown girls” ; the estate of Granbois on Dominica is tainted for her. “But I loved this place and you have made it into a place I hate.”

Antoinette’s loyal servant and confidante Christophine, one of the great personalities of the novel, has Mr. R.’s number. She  confronts him  with his philandering, “But she love money like you love money — must be why you come together. Like goes to like.” She sees clearly what he intends for Antoinette, “You want her money but you don’t want her. It is in your mind to pretend she is mad, I know it. The doctors say what you tell them to say. That man Richard he say what you want him to say — glad and willing too, I know. [. . .] You do that for money? But you wicked like Satan self !” He threatens Christophine with with the police, and takes Antoinette away, to England, an unreal place.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a critical fiction, a swift, sharp novel enriched by the author’s childhood on the island of Dominica (one person’s magical realism is another’s daily reality). From the fire that consumes Coulibri in Antoinette’s childhood and the manipulations of her step-brother Richard Mason, the narrative moves inextricably into the text of Jane Eyre. Elements and incidents of the Brontë novel — fire, full moon, moths, “when I felt her teeth in my arm”, gin, and above all, money — are so deeply threaded into the vocabulary of Wide Sargasso Sea that to the terrible conclusion is to walk the corridors of Thornfield Hall with new awareness.

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