"Queering The Ambassadors: Michiel Heyns’s Invisible Furies (2012) and Jamesian Appropriation" by Bethany Layne
Bethany Layne is a Teaching Fellow in Modern English and American Literature at the University of Reading, where her teaching includes a specialist module on Postmodernist Biofiction, the first of its kind in the UK. Her book, Henry James in Contemporary Fiction: The Real Thing, explores James’s legacy in biofiction and appropriative literature, and is under contract with Palgrave Macmillan. Her other research interests include the writing and legacies of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. Email:
In Michiel Heyns’s Invisible Furies, Christopher Turner is dispatched to Paris by his close friend Daniel de Villiers, a man with whom Christopher was once in love. Three years ago, Daniel’s son Eric set off a six-month trip to France to learn about the wine trade, to prepare him to take his place as heir to the family vineyard. But the intervening years have been spent mainly in Paris, where, Christopher suspects, “very little wine is made” (Heyns, Invisible 29). At home in South Africa, Eric had an “understanding” with his sister-in-law (34), yet rumours have reached Franschhoek that he has become “embroiled with some undesirable person” (31). Christopher’s ambassadorial role is a clear one: persuade Eric to return home, marry, and assume his inheritance, or the estate will past to his sister and her husband.
Yet on meeting Eric, a man he “had never much liked” (12), Christopher perceives straight away that he has been “immeasurably improved” (87). At once attracted to Eric, Christopher is similarly struck by Eric’s lover, the former supermodel Beatrice du Plessis. He ultimately promises Beatrice that he will influence Eric in her favour, and writes home “abdicating from his appointed task as ambassador” (230). He then learns that Eric has fallen for Beatrice’s teenaged daughter Jeanne, and intends to throw over Beatrice in order to launch Jeanne’s modelling career, hoping to ignite his own career in the process. Christopher subsequently discovers that Eric is not simply a claquer, “employed to look beautiful and to applaud vigorously” (52), but that he is also involved in prostitution and drug dealing. This information comes as a double betrayal, shattering Christopher’s illusion of intimacy with Eric, and his sense of acceptance by his friends in the fashion world. After a soul-searching walk on the bridges overlooking the Seine, Christopher sets home for his hotel, and, by implication, for Fransshoeck.
Heyns acknowledges that “readers of Henry James will recognise in my novel the plot outline and some of the characters of The Ambassadors, as well as some of the thematic concerns” (296). Having written a biographical novel about James, The Typewriter’s Tale, Heyns has transitioned organically into a reinterpretation of James’s fiction. He follows in the footsteps of Colm Tóibín, who responded to James’s life in The Master and to The Portrait of a Lady in Brooklyn. A similar path was taken by Cynthia Ozick, who followed her biographical story “Dictation” with Foreign Bodies, a rewrite of The Ambassadors. This suggests that, in Laura Savu’s terms, “the impulse to fictionalise, and thus change, manipulate, interpret biographical data runs parallel to that of rereading and rewriting emblematic texts” (13).
This is borne out by Heyns’s description of his artistic process in The Typewriter’s Tale: “reading…James’s life as if it were a James novel”, or, as is apparent in the following quotation, reading James’s life as expressed in and through his texts (“Curse” 2). For Heyns, the “irony which […] begat” The Typewriter’s Tale was the recognition that James’s obliviousness of the affair between Morton Fullerton and Edith Wharton “turned [him] into the beguiled hero of his own novel” (3). The reference, of course, is to The Ambassadors’ Lambert Strether, who “remains for much of the novel convinced of the innocent nature of the relationship between his young friend Chad Newsome and Madame de Vionnet” (3). It is evident, then, that Heyns’s biofiction arose from a rereading and reinterpretation of The Ambassadors, paving the way for Invisible Furies.
The latter novel’s status as an appropriation explains its fascination with the simulacra, with images of reproduction, and with the dynamics of original and copy. This is seen to particular effect in Christopher’s first walk through Paris, where he contemplates the difference between false memories and genuine recollections:
to walk for any length of time in the Latin Quarter is to happen upon forgotten landmarks, persistent in their immutability. He walked, not sure whether he was remembering things or imagining that he recognised them. The street market on the Rue de Buci, for instance, seemed as familiar as if he’d visited it the day before; but then, most of Paris had passed into the collective memory by way of films, photo spreads in magazines, advertising posters. As, in a museum, one comes face to face with Renoir’s fat pink nudes with a shock of recognition, and then realises that it’s not the painting one is recollecting but its simulacrum, so in Paris one is forever rediscovering places one has never discovered in the first place. (Invisible 12)
Christopher’s mediated view of Paris is interpretable as a metaphor for the processes involved in moving between source text and appropriation. As will be demonstrated, Christopher’s sense of exhaustion recalls the “discourse of loss” that vexes discussion of text-to-screen translations, wherein the act of adaptation is perceived to diminish the aura of the originating text (Stam 3). By contrast, Heyns’s treatment of biological reproduction suggests an interactive approach to non-transpositional rewrites. Just as, in this novel, sons and daughters enable fresh views of fathers and mothers, it is possible that source texts might be invigorated by their textual appropriations. The essay will implement this idea, demonstrating what Invisible Furies might contribute to our ongoing conversations about The Ambassadors.
The proposed symbolic reading operates as follows. In recent years, Christopher has been assaulted by images of Paris: “films, photo spreads in magazines, advertising posters”. Having had first-hand experience of the city in his youth, Christopher is what Linda Hutcheon might call a “knowing reader”. When confronted with an adaptation, Christopher able to “recognise it as such and to know its adapted text”: in this case, the city itself (Hutcheon 121). Yet the passage repeatedly problematizes what it might mean to know. For when returning to Paris, Christopher experiences a kind of double vision. He is unsure, for instance, whether he remembers the street market from his previous visit, or whether his is a “false memory”, and what he is actually remembering is a mediated image of the market. This is what prompts the uncanny sense of “re-experiencing places one has never discovered in the first place”.
Christopher’s experience is analogous to that of the reader returning to The Ambassadors in the wake of Invisible Furies. To such a reader, Strether’s advice to Little Bilham might feel immediately familiar:
Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular as long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had? I’m too old—too old at any rate for what I see. What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that. Still, we have the illusion of freedom; therefore don’t, like me to-day, be without the memory of that illusion. I was either, at the right time, too stupid or too intelligent to have it, and now I’m a case of reaction against the mistake. Do what you like so long as you don’t make it. For it was a mistake. Live, live! (James 34-5)
Yet is the reader genuinely retrieving a first-hand memory of their original reading? Given that this is one of James’s most frequently quoted passages, it is likely that any re-reader of The Ambassadors has had their memory “topped up” since their last encounter with the text. And for the reader of Invisible Furies, a further layer of complication is added. Is the reader recalling James’s own words, or Heyns’s pastiche of the same passage:
All I can say is that you seem to me to be very fortunate, to have this, at any rate, to have your youth and your opportunity here, now, in this place and at this time; and to have such a friend as that. Even if you cannot have him on your terms, you can have him on the terms of Paris, which seem to me to be more generous than any terms that were ever offered to me . . . [P]ermit yourself the luxury of being in love, as long as you don’t count on its ever being returned in just the same form. (Heyns, Invisible 257)
Naturally, the greater sexual explicitness of this passage demands comment, and I shall return to this point later on. But otherwise, its defining features are borrowed from James: the dynamic of middle-age addressing youth, the tone of regret, and the equation of living fully with a willingness to commit oneself sexually. A reader turning from this passage to James’s original is therefore likely to feel the same “shock of recognition” that Christopher experiences on his return to Paris. But is the reader “remembering things, or imagining that he recognised them”? It is impossible to say for certain.
In the context of Invisible Furies, this ambiguity is problematic, because of the text’s frequent association of adaptation with diminution. Like Walter Benjamin’s work of art, the aura of Paris is depleted by its numerous reproductions. Christopher is underwhelmed by Notre Dame, surrounded as it is by the “over-praised rooftops of Paris” (11). A basket of baguettes immediately recalls a photographical subject (“Bread”, Christopher reflects, “has lost its innocence and become self-conscious”) (17). And the complexities of the city have been flattened into “Paris picturesque, so often indistinguishable from Paris cliché” (17).
Such moments recall the “standard rhetoric” surrounding adaptation, defined by Robert Stam as “an elegiac discourse of loss” (Stam 3). This discourse stems from a stubborn attachment to fidelity criticism, which judges adaptations not in their own right, but in terms of how closely they reproduce the original. For the adaptation, this is necessarily a losing battle: too much fidelity, and it is depicted as a parasite, robbing the adapted text; too much invention and it is judged to have missed the mark. Fidelity criticism has persisted, in part, because its alternative is too unthinkable. Adaptations are indulged because of their pedagogical function, their capacity to ready the reader’s mind for “the real thing”. To judge an adaptation in isolation, on its own merits, is to recast the study aid as a Derridean supplement (Danova 24). It credits the adaptation with the power to substitute the original, rather than simply to offer an “education in cultural taste” (Eaton 159).
A symbolic reading of biological reproduction in Invisible Furies offers a comparative reading that goes beyond the simple terms of same and different, theft and loss, asking how an appropriation might change our reading of its original. This metaphor is initiated when Christopher compares the young Jeanne du Plessis to her mother. Despite Christopher’s initial assertion that Jeanne “is like a cover photo next to an old master”, a more appropriate comparator is that of a lens or prism, through which Christopher has a changed view of Beatrice. He reflects that Beatrice
seemed older, tonight, not in any identifiable feature, but in her general bearing, in something indefinable that had changed in her. And then, looking again, Christopher realised that what had changed was not something in her but something in him: he had, since last seeing Beatrice, seen her daughter — and having seen, as it were, the younger incarnation, Christopher could not but be struck by the contrast. It was not that Beatrice was any less beautiful than before — it was just that one saw her now through the filter of her daughter’s fresh beauty. (208)
This is an apt metaphor for how a reading of an originating text is altered by experience of its appropriation. It is not that the source text itself is altered, but that one’s own perspective is changed. Or, to misquote Proust, the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new novels, but in having new eyes.
Christopher goes on:
It was instructive comparing the composed countenance of the mother with the expressive, labile beauty of the daughter, whose pleasure and displeasure seemed to lie just under the surface of her smooth young skin, erupting at the slightest provocation. One felt that Jeanne’s features contained surprised, sudden twists of plot; Beatrice’s face was like a sonnet, complete, contained. (213)
Part of the significance of this comparison is that it is to the detriment of neither. Beatrice and Jeanne are clearly different: one is composed, contained, complete; the other is expressive, labile, eruptive. An ideally sensitive “reader”, Christopher is able to celebrate these differences without recourse to a hierarchy of better and worse. Read symbolically, this passage raises the possibility of a comparative approach to texts that is, in Heyns’s own word, “instructive” rather than reductive.
This idea is developed when comparing another filial pairing: that of Daniel and Eric de Villiers. The father-son dynamic is immediately redolent of Harold Bloom’s ‘anxiety of influence.’ In the context of an appropriative text, we might expect to witness the scenario described by Robert Stam, whereby “the adaptation as Oedipal ‘son’ symbolically slays the source text as father” (Stam 4). In other words, we might expect Eric to replace or to eclipse Daniel, and to infer that Heyns is adopting a similarly competitive stance towards James. Yet the reality is very different. At the high point of his friendship with Eric, Christopher notes that “the son is what the father could have been, if he’d followed the generous impulses of his nature rather than the promptings of his caution. In Eric I can see what I loved in Daniel, as I once knew him” (Heyns Invisible 255). In short, Christopher’s relationship with the son renews rather than replaces his feelings for the father. As with Beatrice and Jeanne du Plessis, the experience is an instructive one; acquaintance with the child or appropriation enables a different perspective of the parent or source text.
This sense coheres even after the scales fall from Christopher’s eyes, and his relationship with Eric is radically altered. Learning that Eric intends to leave Beatrice for Jeanne, he has another experience of double vision:
Christopher looked, then, at the face in front of him, the charming, half-smiling, plausible face, and now for the first time really saw it, saw in the glint of the teeth and the lustre of the eyes, the truth of its origins and its upbringing; saw the father looking through the eyes of the son, the brutality beneath the beauty, the final indifference of youth and strength to all but its own supreme claim to life. (273-4)
Here, recognition of Eric’s true colours prompts a revelation about the father as well as the son. It is not just Eric but also Daniel who is recognised as entitled, brutal, indifferent. Or, in Christopher’s own words, “it has taken the son to make me see the father for what he is” (255).
As signalled earlier, these parent-child pairings suggest a multilateral reading of appropriative texts, one which acknowledges their potential to “refer back to and revitalise the source of their geneses” (Cardwell 13). This works in two ways: by confirming the source text’s canonicity, and by offering interpretation and critique. To develop the first point, Invisible Furies evinces the continued appetite for The Ambassadors that ensures it will remain in print, in bookshops, and on university syllabuses. Of course, this appetite is demonstrated in other ways, most notably through academic criticism. But where appropriation differs from literary criticism is by reproducing elements of the source text alongside its interrogation. The existence of appropriations by Heyns and Cynthia Ozick thus confirms the canonical status of The Ambassadors, and contributes to the aura of James’s text.
The second way in which appropriative texts revitalise their sources is by offering interpretation and critique. Just as Eric helps Christopher to see Daniel for the man he really is, Invisible Furies throws elements of The Ambassadors into sharper relief. This intention is confirmed by Heyns, who states in his acknowledgements that “my appropriation substantially recasts and reinterprets the Jamesian given” (Invisible 296). His reinterpretation concerns three main areas: focalisation, nationality, and queering. Firstly, Invisible Furies, like The Ambassadors, has a single focaliser, unlike Foreign Bodies, which contains multiple shifts in perspective. Comparison of the same scene across the three texts thus reveals the significance of James’s use of a single “center of consciousness”. Secondly, Heyns’s decision to make his characters South African undermines the journalistic emphasis on James’s innocent Americans versus worldly Europeans. And lastly, his queering of Christopher sets in motion a particular reading of Strether’s sexuality. Because of space constraints, I would like to pursue the last of these three angles.
In Henry James and Queer Modernity, Eric Haralson writes that
As recently as 1997 Michiel W. Heyns has remarked on the oddity that despite James’s well-known “strongly homoerotic” proclivities, Strether’s outpouring to Little Bilham – “Live all you can” – and the experiential regrets this imperative implies have not been “ascribed to an undeclared homosexual side” in the character. (102)
In light of this, Heyns’s pastiche of that passage in Invisible Furies serves as a revelation of the latent content he perceives in The Ambassadors. Heyns’s version is reproduced here for reference:
All I can say is that you seem to me to be very fortunate, to have this, at any rate, to have your youth and your opportunity here, now, in this place and at this time; and to have such a friend as that. Even if you cannot have him on your terms, you can have him on the terms of Paris, which seem to me to be more generous than any terms that were ever offered to me . . . [P]ermit yourself the luxury of being in love, as long as you don’t count on its ever being returned in just the same form. (257)
Here, Christopher urges Zeevee, the Little Bilham figure, to allow himself to revel in his unreciprocated love for Eric, or Chad. This attributes an “undeclared homosexual side” not only to Little Bilham, but also to Strether. Support for this is provided by Christopher’s observation that Zeevee is able to “have” Eric on terms “more generous than any . . . that were ever offered to me”. By replacing the exhortation to “live all you can” with an invitation to “permit yourself the luxury of being in love”, Heyns supports Peter Brooks’s assertion that “to live means to live sexually” (qtd. in Haralson 106). For the reader returning to The Ambassadors in the wake of Invisible Furies, Strether’s speech is not merely recognisable, it is defamiliarised. To that reader, Strether is already implicitly queer. Whether he will remain so depends on the reader’s individual interpretation, but Invisible Furies establishes a shaping analysis that must be confirmed or denied.
This is significant in redressing the “critical oversight” perceived by Haralson. He argues that critics, with the exception of Renu Bora, Hugh Stevens, and Heyns, have conspired to de-sex Strether. More specifically, they have refused to attend to his “erotic infatuations, his slipperiness as a heterosexual love object, and his discovery of a “camp” side to his personality with the help of John Little Bilham” (103). In Haralson’s view, to overlook these elements is to remain blind to the “abiding subtext” of the novel, and to misunderstand Strether’s ultimate decision to return to America (129). For him, Strether leaves for Woollett not only because he has realised the true nature of Chad’s relationship with Marie de Vionnet, but because of the inhibitions that prevent him from realising a passion for Chad as “abysmal” as Marie’s (Haralson 126).
In “outing” Strether in a novel, rather than in critical discourse, Heyns enables the non-academic reader to participate in this academic conversation. By doing so, he demonstrates the potential of appropriative literature to perform the role of literary criticism. This is not, however, to suggest that his novel merely repackages critical insights in fictional form. Rather, Heyns extends and develops these insights by emphasising the significance of Chad Newsome over Little Bilham. For Haralson, while Strether harbours a “suppressed passion” for Chad (118), Little Bilham is similarly able to inspire envy and desire (119). It is with Little Bilham that Strether is able to enjoy “something more than friendship, but less than (expressible) love” (Haralson 127). Christopher, on the other hand, dismisses Zeevee, the Little Bilham figure, as “comically tragically epically histrionically ugly” (Heyns 45). For Christopher, it is Eric de Villiers who is the real thing.
By turning Mrs Newsome into Daniel de Villiers, and by giving Christopher a palpable attraction to both father and son, Heyns updates The Ambassadors for an age of increased sexual freedom. This aspect of Invisible Furies resonates with Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, which began as a “contemporary retelling of Mrs Dalloway”. Cunningham wondered, he states, “how much, or how little, Clarissa Dalloway’s character would be altered by a world in which women were offered a broader range of possibilities” (“Virginia Woolf”). At first glance, Heyns’s twentieth-century world promises radical alterations to Lambert Strether’s character. Visiting Paris as students in the late 1970s, Christopher and Daniel are able to “walk . . . home in the early hours, drunk, arm in arm so as not to fall over”, and to “[wake] up in the same bed, hung over but eager for the new day” (Invisible 22). For Christopher, these days are the happiest he can recall, and he accepts the role of ambassador in the “vain hope of someday recovering something of that happiness” (228). Meeting Eric in Paris in 2008, Christopher is immediately struck by his “long limbs”, “sculpted shoulders”, and “narrow hips”, and by “his skin, lambent with its light layer of sweat” (145). Heyns thus creates the expectation that Christopher will embark on an affair with Eric, an affair that would constitute a symbolic realisation of Strether’s prohibited feelings for Chad.
Yet the reality is somewhat different. Yes, twenty-first century Paris is a world in which Christopher can admit to loving Eric, albeit in a “hypothetical sort of way” (255). But Invisible Furies still ends, like The Ambassadors, with the protagonist suffering a sense of loss, not of a “substantial possession”, but of a “possibility, a loss of what beauty seems to promise” (292). In other words, Heyns’s queer reading of The Ambassadors voices the latent content in James’s novel, but does not substantially alter its outcome. His story is still a tale of loss and renunciation, however differently the participants may be aligned. Like Cunningham’s The Hours, in which Clarissa is free to live with Sally but still harbours feelings for an old friend, Invisible Furies resists over-emphasising the temporal specificity of its source text. It resists the suggestion that had James’s characters lived in a more sexually permissive age, their problems would have miraculously faded away. The result is to emphasise the continued relevance, even the timelessness, of James’s novel, its potential to speak to those who, no matter how liberated, remain fundamentally unhappy.
In short, Heyns’s queer reading of The Ambassadors realises the symbolic potential implied by his treatment of biological reproduction. Just as Eric and Jeanne enabled new perspectives on Daniel and Beatrice, so Invisible Furies serves to generate new readings of its parent text. Along with more conventional forms of criticism, it contributes to redressing the oversight that “de-sexed” Strether, and emphasises Chad Newsome over Little Bilham. It also extends these conversations to include the non-academic reader. Ultimately, Heyns fulfils James’s own view of appropriation as synonymous with interpretation. “To criticize”, we remember, “is to appreciate, to appropriate, to take intellectual possession, to establish in fine a relation with the criticized thing and to make it one’s own” (James, Preface to Maisie 155).
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