September 7th, 2020 / 11:30 am

The Jolly Corner

Some months ago, I was rereading Colm Toibin’s great first novel, The South, when I realized something about the way a voice is made—or maybe I would say forged. I’ve heard Colm talk in interviews about the silences in his family—the hush that fell over his home in (I believe) Enniscorthy, Ireland after his father died when he he was young. He talks about the way the unsaid reigned over his home, the way that much of what was important lay well on the nether side of speech. And you can hear that in the rhythm of his prose, even when he isn’t writing about Enniscorthy and the spaces in which he was raised. You can hear that hush, that sense of the unsaid as an “unmoved mover,” as the lost pater familias in command of the family. You can hear those empty hallways and that ghostly tonality. 

I think also of Henry James’s story “The Jolly Corner,” which has been on my mind these many months when many of us have been (lucky enough to be!) barricaded in our homes. In this story—like The Turn of the Screw, haunted not so much by a ghost but by the possibility that it is in the end a ghost story—the main character returns to the New York City of his youth, after being gone for thirty-three years, to look at his family’s (all of whom are dead) two old properties, one of which is being renovated. His childhood home is located on “the jolly corner,” and I suppose it’s James’s thesis that it is only at our own jolly corners that we can struggle with grief and regret, disenchantment and the treachery of memory. (NB: I cribbed some of this synopsis from Wikipedia.) Like James himself, he finds the city materialistic and vulgar. Let me quote from Colm’s introduction to the New York Review of Books’s The New York Stories of Henry James:

In “The Jolly Corner,” written after his American sojourn of 1905, James found a new doubled self to dramatize, the man who had left New York and lived in England, and his double, still haunting him, who had never left, who still wandered in those same rooms which would fill James’s autobiography and had filled his novel “Washington Square.” … [Brydon, the main character] has kept his old house downtown empty all the years [he has been gone], having it cleaned and cared for every day. He now goes there to be haunted by a figure moving in its dark rooms, the figure who has never left them, just as James himself in part of his mind has never left them.

My thinking is that we are often, as we write, moving through these dark rooms, these jolly corners that we have long haunted. We are confronted by our doubles and must struggle with them—and not only in content, but in form, in voice. In my experience, the way that my family talked to each other, the kinds of conversations we had, the things that were spoken of and those that were not—the particular hushes, the specific silences and also excesses of saying—all of this informs my voice when I am writing authentically. I am haunted by the language of youth and home. Of course, in “The Jolly Corner,” the protagonist ends up physically fighting his double—for dominance over the jolly corner, for sovereignty over his own memories. For other still more difficult reasons, I’m sure. So when I write, what is the struggle? If, like James’s protagonist, I am fighting a shadow-self, what are we struggling over? What kind of terrain is at stake?  

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