John Banville on M. R. James

Fri May 2, 2008

Montague Rhodes James (to distinguish between the Jameses, Leithauser, with a familiarity that would have made both men stare, refers to them as “Henry” and “Montie”) was a Cambridge don—”linguist, paleographer, medievalist, biblical scholar”—who wrote ghost stories to amuse his bachelor colleagues over the port and plum pudding at high table at Christmas time in the early years of the century. “If Montie is an ancillary literary figure,” Leithauser writes, somewhat defensively, “he looks to be a durable one, and surely few writers have ever won a portion of immortality with such quick, light-handed ease.” Quick? Light-handed? M.R. James’s stories, with their roast-beef heartiness and chortling misanthropy, always make me think of those waistcoated, choleric bores one still encounters on wet days in slow trains in provincial England. No amount of uncovered sexual longings can make these yarns come alive for me.

From this review [NYRB subscriber only, sadly] of the Norton Anthology of Ghost Stories.

I generally find Banville’s opinions piquant, if not always agreeable, but this doesn’t seem to get “Montie” quite right at all. I also suspect that Banville is no stranger to musty archives, so that can’t explain it either. The title of this piece (“Uh-Heimlich Maneuver”) is also uncommonly bad, though I’m sure that’s an editorial matter.