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What Maisie Knew - Portrait of a Child After his disastrous shot at playwriting which occupied him for a few years Henry James finally returned to what he knew best writing novels What Maisie Knew 1897 is perhaps the finest of James middle period books a relatively simple story about a young girl of seven or eight who endures her parents acrimonious divorce and a lot else besides There are said to be James cultists who can spot the exact point in What Maisie Knew when the Master suffering from a wrist injury gave up writing his tale himself and began dictating it to a male secretary The outrageous sentences that turn up in his last books a veritable car crash pile-up of clauses are said to have stemmed from this different way of working Maisie is relatively easy to follow though you might find yourself going back over a sentence to get its full flavor Reading some of James sentences is like hang-gliding from the first word to the period--you take in so much information along the way that youre likely to get a bit giddy The act of writing to James was a highly delicate operation as if he were building a house of cards and the least slip would ruin the design Though Maisie is not a perfect book it is filled with James elaborate literary feats those suspenseful sleights of hand that always induce pleasurable gasps at each successful intellectual vibration Maisie must have been a particularly difficult book to write because James has to retain the perfect balance between a childs-eye point of view and a sophisticated third person narrative Viewed in this way the book is truly a triumph In What Maisie Knew a fearsomely bland even absurd title that of course fits the novel to a T James is pursuing one of his favorite themes the corruption of innocence In his hands this
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