Tuesday, 28 September 2010

One Bad Turn...


A few of you commented on my mention on The Turn of the Screw the other day, and I'm afraid this is confession time. I'm well aware that this almost certainly a case of wrong reader/wrong time, rather than wrong book, but... it didn't work for me at all.

I'd seen the production at Christmas (partly filmed in the graveyard of my church in Somerset, doncha know); I'd seen another production about a decade ago. I'm reading lots of fantasy theory books at the moment, and it keeps being mentioned as a famously ambiguous text. Simon, I said to myself, get over your dislike of Henry James (based entirely on one interminable 'short' story) and get The Turn of the Screw off the shelf.

So I did. The plot is well known. A governess is hired to look after a man's niece and nephew, Flora and Miles, the latter of whom has recently been expelled from school. The uncle puts her in charge, with only one stipulation: he is on no account to be disturbed. But it's the governess who is disturbed - she starts to see mysterious figures wandering the grounds, who don't seem to be seen by any other members of the household. And she learns that the previous governess, Miss Jessel, and her lover Peter Quint, had died under curious circumstances... events come together to convince the governess that the figures she sees are their ghosts, and she suspects the children may not be as unaware and innocent as they seem... Even writing that synopsis, I am intrigued - I'm imagining it in the hands of Shirley Jackson, and am enthralled. I daresay she owes a lot to James. But...

The novella is one of those stories-within-a-story, and is framed by an unnamed narrator reading a manuscript account to a friend. This is just the first of the techniques which put the reader as a distance - the most strident being James' complex style. The tangle of his sentences means that the reader - or at least this reader - clambers along the surface of the text, never dipping below the words on the page to the caverns of images they should produce.
The day was grey enough, but the afternoon light still lingered, and it enabled me, on crossing the threshold, not only to recognise, on a chair near the wide window, then closed, the articles I wanted, but to become aware of a person on the other side of the window and looking straight in. One step into the room had sufficed; my vision was instantaneous; it was all there. The person looking straight in was the person who had already appeared to me. He appeared thus again with I won't say greater distinctness, for that was impossible, but with a nearness that represented a forward stride in our intercourse and made me, as I met him, catch my breath and turn cold. He was the same - he was the same, and seen, this time, as he had been seen before, from the waist up, the window, though the dining-room was on the ground-floor, not going down to the terrace on which he stood.
I picked that section more or less at random, but it is actually one of the few moments which actually made an impression on me - but even now, re-reading it, his sentences are so convoluted and intricate that I am barely able to rescue a picture from the effort of disentangling his syntax. It's not because I'm unused to 19th century books - I've read a lot in the past, and quite a few recently. It's definitely James.

Is this all deliberate? Is it worthwhile? Did The Turn of the Screw flounder for me because I was so tired when I read it? I can admire James - I can certainly admire the imagination which structured the ambiguity of the novella's conclusion, but I cannot love or enjoy him. Worse, a lot of the time I can barely understand him. Please, counsel for the defence, step forward and tell me what I'm missing?

15 comments:

  1. Have you tried Daisy Miller which is probably the easiest way in to Henry James? You have to dive into those sentences and let yourself be carried along by the flow ... on the other hand, if you don't like him, why force yourself!

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  2. I once tried The Turn of the Screw, and got about 12 pages in. I didn't actively give up on it, but I could never summon up the will to pick the book up again.

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  3. I quite enjoyed Turn of the Screw, and have read it several times, but reading that quote I must admit I wonder how I could have. Perhaps I was just feeling very patient! Years ago I read a number of James's books, but I don't feel much inclined to tangle with his prose style these days. However, I did re-read TOTS fairly recently, after watching a television adaptation that I thought particularly unsatisfactory. There is a frustrating feeling to the story that the meaning is there if only you could penetrate the layers - I'm not entirely sure that that isn't its fascination for many people. I think Mary is right about the technique for reading James, but also that there's no point in persevering if you don't like him.

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  4. The old black and white film (titled 'The Innocents') was brilliantly atmospheric and scared me stiff the first time I saw it. I haven't had the courage to read James though!

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  5. I cannot comment on Henry James's story here, since I have not read it, but I heartily recommend Britten's opera which is set on it. The plot is nebulous enough to allow different productions to draw different conclusions and the orchestration is wonderfully atmospheric.

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  6. Well, you've certainly made me gun-shy about this one (which is unfortunate since I picked it up at Barnes&Noble on the 3 for 2 classics sale last week). That said, I did enjoy James' Portrait of a Lady. I didn't necessarily like the characters and the choices they made, but it was not a slog-through to read it. Maybe it would be a better James if you need to read anything else by him. But, as Mary said, why force yourself to read anything more by him if you don't care for his style. (Something I'm learning a little late in my reading career. :) )

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  7. I have to concur with you on The Turn of The Screw. Too say I was seriously underwhelmed by it all would be a massive understatement.

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  8. I can't, Simon, because I can't do Henry James either. I have tried so many times and have been defeated on each attempt by his ridiculous flowery prose that never gets to the point. Life is too short! I saw the adaptation of this last Christmas..gave me the willies! And now I don't need to read it, because I know the story!

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  9. I have tried Henry James many times and won't do it again. I just can't stand his prose and I am not interested in his plots. I'm too old now to waste any more time on him when there are so many other wonderful writers/books out there.

    Don't second guess yourself, Simon! Obviously, HJ is not for you.

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  10. Thanks for an honest review. I just never knew what was really going on in this story. Even after reading reviews and others' comments I still don't. I too feel as if I'm forcing myself to read when I read James. Turn of the Screw, What Maisie Knew, and The Golden Bowl are all I've read but I gave him a chance. I don't think you should beat yourself up over it. You may come back to him later in life when your tastes have changed.

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  11. I feel exactly the same way about Turn of the Screw, right down to thinking I should like it when I explain the plot to someone. It seems like exactly my kind of book. I was so convinced that I was the problem on my first reading that I attempted to read it again years later and had the same problem!

    Oddly enough, though, I read Portrait of a Lady last year and adored it. I thought it was utterly brilliant, and I seem to recall at least one other person commenting on my post about it that she thinks James's long fiction is better than his short fiction.

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  12. I liked very much "The turn of the screw". But, as we say in French "des goûts et des couleurs"

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  13. I think I'm in the minority here, but I really like Henry James. There's an intelligent grace in the structure of all those long, looooong sentences. Although I have to admit, this is one of the few cases where the film/tv productions are generally better than the story.

    I'm not sure what kind of reader you are, but I have to make myself actively slow down and read James very closely. Hard for someone as impatient as myself, but it's rewarding for things such as What Maisie Knew and The Wings of the Dove. Maybe it would help? But, as others have said, why waste time on someone you don't like? I spent far too much time trying to read D.H. Lawrence...now I'm content with quite cheerfully loathing him. :)

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  14. But surely that's the point. This is one time when James' maddeningly obscure prose serves the story. We're not sure what's going on and neither does the character.

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  15. I'm very curious to hear your interpretation of the ambiguous ending despite your dislike of the book.

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