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17th March
2009
written by Steph
I didn't read this edition, but oh how I wish I had!

I didn't read this edition, but oh how I wish I had!

This is the first Henry James I’ve read in about 8 years.  I read The Portrait of a Lady back when I was doing my senior year English credit over the summer in Oxford, England;  I wrote an essay about it and Sense & Sensibility… that, and the fact that I watched a movie version of the novel starring Nicole Kidman and John Malkovitch, is about all I remember.  Since then, I’ve always meant to read more James (and potentially re-read Portrait), but it wasn’t until a recent trip to the library that I actually made good on this intention.  Being unable to procure a copy of The Great Gatsby (I know!  What kind of a library is this anyway?), I instead picked up a slender volume of The Turn of the Screw and considered it a fair trade. So, what to say about The Turn of the Screw?  Overall, I really enjoyed it, even though I will fully admit that James’s writing was such that at times I wasn’t quite sure what the heck was going on.  I mean this in both a very specific literal sense, as well as a more holistic, general sense.  Henry James can be kind of laborious to read at times, and his style is not exactly for the faint at heart.  There were several instances while reading this novella when I marveled at my 17-year old self’s ability to persevere through and understand the much longer The Portrait of a Lady.  How did I manage that, when at 26 I often found myself incapable of parsing some of James’s more tangled sentences?  At times I actually resorted to reading aloud in an attempt to untangle the meaning buried within… generally I found I could understand the first 75% on its own, and the last 75% of the sentence on its own, but when you put the whole thing together, I lost it once again.  Forget the somewhat outdated and archaic language, James’s sentence structure is rife with digressions and interjections, and punctuated in a way that felt slightly foreign to me.  To me, James’s writing feels a lot older than it is – The Turn of the Screw was written in 1898, but reads as though it came before Jane Austen’s work or even the Bronte sisters’, and they were all dead a good 70 years before its publication.  What’s up with that? OK, so at times I felt the language was causing a fog to rise up in my brain rather than penetrating my skull with acute clarity, but then there was this whole issue of how the whole story is in and of itself kind of ambiguous.  The basic conceit of the story is that a governess takes on a job in which she must look after two young siblings at an old country manor, Bly.  Throughout her time there, she begins to see apparitions of two individuals who used to work at Bly, and she is convinced that they mean to do harm to her wards.  What’s worse is she believes her wards are in cahoots with the ghostly visitors!  The vast majority of the novella is her recounting her encounters with the ghosts as well as her mounting suspicion against the children and her attempts to save them.  The thing is, there are twists and reveals throughout the novel that lead you to believe that the narrator may not be wholly reliable, which is certainly an interesting spin on things.  So there’s the whole not completely believing the narrator, but on a completely different level, because the story is so outrageously Victorian in tone and spirit, there are times when the characters refuse to speak candidly but instead are all roundabout in their broaching of subjects, which paired with James’s language sometimes made it so that I couldn’t know for sure exactly what the people were so obsessed/scandalized/upset about. (For those of you who’ve read this novella, why were the governess and Mrs. Grose so scandalized by Quint’s behavior in the past?  Is it really that he was so chummy with Miles and this was Not Done because of his lower station, or was there something more… sinister about it?) My earlier simile comparing James to reading a foreign language is perhaps quite apt because at times I read as though I WERE reading French or some language that I’m tolerably fluent in but not completely so, so that I could understand the gist of what was going on and that something Bad had happened, or that there was cause for Alarm, but I kept feeling like something was slipping by me… which was frustrating because English IS my first language.  Only, apparently Henry James and I spoke a very different kind of English. (Do you think Henry would find my writing equally confusing?  Somehow, I doubt it…) But despite moments of frustration and incredulity at some of James’s more arduous turns of phrase, I was delighted by The Turn of the Screw.  I found the story so Victorian, and that pleased me a good deal.  I found I could ultimately get into a good rhythm with the prose and quite happily turned the pages to find out what would happen next.  I admired James’s deftness in catapulting the reader into the story – you get about 10 pages of lead-up telling you you’re about to hear a spooky story, and then bam!  You’re reading it!  I’m not used to authors essentially throwing you into the story without 50+ pages of lead-up, so this was actually a really welcome change.  I suppose by modern-day standards the actually spooky element in The Turn of the Screw is not really all that spooky, but I still found there was a lot to enjoy within the pages.  (As somewhat of an aside, it has made me more optimistic and eager to try out some Wilkie Collins, for reasons I can’t precisely pinpoint.)  I borrowed this one from the library, but I had such fun with it, that I think it would be one I’d like to add to my home library (and really, isn't that the highest praise any of us can bestow on a book?).  Additionally, I think it’s the kind of book that almost necessitates further re-readings, because for a short book, it has an awful lot going on in it and I think there’s a lot that could be read into.  In that vein, while this was fun to read on its own, I think it’s a great book for group discussion in a book club.  If you haven’t read any James previously, I think this would be a nice introduction, though how representative it is of his other works, I really can’t say.  Nonetheless, I think its brevity is a nice asset, and still conveys a good sense of James’s writing.  I definitely plan to re-read this novel in the future (and will hopefully be able to give more coherent review of some of the ideas and themes then, since I certainly didn’t do so now!), and will definitely be exploring more of the Henry James oeuvre.  He is a challenging author, but I found the time I spent contemplating his writing well spent. Rating: 4 out of 5

12 Comments

  1. 03/17/2009

    I liked the unreliable narrator aspect, especially since it’s a ghost story. I felt like I got to experience the emotions along with the governess.

  2. 03/17/2009

    Oh yes, I think it was a key element to the story… if you know flat out that she’s crazy (and I don’t necessarily believe she is, by the way), then it really changes your reading of the story dramatically. I actually felt like there really could have been ghosts, and the children were evil, but that might just be my own personal bias… 😉

  3. 03/17/2009

    Yes, Henry James’ over-embellished and often digressive narrative can sometimes be frustrating. Back-tracking is often mandatory in order to fully appreciate his works. I haven’t read this novel, although I’m not unfamiliar with his unreliable character. I didn’t know this is a ghost story, sort of. Thanks for the excellent review.

  4. 03/18/2009

    After reading Henry James, I almost feel like there are few authors I can’t tackle! I do tend to find that after spending some time with a challenging author my next few reads seem to breeze by… but it’s the getting through those challenging authors that’s the issue!

    I think James must be a very talented writer, because even though I did find his narrative discursive at times, I still really enjoyed the whole story overall and never really thought about giving up the ghost! (heh) I will definitely read this one again, and hopefully glean more from it next time! There’s a lot to consider in it – if you ever try it, I’ll be sure to check out your thoughts on it.

  5. 03/18/2009

    I have never read any James, but I have had The Golden Bowl sitting on my shelves for quite a long while. I have heard many people say that his use of language was a bit difficult, but after reading your review I think it might be an enjoyable challenge. It sounds like you really enjoyed this one. Sometimes I enjoy it when an author goes a bit over my head, which is pretty much what I expect with James. Great review.

  6. 03/18/2009

    Zibilee, I think you completely get how I felt about this book – it was challenging, yes, but that actually contributed to the fun of it. I do not think the story would be so successful if James had written a straightforward narrative. I kind of liked being lost in the prose at times! That in and of itself is a huge accomplishment, I think. Even though his prose is dense, it didn’t really feel hard, and it was never unenjoyable. I’ve never heard of The Golden Bowl, but I’d love to hear what you think of it when you eventually get to it!

  7. 03/19/2009

    Reading James feels like being all tangled up in wires. You have to persevere and find the way out of the mess. The other James, James Joyce is just as difficult. It’s like after finishing a Toni Morrison books, everything reads like pulp fiction!

  8. 03/19/2009

    Oh Matt, I haven’t even really tried tackle James Joyce! I think Henry James is a cakewalk compared to him! We have A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as well as Ulysses kicking around the apartment, but neither Tony nor I have mustered up the cajones yet to try either of them!

  9. 04/11/2009

    I absolutely loved this book…partly because after reading the book, I was not able to figure out what exactly was going on.

    These days, too many writers tie up all the ends very neatly at the end of the book. It was a pleasure to read one where we could interpret the story in our own way.

    http://nishitak.wordpress.com

  10. 04/13/2009

    Nishita, I agree that one of the great things about this book was all the food for thought it provides. James doesn’t do a lot of hand-holding in this one, that’s for sure! I think this one would be great for a book club, because there would certainly be many different opinions about it that would lead to lively discussion.

  11. You make it sound so good. I’ll make sure I save it for a time when I don’t have any distractions, so I can concentrate on the writing.

  12. 10/14/2009

    @ Jackie: Probably a good idea! James’s writing is not effortless for a modern reader, but it’s a wonderful story!

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