Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Turn of the Phrase

For some reason, I have barely read any Henry James--Daisy Miller so long ago it really doesn't count and The Aspern Papers a year or so ago as a follow up to John Berendt's City of Falling Angels.

The RIP challenge that is make the blog rounds got me to thinking that a good ghost story would be a fun read, and since The Turn of the Screw has so many fans, is by a classic writer I haven't really read, I decided to give it a go. Plus, I had picked up this version of the story (The Turn of the Screw (Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism)) at my used bookstore and it's been just collecting dust for awhile.

In a nutshell, James is not a walk in the park.

On the upside, I can understand Hemingway better after having attempted to read James. He makes me want to write short, direct sentences as well!

The story itself (i.e., Turn of the Screw) is really good, but I feel like I have to diagram each sentence to make sense of it. I have to reread sections, and the parentheticals are driving me crazy. I like his vocabulary, but the denseness of his style tends to undercut his ability to build tension. The story just loses momentum when the reader is forced to reread for meaning.

In a way, I'm looking forward to reading the essays that follow the text at least as much as the story itself.

All my ranting aside, the story really is good. I know the current governess gets out alive because the framed part of the story is that the narrator is reading her manuscript, which she wrote after leaving Bly. I've got my eye on Mrs. Grose--she knows more than she is letting on. Those kids are getting spookier by the minute. Maybe James really did know what he was doing...

Here's an image from the movie The Innocents, which is based on the book. I imagine I'll be watching it sometime this fall.


  1. I bought a secondhand copy of Turn of the Screw recently - haven't started reading it yet, but I'll bear your comments in mind.

    It was the book Reading Lolita in Tehran that persuaded me to try Henry James. (It also persuaded me to read Lolita!)

  2. I find James hard work as well. I have tried and started very well with 'Portrait of a Lady'. However, that may have had more to do with the TV production in the late 60s starring Richard Chamberlain than it did with James. Is it possible that at that stage no one had told me that James was hard work and so I just got on and read him? I then read 'Washington Square' and I think that probably is a good place to start, not too long. But since then, everything I've tried I've put down. I'm not going to try 'The Turn of the Screw' because I don't enjoy ghost and horror stories so there would be a double turn off. but I might have a go at 'The Aspern Papers'.
    Something I did read and very much enjoy was Colm Toibin's 'The Master', which is about James. Very highly recommended.

  3. Tracy - Interesting comment about Lolita and Reading Lolita in Tehran. I never considered reading Lolita until I read RLiT--haven't yet, but I might. RLiT prompted me to finally read Huck Finn, for which I will be forever grateful as it truly is a masterpiece. I wonder whether the author of RLiT has anything new out...must check.

    Ann - thanks for the rec on The Master. That sounds like just my kind of book. I'm not much of a horror reader myself, though I do like a good ghost story (ala Dickens and Gaskell). My main question for you is how can fan of Shakespeare not enjoy ghost stories? They're everywhere in his plays? :)

  4. I may just have to pass on this one...I definitely don't want to reread a sentence...I'll do that when I'm reading in Spanish!

  5. Jane, that's an interesting question. I suspect the answer has something to do with the fact that other people are controlling the pace of the experience and therefore I can't linger on the horror. When you're reading you can get stuck.

  6. Jane, I haven't read James, though I love ghost stories. I have seen 'The Innocents' though and it is a very eerie and haunting and incidious film that sticks to you. A good one for Halloween! Another eerie film with a strange atmosphere is 'The Others'

  7. Jane - I've just read Lolita - it's one of those books I felt I ought to read but couldn't bear to, but having read RLiT I thought, OK, maybe I ought to try it. took me quite a long time to read - Nabokov's writing style is wonderful - here's an author who loves playing with words, but it's the subject matter that I couldn't cope with - spending time inside the mind of that egotistical monster Humbert Humbert and his excuses for his actions made my skin crawl. I found the subplot involving Quilty pretty strange and unbelievable too.

    TableTalk - I'm not a big fan of ghost stories and I can't stand horror stories, but Turn of the Screw sounds more like a psychological exploration, which does interest me.

  8. Jezebel - I think Lolita might be too depressing for me to handle. I don't mind deep, complex books but my moods are pretty susceptible to what I read. I usually list Miss Lonelyhearts as the worst book I ever read because it made me feel so bad, and this is from a woman who actually likes Tess of the d'Urbevilles. It could be that the Victorian value system saves tragic Victorian novels from depressing me, whereas a lot of 20th century downer fiction has nothing redeemable in that vein. Hmmm--I know I'm pretty Victorian in my "progress is good--world is getting better--technology can save us" philosophy, but I hadn't tried to figure out why Tess doesn't depress me when I know Lolita would.

    Echostains - I think I've heard of The Others...I can read scary stuff a lot easier than I can watch it, but a good psychological thriller is great. I loved THe Sixth Sense.

  9. Lolita has a fairly hopeful ending, I thought - more hopeful than you'd expect.

    Anything featuring the horrors of WWII really upsets me, so even though The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was upbeat for most of the story, I found it quite depressing, even though the ending is very hopeful. It's too recent. Whereas Victorian horror stories are sufficiently far in the past to be viewed as stories, anything 20th or this century is too close to home, I find.

    Though 'fraid I find Tess of the D'Urbervilles too depressing, but I have just bought Far From The Madding Crowd in a second attempt at reading Hardy.