Thread: Henry James
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Old 10th Oct 2005, 17:52   #7
Senior Palimpsester
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Join Date: 2 Dec 2004
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Default Re: Henry James

Have just finished my first Henry James - The Turn of the Screw. If I appear to have come to such a renowned literary figure rather late in life, it's only because I was all too aware of his reputation for excessive wordiness and what I was led to believe was a very ornate, yet excessively languid approach to storytelling. Anyway, this James-virgin-no-more is very happy to report back that she was very pleasantly surprised. Not for nothing has he earned his status in the world of high literature.

The Turn of the Screw certainly had me turning the pages alright, so much so, that given time to rest up for my next onslaught, I'll certainly tackle him again - and something lengthier next time. TotS is a delightfully slim novella, a mere 110 pages (and very little pages they are in the Penguin Classics edition I borrowed from the library - quite, quite bijou!). I won't go into the plot - am sure most Palimpsters are all too familiar with it as it is - but I will say how much I thoroughly enjoyed the super-charged atmosmosphere James creates in this shiversome little tale. And just as effective was the manner in which he leaves so much open for the reader to decide. Almost all the characters - no, strike the 'almost' - ALL the characters were written in such a way, you could spend hours debating what made them tick. The most intriguing one of the motley bunch, to my mind, being the protagonist, the new school governess herself who acts as narrator for the main thread of the story. Her motives were decidely questionable, I decided. While on the face of things, she was set up as the force for sanity and goodness, I found her peculiarly off-centre in some of her actions and motivations. Not sure I'd want her let loose with my little darlings, that's for sure. Like I say, intriguing stuff.

Overall I was longing to give this wonderful little gem the full five stars, but one thing let it down and was a source of irritation, albeit it an infrequent one. While James's style IS highly ornate, mostly I thoroughly enjoyed the rather tortuous process of having to unpick many of his sentences to derive their true and full meaning. His is a singularly complicated but fascinatingly effective method of writing, each sentence being interrupted by a ridiculous series of sub clauses so they end up a little like one of those russian doll sets: clauses within clauses within phrases, within sentences. Phew! But on some occasions this process is taken so far that HJ gets his literary knickers in a complete pickle, the meaning lost in a spaghetti of convolution. Even Edith Wharton (more of her later) who was a close friend and confidante of James, and a writer of immense standing and ability in her own right, said he was sometimes just damn unintelligible. Apparently, in his later years, James took to using the services of a stenographer which (allegedly) appeared to alter his style. I wouldn't know whether he used one for Turn of the Screw or not and if this may or may not have had any bearing on matters. All I do know is that apart from this carp - a legitimate one, think since intelligibility is something I take as a given when reading respected scribes - I enjoyed Mr James's overwrought but highly evocative storytelling enormously.

Just to give you a flavour of the HJ brand of knicker-twisting in all its glory, try these two examples out for size:

The homage of which they were so lavish succeeded, in truth, for my nerves, quite as well as if I never appeared to myself, as I may say, literally to catch them at a purpose in it.
and just in case you still know which way is up, here's the extraodinary sentence that includes the book's title:

I could only get on at all by taking 'nature' into my confidence and my account, by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction unusual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.
Er ... come again, flower?

Last edited by HP; 10th Oct 2005 at 19:08.
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