Saturday, August 07, 2010

not unsilly

The morose looking chap at left is Henry James, the author of the celebrated short novel "The Turn of the Screw," and other tedious, over-written novels and stories.

"Turn of the Screw" was a product of the late 19th century, when late Victorian artists and writers were overloading their productions with endless ornamentation, bric-a-brac, gingerbread, and curlicues. I'd heard of the story, of course, and was familiar with the standard critical appraisal of James as a "master" fiction sylist. I was never motivated to actually read the thing until I discovered that my friend the perfesser once wrote a book, now out of print and selling for big bucks on Amazon, analyzing the historical context in which "Turn of the Screw" was conceived as a way of dealing with the two major conflicting interpretations of it, and rendering an authoritative judgment on which interpretation has greater merit.

I don't want to broach that subject here, however, except to say there might not have been conflicting interpretations of the story if its author had communicated it a little more effectively. But Mr. James, who admitted in his correspondence that he built the story using a formula (a blueprint, as it were) was thus freed to concentrate entirely on style, which is throughout this tiresome potboiler characterized by inscrutable subtlety, sentences built on double and triple negative statements, indirect references, and a scrupulous avoidance of straight answers.

It concerns a governess, one of those 19th-century nursemaid/tutors, who is sent to care for a young girl and her brother in a haunted house. The ghosts of two domestics formerly employed in the place are the story's spooks and villains. This pair was apparently sexually involved when alive, although their physical liason, like everything else in this sweaty, overworked tale is implied by the author and inferred by the reader rather than stated directly. Nothing here is ever stated directly.

For example, when the governess tells her confidante in the household, a lower-status female domestic, about a conversation she had with the female ghost, the confidante asks if the apparition actually spoke. "It came to that," the governess replies, which probably means "She might as well have spoken, but she didn't literally speak real words," although we can't be absolutely sure. Events, people, and conversations throughout the story are slippery, evasive, vague, and all but impossible to nail down. I'm sure the author intended this effect, and thought it enormously clever in its subtlety.

All the unselfconscious hysteria of late Victorianism is here, from the fear of sex to the intolerable sentimentality in James's descriptions of the children to the love of evasion and attendant dislike of straightforward, blunt observation. I wasn't able to finish this root canal of a story, but I read enough of it to feel astonished when comparing it to, say, the stunning clarity of style exhibited in Defoe's first-person fictional narrative "Moll Flanders," that Anglo-American literary standards could have become so thoroughly degraded over the relatively short span of 200 years.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Dave, I was captivated by your post today.