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Sunday, 30 December 2012

The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James, Reviewed

Not the cover of the edition I read, but the same publisher.
A classic, of course, and, for the story, deservedly so. But this is one of those books, from the literary past, which might actually benefit from an update, a rewrite in the modern style. In many works of literature, the language, style of writing, method of expression all contribute to the overall effect of the story. This is not one of those works. This is a ghost story, an attempt to frighten and disturb the reader. But its effect is diminished by convoluted language, by unnecessarily complex sentence structure and by authorial intrusion. The pace is slowed and barriers are placed in the way of progress through the story without adding anything of value to the tale itself. Written for a different age, when time was of little consequence to those who had the means to read, it is a short novel that could easily have been told in half the words employed. In fact, such shortening would undoubtedly have improved the book.

The emotional impact of the story, once filtered from the excess, is potentially profound. Who could fail to be moved by the malign influence of the jealous spirits of the wicked dead on the innocence of children? Of course, the nature of the wickedness of those dead who provide the ghosts isn’t detailed, merely hinted at in that infuriating fashion employed by Victorian authors writing about sexual matters. We guess, but are never made certain, that the individuals whose spirits cause such consternation, are those of improper lovers. But the modern reader doesn’t harbour such restricted views of relationships, class barriers no longer exist, and the outrage felt by the governess and the housekeeper is therefore made ludicrous. If the language allowed the reader to accept the strictures of the day, it would have been easier to understand and even empathise with the emotions of the narrator and her friend. But I found the very language prevented my sympathies aligning with the social mores so that I frequently questioned exactly what was the evil these two dead people actually presented.

On the back of the edition I read, the blurb describes this book as ‘Widely recognised as one of literature’s most gripping ghost stories…’ I did not find it so. I found it tedious for much of the narrative, self-congratulatory throughout, and more concerned with a demonstration of the author’s cleverness than with any attempt to engage the reader with the emotions of the protagonists. Much repetition and a deal of extraneous information detract from the story itself. And the story is an excellent conceit. I think it could have been written so much better by employing much more discipline and far fewer words.

But, then, what do I know? The book has gained the status of a classic. I read the story, by the way, in the unabridged version of 1898, as published in 1991 by Dover Publications Inc. Would it encourage me to read more of James? I think not; I don’t have that much time to spare.

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