Friday, August 6, 2010

Suspense in the Hands of Henry James

My first post comes from the sickbed.  My wife, Nancy, had suggested to me that I start this blog, and being laid up for a week gave me an opportunity to find out how to do it.  I wish I could blame any problems on my illness, but I'm afraid I'm thinking about as well as possible -- I think.

I had first read The Turn of the Screw a few years ago on a business trip, supposing by its slender dimensions that it would be a good one-day read on the airplane.  I'm a slow reader.  To my wife, a slender volume might look like a good way to occupy one flight.  But I have to plan according to the pace of the Easily Distracted.  Apparently, though, I didn't read slowly enough; as I finished the book (some time during the second flight), it occurred to me that I had no idea what I had just read.

I know.  I should have started over right then and there.  But of course I had something else in line for the rest of the trip, and whatever it was surely must have looked like fresh air after James.  So I promised myself to get back to it Someday.  And with nothing else to do today, Someday arrived.

This second read brought me some comfort: I know what happened now, and I know that the report of what happened is ambiguous.  Even the title is given two explanations in the text!  So while I'm still confused, I know why this time.  My family can tell you: after a movie, I'm often confused about what I'm supposed to be confused about.  So this feels pretty good right now.

But, really, does James have to be so tedious in his mechanics?  I know that Strunk & White represent and teach a lean twentieth-century style that the Victorian James can't be expected to follow.  (My favorite author doesn't, and I love him for it!)  But surely his prose could have used a good scrubbing with rule 16: "Keep related words together."  Here's a representative sentence: "I found myself, to meet my friend the better, offering it, on the spot, sarcastically."  James is a master of the character who can't come to a conclusion in a decision-making process; perhaps he sympathizes, often finding it troublesome to come to the conclusion of a sentence.  Get rid of the awkward commas and repair the broken main clause, and we have a sentence we can deal with: "To meet my friend the better, I found myself offering it sarcastically on the spot."  Now if I only knew what "it" was.

I'm so glad I reread the book.  Yesterday, all I could have said was "There's two kids and a house."  Today I'm fairly sure that the two children provide the originals for all the creepy kids on Twilight Zone and X-Files, and for that, if for nothing else, I am grateful.

1 comment:

  1. I think I may start reading the stuff on this list. Of course, I've read most of the Lewis already (and I read it quite often), but I would like to broaden the scope of sophisticated books that I read.