the mutt

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

Posted in Book Reviews, Writing by grx20 on November 3, 2008

(As with all my reviews, no spoilers or revelations other than the ones already mentioned in the blurb. Promise!)

Digging into classics is a daunting task. I’ve approached it by starting with slim books that are over a hundred pages, but less than two hundred. Of course, as most of you are already commenting, slim books are not necessarily easy or light. Heart of Darkness. I rest my case.

The Turn of The Screw is easily the most famous work of Henry James and also one of the most debated. The jury is still out on what exactly happens in the story, and what it means.

Subtle horror. Not so subtle side effects.
It might come as a surprise to many, (as it did to me), that it’s a horror story. Not in the vein of Scream, but in a more psychological level. But the sense of eeriness that James creates makes you grip the book real tight. Almost every page presages an invisible and impending menace. The feeling is somewhat like huddling inside a fragile hut, waiting for an imminent tornado. You hear it outside; the sounds of destruction draw near and you wonder, when, when. It’s a deadly form of horror, one that preys on your mind. There are no sudden incidents to scare the reader. A growing sense of discomfort brilliantly wrought by flashes of brilliant writing, sufficiently prepares the reader. Yet, that doesn’t lessen the effect. In fact it only makes the novel more of a page-turner.

The setting
The Turn Of The Screw is a story of a governess and the boy and the girl she is in charge of. As she begins her duties, so do the visions – ghosts of the former governess and another man. Soon she is fighting to save the two children from terrible evil and has to muster all her emotional strength and guile to defeat the wickedness around them.
The governess’s only support in this fight is the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. What I found remarkable about this story is its dramatis personae – 2 women, a boy and a girl. For a horror story (or ghost story), I was pleasantly surprised to note the absence of any male bravado.

Tough read. Tougher writing. The writing style of Henry James
Here, we come to the finest and also the most difficult part of the book. Henry James’s writing is ponderous. As Oscar Wilde observed, “Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty.” In another quote (I don’t have it verbatim), Wilde labels James’s writing style as infinitely long sentences that say nothing. Truth be told, I agree. James’s writing is perfect for those nights when you can’t sleep – which makes this story all the more dangerous!
Perhaps one must persevere and read slowly, savouring his laborious constructions like a glass of the fine wine. The problem is, one is so eager to find out what happened next, one skims passages and worse, skips them altogether. Both of which I am guilty of.

The final word
The last chapter is one of the most gripping finales I’ve ever read. For all those who thought the twist at the end – even with the last word – was the preserve and domain only of short stories, this novella proves otherwise. So don’t even turn to the last page, by mistake. Or the last word. The sheer breathlessness of coming upon it in natural course is an experience not to miss.


Up At The Villa – Somerset Maugham

Posted in Book Reviews by grx20 on October 29, 2008
up at the villa

up at the villa

For years now, I’ve wanted to give Maugham a shot, but Of Human Bondage seemed to be a rather large bite to chew.

Up At The Villa is wonderful introduction to one of the finest writers. It’s a small book – just about a hundred pages. Some may argue Maugham’s best works were behind him when he wrote it, but that is a matter for intellectuals to worry about. I found it to be a warm, entertaining read and a writing style that was easy, fluid and tender. The story is a delicate balance of suspense, romance and human drama.

Villa (which reads like a classic crime thriller) is about Mary, a widow contemplating her next steps in life. Trying to play a significant part in that are Edgar, a 54 year old pukka sahib who’s just been offered a plum administrative role in Bengal that could eventually raise him to the post of Viceroy. To this duo, Maugham adds the roguish Rowley Flint who, too, is trying to win her favour. In Edgar and Flint, we have the extreme choice that lies before Mary.
Halfway through, the story takes a sharp turn – tragedy strikes when Mary meets a young Austrian refugee, Karl Richter and gives him a moment he will never experience again.

That basically is the set-up in which Maugham explores human drama. I particularly enjoyed reading Mary’s conversation with Flint as she drives him back home after a party. The latter half of the story is a real page turner and reads like a thriller, except written with more flourish and style. In fact, Maugham’s dialogues are beautiful. The cat and mouse manoeuvring and jibes that underlie the Mary-Flint conversations are a pure delight to read – and an invaluable lesson for writers.

Villa is a nice introduction to Maugham. I think I should be able to manage Of Human Bondage next.

Aside: Director Philip Haas gave us his version of the novel in a movie of the same name, released in 2000. The star cast – Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, Anne Bancroft, Jeremy Davies. From what I gather, the movie did neither justice to the novel, nor made money at the box office.