“The Figure in the Carpet”? – I’ve Read It!

henry jamesI had an hour to spare yesterday, so I picked up a little black Penguin Classic that I’d been loaned.   It’s been waiting for my attention since March, but I have to be in the mood for James, even when he’s writing short.

Let me start by being Jamesian, and call this text as he preferred to, a ‘short tale’, rather than a novella, in a sentence that is longer than you might have anticipated, when you set out on it (are you still following me?).  Sorry, couldn’t resist having a play with some clauses, but I promise to behave now.

Back to March, then, when Helen stopped me on the way out after a discussion about the novella, What Maisie Knew.  We’d drawn comparisons with some other James texts, raising mixed responses.

Holding out the small Penguin Classic, Helen said, ‘This one isn’t so well known, but I think it’s more interesting than The Turn of The Screw. Would you like to borrow it?’

Intriguing.

I knew I wasn’t going to have time to read it just then, but Helen said that was fine.  Though she may have changed her mind about that by now, of course.  However, that’s how the little book came to enter the sea of research that is my desk, and for a while sank below the surface.

This wasn’t the easiest of novellas to get into, but is there such a thing as an ‘easy’ Henry James?  He could write short sentences, and use simple language, but mostly he chose not to.  There are various theories about why he developed that style, and how it connects him to the modernist writers, but I’m going to stay with the straight-forward approach in this reading-reflection.

I’ve given a lot of thought to the question of what makes a good story, and one of the definitions that comes high on my list is, does it entertain or intrigue me?  After my first dash at the text I might turn to reviews and analysis to see what I’ve missed, but before that, I want to be engaged by the writing.

This time I wasn’t, I’m afraid. I couldn’t decide whether James meant the un-named narrator to come across as irritatingly priggish – to use a Victorian term – and I didn’t really care whether he learned what the ‘figure in the carpet’ was.

In fact, I felt cheated by his title.  Here was an image that suggested surreal.  It has mysterious possibilities, yet turned into a story that never attempted to explore anything other than the vanities of a few characters who seemed flat.

Titles, I tell my writing groups, are important: are worth taking trouble over.  They can set a tone, imply a theme.  Readers are influenced by them.  I expected a mystery on the lines of  Turn of The Screw, because I saw a parity between the two titles.  Was that my mistake, or James’s?

Advertisements

Writing to order.

‘Write a story,’ my mentor said. ‘Today.’

I took a deep breath and picked up my pen.  ‘Any suggestions?’

Mentor gave me one of those old-fashioned quizzical looks.

I said, ‘You’re thinking about that ‘finish the story’ flash competition I saw yesterday.’

‘Exactly.  Only 400 words.  It’s time you put all that wise advice you dish out into practice.  This has to be a perfect story-trigger: a ready made character with a situation to be resolved.’

‘Don’t call me hypocrite,’ I muttered, as I pulled the magazine out of the reading pile, and studied the 400 words already written.  It had a good hook, and finished on a cliff-hanger that implied a variety of possible outcomes.

Where do I start?  With setting I think.

A man visits a woman in a nursing home.  Her son’s been missing 48 years, and this man speaks as if he knows something about it.

Well, if the story is present day, the back-story is 1969.

How old are they both, these characters?  Initially, she mistakes him for her son, so I need to play around with some numbers, fix his age, then add on at least sixteen years for hers.

She’s alone.  Was she a single parent?  What’s happened to the boy’s father?

Each answer raises another question.  It’s like being given a jigsaw puzzle without a picture for guidance.  I match up pieces, and try to guess what the colours mean.  There’s a lot of gold, maybe a sunset?  But what about the jewel-bright flowers, perhaps it’s an impressionist corn field.

Working up from the bottom straight edge, I need to put a lot of it together before I reach an ivory ankle.  That’s what happens when you keep adding pieces, the picture begins to make sense, and once that happens… I’m flying.

The_Kiss_-_Gustav_Klimt_-_Google_Cultural_Institute

Thinking about building short stories.

‘I’m not happy with the ending of this one,’ said Anna, preparing to read out her story.  I glanced down at the sheets of paper she was shuffling together.  There seemed a lot of them, and they looked to be laced with far more words than the five-hundred limit I’d set.

The Reader by Irving Ramsay Wiles 1900Before I could frame a question, Anna was reading.  She began well, introduced three characters, provided nicely balanced dialogue that moved the action forwards, and delivered ambitions, and a situation.  It was only as Anna flicked over the page that I realised her story was printed double-sided.

I eyed the sheaf of pages, and began to multiply them by minutes, but after a paragraph, Anna left page two, and moved to page three.  As she flicked past that page after a couple more paragraphs, I realised that her redrafting had been printed out in the story.

The heap of paper was diminishing fast as Anna picked out solitary paragraphs from amongst the text.  The story picked up pace and jumped a few decades of time to round off in a neatly comfortable conclusion.  There was a murmur of approval.  ‘That was fun,’ said Emma.

‘I’m not sure,’ said Anna.  ‘It seems… unsatisfactory.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s not in your usual dark style, but the ending fits.’

It did.  ‘There’s a clear dramatic arc,’ I said, ‘and the characters are interesting and distinctive.  But, why that conclusion?’

‘I thought I’d be cheery for a change.’

‘Ah,’ I said.  ‘What about all those words you didn’t read out?’

Anna fidgeted with the edges of her pages.  ‘The story kept going wrong, drifting off.’

‘So you had that end in mind from the beginning?’

‘A happy ending, yes.’

I said, ‘You were writing against your instincts?’

‘Well, yes.  I wanted to write a happy story, for a change.’

I nodded.  ‘You’ve done that, and we enjoyed it, despite you trying to put us off before you started.  But maybe that other, darker story, is waiting to be told, too.’

*    Illustration: The Reader, by Irving Ramsey Wiles (1900)

life intrudes

It’s Sunday morning.

Last night I went to bed with a head full of stories, and today, woke to real-life horror in London.  At that moment, fiction seemed trite.   How could I be thinking about writing a blog when our emotional levels are raised to this pitch?

Yet here I am, at the laptop, tapping in words and preparing to post them into this public space.  Do I really need to say anything?  Should I say anything?  Do I have anything to say that is not already being said, and felt?

Journalists are busy responding all around the world.  That’s not who I am, or what I do, usually.  Any account I give can only re-process what they tell me, which makes this third-hand, as a piece of news.

So, perhaps I should ask myself why I am writing.

On the radio, some journalists and commentators are talking about democracy, and freedom of speech, human rights and civil liberties, not just here, but in those other countries who have recently suffered attacks.  They’re thinking themes, and that’s important, it’s part of the picture I’m responding to, but it’s not what I’m trying to say.

Then the eyewitness accounts come on.  These are everyday voices telling us of what they saw and heard : said, and did.  I don’t just listen, I stop.   Although I am staring out of the window, I’m not seeing the garden.  I’m restless.

The emergency services were efficient and brave, but so were the civilians caught up in this.  Some people tried to stop the attack.  Some stopped to help the injured, some ran towards the scene, not away.   Taxi drivers gave lifts for free, beds were offered to the stranded, strangers invited into homes.  Despite the fear, there was a need to help, to give, not take away.

I think about the hospital services in Manchester, who this week went on the radio to say thank-you, but we don’t need more blood-donations for now, the banks are full.

By the time this blog goes out, there will have been a tribute concert.  Artists seem to have queued up to perform.  Tickets sold out minutes after they were put up for sale, despite the awful possibilities of this Critical Threat Level.

Communities are pulling together, not apart.  Good or bad times, what we do best is empathise.  This, I think, is why I’m writing, because I need to hold onto this.