I 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?’
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?