#6degrees of separation from Henry James to W. Somerset Maugham

As it’s the beginning of the month it’s time for a new ‘Six Degree’ challenge from Kate, at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. I love taking part, but having decided I’ll only join in if I’ve read the set text, I usually find I’m too far behind with my reading. So thank you for going back to the classics, Kate. This month’s starting point is, The Turn of The Screw, by Henry James.

For a long time I avoided reading this one. I hadn’t liked the film or radio versions I’d caught. I assumed it was ‘just’ a pot boiler.

I should have known better. After all, even if this was writing prompted by a desire for the fee, the author was Henry James. Luckily, a couple of years ago I needed to read the novella for a class I was setting up. I soon revised my opinion.

I think of this sort of story as an attractive box that when opened, proves to have another attractive box inside. This one is not just smaller, it is a slightly different shape.

Many stories stop at two layers, but Henry James puts another box inside that. His narrator recounts a story that he heard from a friend, who heard it from the person who experienced it. Where does truth start and end? Can we ever know?

This is a form I love, so I’m going to try and create my links using stories that have other stories embedded in them. And, as we’ve started with a novella, I’m opting to follow a short-form route.

So, my first link is to Joseph Conrad, who was also a master of this kind of misdirection. He used this technique several times. I’m picking his short story, The Tale, for my first link. It begins with two lovers meeting in an unlit room, during war-time. The woman asks the man to tell her a story. He used to have, she tells him, ‘…a sort of art – in the days – the days before the war.’ The story he tells her is a dark exploration of human nature and actions.

Human nature is also at the centre of Charlotte Mew’s story-within-a-story, A White Night. It’s a psychological horror story, written in 1903. Or is this one too all a big lie?

Similar questions arise in Nuns at Luncheon, when Aldous Huxley presents us with a distracting story teller who seems to dominate the tale she tells.

Her long earrings swung and rattled – corpses hanging in chains…

Mr Mulliner, the storyteller P.G. Wodehouse chooses to use in The Reverent Wooing of Archibald, on the other hand, is clearly speaking with authority.

People who enjoyed a merely superficial acquaintance with my nephew Archibald (said Mr Mulliner) were accustomed to set him down as just an ordinary pinheaded young man. It was only when they came to know him better that they discovered their mistake. Then they realized that his pinheadedness, so far from being ordinary, was exceptional.’

Mr Mulliner, the teller who lifts the lid on that second box, disappears while the outside narrator repeats his story. As does Pugh, the story-teller in John Buchan’s 1928 story, The Loathly Opposite. This fifth link in my chain is a beautifully delivered narrative, about the consequences of war and espionage, that didn’t go where I expected. Reading it gave me a new perspective on an author I’d not been used to thinking of as literary.

Laura, the teller of stories in the sixth link of my chain, remains fully on view. Indeed, we share dinner with her and the external narrator of, A String of Beads. It’s a beautifully brief story, delivered almost entirely through dialogue, and once more, we sit in judgement of the participants. Do we share their positions or condemn them?

I can link this 1943 W. Somerset Maugham story back to The Turn of The Screw. Firstly, because both have a woman sharing or confiding a story with a man, and secondly, because a governess is central to both plots. This means I could describe my chain as a short necklace. Or, since it’s one novella and six short stories, maybe a bracelet.

Though perhaps that would spoil the ‘separation’ aspect of the challenge.

Seven ‘bookish’ heavenly virtues.

This week I’ve been reading more lists, though you might call them expanded. Re-enchantment of the World came up with the idea of connecting our reading experiences to ‘ideas of moral excellence’, and created seven questions that allow us to explore the positive aspects of reading. So thank you, Ola and Piotrek, it’s been fascinating seeing your answers, and tracking down some of the others.

So fascinating, I can’t resist claiming my space.

Chastity
Which author, book or series do you wish you’d never read?

This is tricky. There have been plenty of books I haven’t enjoyed, and several I’ve not finished. But they all showed me something. I like thinking about how or why a book didn’t work for me.

There have been books that offended me, and one I was so disgusted by that I threw it in the fire. I can’t remember who wrote it, or the title. All I remember is that it romanticised rape.

Temperance
Which book or series did you find so good that you didn’t want to read it all at once, and you read it in doses just to make the pleasure last longer?

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell. I read it over seven weeks, in equal sections, with my autumn reading groups, last year. I’d decided not to pre-prepare in the summer, because I wanted to discover the story alongside the group. It took a lot of will-power to resist finishing it ahead of the schedule. I re-read it again, right after the course finished.

Charity
Which book, series or author do you tirelessly push to others, telling them about it or even giving away spare copies bought for that reason?

The short stories of Elizabeth Taylor (1912 – 1975). Kingsley Amis called her ‘one of the best English novelists born in this century’. I like her novels, but the short stories are stunning.

They’re subtle, and subversive. Approach them with the idea that she had hidden depths, and you’ll find layer upon layer of meaning. I could go on, and on, but I won’t – here.

Diligence
Which series or author do you follow no matter what happens and how long you have to wait?

I love trilogies, but add another title to that, and I tend to drift. So, not a series.

Author’s, on the other hand, I’ll wait for. I’ve been collection Jeffery Farnol novels for decades. They’re tatty old hardbacks dating from the 1920s, 30s and 40s. I haven’t wanted to read them for years, but I continue looking out for them, because one day he will be just what I need.

Patience
Is there an author, book or series you’ve read that improved with time the most, starting out unpromising but ultimately proving rewarding?

I was a teenager when I read my first Henry James, it was Portrait of a Lady, and I was determined not to be beaten. After that, I avoided him.

Then, I wanted a book to put with Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, for a reading group, and What Maisie Knew, was the best match. It was a revelation. I’ve read more of his shorter fiction since then, and his essays are fascinating. When I have enough time in hand, I’m going back to try Portrait, again.

Kindness
Which fictitious character would you consider your role model in the hassle of everyday life?

That varies, day-by-day, depending on what I’m reading. I can’t think of a single model. I do frequently wish I was as feisty as Lisbeth Salander, but I’d prefer not to have had the kind of experiences that seem to have caused her to develop those attributes.

Humility
Which book, series or author do you find most under-rated?

If only I hadn’t already mentioned Elizabeth Taylor… I don’t like to repeat myself, so looking back a little further in time, how about Arnold Bennett?

He was prolific and popular, in his day. But saying you write for profit, and letting people know that you have a rigid routine bothers some critics, especially if your books sell well.

The Grand Babylon Hotel was written in a month. I’ve read it, and while it didn’t strike me as being ‘great literature’, it was a lovely time-slip into Edwardian England.

The Old Wives Tale, which took him about seven months, has more power, and ambition. It hooked all four reading groups I shared it with, two years ago.

Virginia Woolf played a part in crippling Bennett’s reputation, in a 1924 lecture called Mr Bennett and Mr Brown. I suppose she had to. Though if she’d read his work closely she might have recognised some of his techniques.

On my bookshelf, Mr Bennett and Mrs Woolf sit side-by-side.

“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?