“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?’


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?

Thoughts on wording titles.

I’ve spent a lot of time this week tinkering with the title for a new writing course that will be linked to the local archives.  We’ve done the meetings and the discussion about content, structure and themes, so you might assume that the title would be the easy part.  Surely not something that will involve a Ping-Pong of emails.



But how do you sum-up a seven week course in half-a-dozen words?  I need something eye-catching, enticing and straight-forward that says this is a hybrid course and it will include writing, researching and ideas for ways to present family history and memoir so that it can be easily shared.

I’ve learned to be careful, ever since someone turned up to one of my ‘Creative Writing’ classes expecting to learn about Calligraphy.  They stayed, to see what I meant by creative, and re-discovered an enjoyment in word-play that had lain dormant since their schooldays, but I can’t depend on such a lucky outcome.

Titles, I find, are tricky.  From the readers point of view they are a promise, an enticement to take part.  They can be direct, as my class titles need to be, but even then, readers might not take the same meaning from my combination of words that I think I’m providing.  So, I negotiate with my WEA organizer over what we think my words suggest.

Ambiguity can be interesting and desirable in fiction.  In reading groups we spend a lot of time investigating the way a title works on a text.  Where does it come from?  Is it directing us to read in a specific way, for instance, pushing us towards a theme?  How does it fit with the content: complementary or contrarily?  These are only some of the questions that have come up in relation to the James Joyce, Elizabeth Taylor and W. Somerset Maugham stories I’ve been discussing with groups over the last two weeks.  They’ve been fertile questions, raising diverse opinions and re-assessments and sending me back to read again something I thought I’d already got to grips with.

So it makes a change for me to be working on making my meaning simple, instead of looking for something witty and capable of multiple meanings.  But I’m glad we have now found the necessary words.



Howard’s End is On The Landing.

The thing about titles is that they’re tricky.  I know this as a reader, a writer and a tutor.  Titles have so much work to do, and it’s hard to get the balance right, most of us agonise over them.  So I’m always impressed when I find one that catches my attention, intrigues me and suits the content it’s selling.

DSCF6333Howard’s End is on the Landing seemed to leap out from amongst the other titles in the shop. I glanced at the author, and remembered that Susan Hill wrote The Woman in Black, which I’d heard on the radio, but not read, and tried to remember if I’d read anything else of hers as I turned the paperback over.

The opening lines were a jolt:

It began like this, I went to the shelves on the landing to look for a book I knew was there.  It was not.  But plenty of others were and among them I noticed at least a dozen I realized I had never read.

‘What, you, too?’

Further down the page, I read:

A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.

I was hooked.

I had wandered in to browse with no intention of buying, so what was it about that title that stood out?  Why was it the only book I’d bothered to pick up and look at?

Well, it made me smile (and still does).

I made the link to E.M. Forster, before I’d picked the book up, and was already wondering if that was intentional, but if so, in what way?  Maybe the book was a literary investigation into the novel, Howard’s End, in which case I was half interested, because I like a bit of literary research to aid my reading.

But, what possible link could there be between a classic twentieth century novel and ‘the Landing’? I couldn’t imagine that.

So, crazily, what I was also expecting as I picked up that book was to find it would be a story about a man called Howard coming to his end on ‘the Landing’ (and I still think it would make a cracking title for a golden-age murder mystery).

The thing is, the title was the lure that got me to open the cover and read those first few lines that hooked me so securely that I bought the book, read it, and have now put it on the shelf in my hallway.

What’s in The Box?

Sometimes, a title just catches my eye.

I’d been sent a list of books for reviewing.  I don’t always take up the challenge.  With so much already on my ‘to-read’ shelf I’m picky about what I spend my spare time on, especially since we’ve adopted a new puppy.  He’s gorgeous, and rewarding and full of energy that needs directing.  I’d forgotten how much attention they need.

So I skimmed down the page in my least responsive frame of mind, and found my eye caught by, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway.  I hesitated, glanced at the thumbnail graphic of the cover.  ‘Nice,’ I thought.  ‘Simple, intriguing.’  I liked the strong colours and wondered if the suspension bridge was in San-Francisco, or Bristol…What do you mean, unlikely?  Book review June 2013

The thing is, I had no idea where ‘the Bohemian Highway’ was.  I liked the sound of it, though, and to be honest, I was hoping it was a metaphor.

Sometimes, do you find this, that sometimes, a title calls to you?  Like, Hills Like White Elephants, or Flesh and the Mirror, or Pumping up Napoleon.  I knew, as soon as I read those titles that I had to know more.

That doesn’t happen so often with novels, as with stories, and poems for me.  Except that now I look at my shelf, I can see all sorts of witty and intriguing titles, Love in The Time of Cholera, Like Water for Chocolate, The Master and Margarita…so maybe I’m showing some bias here, because what I’ve been heading towards from the start of this is the suggestion that poets and short story writers have to work harder with their titles.

Of course, for every rule there are exceptions.  I could research lists that would prove and disprove my theory that short story and poem titles are intrinsically intriguing, but why should you agree with my choices?  Besides, there are plenty of short story and poetry titles that I think mundane, even though the stories proved good, or more than good.

The thing I do want to say, as if you didn’t already know this, is that making a good title can be as tricky as writing the body of the text, long or short, lyrical or not.  It can also be as rewarding.  The right title can do so much more than describe the contents.  For one thing, do we think enough about the tone we’re setting with our titles?

So, take this story, The Shoe Box.  Hmm, so far, so pedestrian (sorry, couldn’t resist that), it could be, Nut Brown Brogues, or how about, Size Twelves, or Worn.  

DSCF4959If, when I saw Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, I had instantly pictured a stretch of tarmac, I would probably have skimmed on past, and then put the list in the recycle bin.  My interest was snagged with the word Bohemian, and the associations that carried for me.

So, I ask myself as I look at Sara Gran’s novel, was that what she intended, when she, and perhaps the publisher settled on this title?  We could ask her, I suppose.  These days authors are mostly keen to interact with their readers.  But don’t we learn more by thinking it through ourselves?