The Turn of the Screw by Henry James


Henry James’s classic novella is a horror story and the reinterpretation – and sometimes it even seems: the parody – of classic horror stories at the same time. In the outer layer of narrative, we get to know a group of elegant society people who spend their evenings telling ghost stories. Then one day a member of the group announces that he’s in possession of an especially eerie story, left to him by an old acquaintance. Answering the curious urges of his friends, the man sends for the story, and when the old, yellowed document arrives, he reads it out loud to his company.

From this point on, the characters of the framing story are not mentioned anymore, and the rest of the book consists of the (ghost) story itself, as experienced and put on paper by the heroine of the story. The main character in the inner narrative is a young girl with a vivid imagination, who bravely accepts the post of governess in Bly, somewhere in the innocent English countryside – even if the the circumstances surrounding the position are somewhat suspicious: as the girl learns from her prospective employer, the previous governess lost her life, and the employer also adds that he needs an employee who is willing to solve every problem on her own, and never, ever troubles him with requests or complaints.

The young governess is flattered by the trust of her employer, and she’s sure she’ll be able to handle her tasks – but soon she realizes that she’s not altogether prepared for what awaits her in Bly. On the very day of her arrival she’s troubled by an unpleasant premonition, which disappears for a while when she gets to know her enchanting, innocent, intelligent pupils, Miles and Flora, who seem like a dream come true for any governess. The idyll, however, doesn’t last long, because the governess soon starts to notice uncanny apparitions: she sometimes catches sight of a strange man and a woman in and around the house, and soon she convinces herself that the apparitions aim to do harm to her lovely pupils, and that it’s her most noble duty to save them from the evil spirits – who, it seems, are not noticed by anyone else – or aren’t they?

Henry James builds tension in this story in a masterful and most deliciously confusing fashion, and leaves you completely at a loss. For one thing, he keeps planting contradictory details in the story: it’s enough to think about such small details as the fact that the governess once claims that she wouldn’t be able to describe the physical appearance of the ghost she encounters because he’s so plain and bland, and then in the next sentence she goes on to elaborate on the ghost’s characteristics, down to the most minute detail.

Besides this, James continuously makes you entertain doubts about the honesty, innocence, motivations and sanity of the characters: in one moment the pupils seem to be wonderful angels, and in the next moment, they appear as manipulative little devils, harboring dark secrets; in one moment it seems that the only aim of the governess is to save her charges from every imaginable danger, and in the next moment she seems to be a deranged, attention-seeking young girl willing to go into any length just to arouse the interest of her employer; and Mrs. Grose, the old housekeeper of Bly sometimes behaves as if she believed the wild stories and conspiracy theories of the governess, while at other times she treats the governess as if she were dealing with an unpredictable, dangerously insane person.

James also uses a whole array of narratological tricks – it’s worth noting, for example, that the story abounds in unfinished sentences, and the conversations between the characters are either so intricately wrought yet unrevealing, or so full of double and triple meanings that it’s often impossible to decipher the true meaning and intention of the speakers. Besides all this, James also makes use of the usual elements of classic ghost stories – the walls of the idyllic country house hide shameful secrets, there are midnight apparitions galore, and the candles always go out in the worst possible moment.

And all this results in a deeply unsettling, unfinished story that (until the very last moment and even after that) offers at least two possible interpretations, a story which leaves you wondering: is it even a ghost story, or is it something else entirely? And since Henry James casually leaves the framing narrative unfinished, we never learn about the reactions of the people who listened to the story, and we get no road-sign whatsoever as to how the main story could be „correctly” interpreted. This is, in the end, an extremely smart, bewildering story – I suspect it’s too smart a novella to offer up all its layers in a single reading. I’ve already read it a couple of times, and I don’t feel I’m at the end of it yet.

Daisy Miller by Henry James

daisymillerThe protagonist of Henry James’s novella is Daisy Miller, a pretty, fun-lovin’, silly American girl who’s traveling through Europe with her mother and her brother. Daisy is a rich and elegant socialite, but she doesn’t belong to the elite class per se – she’s much too indiscreet and rebellious for that. For instance, she doesn’t hesitate to talk to people she hasn’t been formally introduced to, and she’s also happy to go for solitary walks with a man who is neither a member of her family, nor her fiancé. At the beginning of the story, she gets acquainted with Winterbourne, an American man who’s been living in Europe for a long time – and who is therefore no longer up-to-date as to the proper American manners. Winterbourne is immediately enchanted by Daisy’s beauty and her easy-going, open personality, but he doesn’t fully abandon himself to his budding passion – instead, he starts to over-analyze everything and he starts to wonder whether Daisy is indeed as innocent and nice as she seems.

Winterbourne keeps wondering about this question throughout the story, and even though he accidentally falls in love (?) with Daisy, he cannot come to terms with the basic impoliteness of Daisy’s conduct. (Of course, he only frowns upon her behavior when she’s being impolite in someone else’s company – when they first meet, he’s more than happy to accompany the girl on a trip to a castle nearby, after half an hour into their relationship.) So anyway, when they meet again in Rome some time later, Winterbourne merely watches with a condescending smile on his face how Daisy runs to her ruin, and he doesn’t even try to understand her behavior.

When I read about supposedly unruly, I-have-it-my-own-way characters like Daisy Miller, I often wonder if their behavior can really be considered rebellious and shocking, just because they live the way they want to live, say what they want to say, and ask what they want to ask – even if this is not acceptable in their social circles. And I wonder whether being rebellious and shocking is something they consciously do. In the blurb of my copy this question is asked downright: is Daisy Miller deliberately going against the norms of the society she lives in, or is she merely unaware of the norms she’s supposed to adhere to?

Well, I think neither of the above is true. Daisy Miller knows the rules she should adhere to (and sometimes it seems that she’s troubled by the fact that she’s shunned by society because of her lack of adherence), but it’s not due to some youthful folly or defiance that she keeps breaking the rules – it’s simply because for her, it’s truly and utterly incomprehensible why she shouldn’t spend her time with someone whose company she enjoys.

Sure, the morals and rules of the end of the 19th century were somewhat different from the rules we have now, and when I read novels dealing with similar themes in the past (I mean the theme of the clash between the American aristocracy and an independent woman – see Edith Wharton’s novels), sometimes I used to think how good it is to be alive here and now, in a world much less suffocating. But now I read this novel in a different way – I didn’t keep thinking about how lucky I am to live in a part of the world where presumably no-one is shunned and/or destroyed for the exact same crimes Daisy commits – because I figure that the Daisy Millers of the present also shock the others, only with different crimes. And I find this idea almost unbearably sad because a Daisy Miller never goes out of her way just so that she can shock people – she simply wants to live, innocently, harming no-one, and she does live, as long as “they” let her. And even though, like I said, the male protagonist’s greatest dilemma is whether Daisy is innocent or not (not necessarily in the sexual sense), I felt that she is.

By the way, Henry James – contrary to me – doesn’t get overly moralizing, and I don’t think he tries to teach me any kind of lesson or great truth. And because of this, I prefer him to, e.g. Theodore Dreiser, even though their styles and world-views seem to be somewhat similar.

And as regards the author’s style – it’s often mentioned about James that deciphering the meaning of his sentences, and understanding his subtle references is a feat in itself. Well, it’s quite probable that I overlooked a whole lot of the hidden references and other subtleties, but I was surprised by the fact that after the first couple of pages I had no trouble at all following his lovely, meandering, endless sentences. Translating his work must be a nightmare, but reading him in English was much less difficult than I expected.

Mastodon Farm by Mike Kleine

The blurb of this novella was not too revealing for me, but I was lucky to know in advance that it was about existentialist-sad themes. As you might guess from the contents of this blog, I happen to like such stories. And if there’s one thing I like even better than a sad-existentialist story, it’s a sad-existentialist story written in the second person singular, so I was pleased to find that Mastodon Farm was written in this narrative mode. So you might say I was favorably disposed towards this novella from the very beginning, both because of its themes and its interesting narrative mode. And when I started to read it, it turned out that Mastodon Farm was indeed a good book.

The protagonist of the story is a rather well-known person (but we don’t know who he is, since in this novella he is „you”, or rather, „you” are him) who lives in a gorgeous New York City apartment and spends his time uselessly in a variety of ways: he attends parties and book launches; he drives around in his car; he talks to movie stars on the phone; he goes to the video store to rent Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and then goes home frustrated because the film is not available; he conducts pointless, circular, infinitely dumb conversations with (a man called) James Franco (is he the James Franco?) about whom you cannot decide whether he is the protagonist’s roommate, employee, lover, friend, or none of the above, or all of the above; and so on.

As for a „proper” story, there is none. The sentences are short, deceptively simple and sometimes mind-blowingly, sickly funny. The chapters themselves are short, usually only one or two pages long. Most of the chapters feel like separate short stories in themselves: they are „whole” on their own, and even though they do not tell a story and contain „nothing”, their emptiness feels like a form of wholeness, and the „nothing” they contain often manages to break my heart.

What’s more, you don’t even know for sure whether the reality presented in the novella is indeed real: you cannot decide whether the „nothing” really happens, or everything within the book is fiction (or a film). There are several elements here which make this book very cinematic. For instance, there’s always some background music going on, and the music definitely feels like a movie soundtrack to me – the individual tracks are always named, and even though I don’t know many of the songs mentioned in the novella (and didn’t check out all of them, though I did check out some), simply the song titles themselves suggest that the songs have something important to do with the contents of the episode they provide the background for. And the episodes themselves often feel like a movie: for example, there’s a chapter about a party, and while we witness what’s going on in the room, the scene is sometimes interrupted by „cuts” to events going on outside.

Moreover, many of the characters are „real” movie stars (e.g. the protagonist is on friendly terms with Gwyneth Paltrow and Uma Thurman; he knows Ashton Kutcher; he does drugs together with Kirsten Dunst; etc.). This in itself shouldn’t necessarily make the book strongly cinematic/fictional, but this is what happens here: the real movie stars mentioned in Mastodon Farm serve to make the reality of the novella’s world even more questionable/movie-like. Why? Because a „real” movie star is also a fictional character, an image called Uma Thurman or Kirsten Dunst – of course this image is not only an empty shell, there’s „content” in it, there’s a real person behind the public persona – only „we”, ordinary humans will never know this real person. However, Mike Kleine only borrows the names of these actors, (a fictional version of) their public persona, without the content (which is not available for us anyway), and this way he creates the effect that the world of Mastodon Farm is a fictional, unreal world (or rather: a fictional world raised to the second power) – something which consists only of names, of surfaces, of images without content.

This very powerful fictional quality makes the uncanny modernity, contemporariness and „real-ness” of the novella even more frightening. I mean: this book comes out in 2012 and the story is set sometime around the present day – I cannot pinpoint the exact year, but the year can be guessed with relative accuracy from, for example, the songs mentioned in the story. The characters often listen to or talk about music which might be aired on the radio right now, perhaps in this exact moment (mainly, I guess, in the U.S., but e.g. Lana Del Rey‘s „Born to Die” is aired on Hungarian radio stations, too). So it often seems that the novella indeed manages to capture the moment, this exact minute – and the implications of this up-to-date quality are infinitely scary to contemplate: if the novella is set in the present day, if I know the same actors the protagonist knows, if I listen to the same songs the characters listen to, then it means that the „nothing-world”, the imitation/fake world of this book is in fact my world, and the concrete reality I live in is the same as the highly unreal „reality” of the characters.

This scary feeling is even more intensified by the narrative mode: because the second person singular is not used here just because writing in the second person is cool or postmodern or fashionable. Mike Kleine manages to write more than a hundred pages in the second person with a consistency I very rarely witness, and since the fictional reality of the book highly resembles my real reality, Mastodon Farm becomes scarily, uncomfortably personal after a while and I start to feel that the „you” of the book is indeed „me”, and „I” conduct those meaningless conversations, „I” come up with different identities for myself depending on the person I’m talking to, and „I” contemplate my own life when I read about the emptiness of the life of the protagonist referred to as „you”.

And this is a deeply disturbing and unsettling experience – anyway, I like to read exactly to gain experiences such as this.

By the way, Mastodon Farm reminds me of the early novels of Bret Easton Ellis, with all their nihilism, meaninglessness and their nameless, interchangeable characters. And it also reminds me of Tao Lin’s Richard Yates, because that novel also features famous names devoid of their content and that novel is also written in these strange, monotonous-looking, often repetitive, minimalist sentences – the remarkable thing here is that I actually liked reading this novella (I read it twice within a couple of weeks, liking it even more for the second time), while I hated reading Richard Yates.

In connection with this Ellis-like quality and the contemporariness of Mastodon Farm, something else came to my mind. The first Ellis novels are set sometime at the end of the 1980s, and I guess they must have felt very contemporary when they were published because they featured elements of the then-present day reality. However, the cult of sunbathing, the music of the 1980s and the other contemporaneous details are not so contemporary anymore, therefore, no matter how scary I consider e.g. Less Than Zero (by the way, I consider it very scary), I don’t feel so strongly that that world could easily be mine as well. But here – I feel this.

Finally, something about the language usage and minimalism of Mastodon Farm. I love the way the author manages to simultaneously convey a whole array of thoughts and feelings with his simple, repetitive sentences. Here are two examples. The first one comes from the chapter where someone runs into the protagonist’s car and the woman driving the other vehicle dies. The police and the ambulance arrive, an EMT examines the protagonist and then the protagonist talks about the accident with some police officers. The following conversation ensues.

You talk to the cops.
“Am I in trouble?” you ask.
“You’re not in trouble,” a young cop says.
You freak out a little.
You can smell pomade in your sweat.
“Everything is under control,” someone says—another police officer.
You freak out some more.

What I like in this conversation is the discrepancy between the police officers’ words and the reactions of the protagonist. Because why on earth should you panic when you are told that everything’s fine? However, the protagonist does panic: his reactions are the opposite of any normal reaction, they are „unreal” – which suits the cinematic/fictional world of the novella just fine. What’s more, the conversation is funny as hell – and I think it’s a considerable achievement to depict the unreal quality of the protagonist’s world, show his disturbed state of mind and be funny as well at the same time – and all this in seven short lines.

The other quote is from the chapter where the protagonist is sitting by a lake with one of his acquaintances and they have the following conversation.

The water looks really nice like this,” Allen says.
“Yeah,” you say, looking like you are looking at the water, or, at least, how you imagine you would look looking like you are looking at the water.
You look at the water and don’t say anything.
Then you peek, just for a second, to look at Allen.
Allen isn’t even looking at the water.
He’s crying about something.

I don’t want to over-explain this excerpt, because I simply think it’s beautiful – beautiful in a kind of screwed up, melancholy, slightly ironic, very smart, 21st century way.

And in the end, this is what the whole book is like. And even though you probably won’t remember too many concrete details after finishing reading (because there aren’t too many concrete details to remember), and you won’t be able to tell the story (because there’s no story), the screwed-up, nihilistic, too-clever, yearning, disillusioned, sad, unreal, frightened-and-frightening feeling that pervades this book is bound to be memorable.