J's Reviews > The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers

The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers by Henry James
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Dec 03, 09

Read in December, 2009

OK! First, let me point out tht I didn't read The Aspern Papers. No idea what that's about. This review is for The Turn of the Screw.

This is a great book if you want to explore the concept of unreliable narrators. Apparently there's nothing in James' correspondence or notes to indicate that he wrote it as anything but a ghost story, but let's face it, the text itself makes it really difficult to figure out what happens in this book. Is there a haunting, or is the governess insane? Is there actually a haunting, and the governess is driven to something like insanity by the incredible stress of shielding her wards? Seriously, just what is going on here?

Books that can challenge and engage me this way without being gratuitous about it are really one in a million. I gave it four stars for that. Whether or not the book was enjoyable, that's harder to answer. Henry James...wow, that guy's language is something else. Far be it from me to criticize someone else's sentence structure, and god knows I enjoy a densely-packed, meaning-rich text, but I have to read entire passages of James multiple times just to figure out what he's saying. That makes it really hard for me to get any subtle nuances he's also trying to put across, symbolism, word choices, stuff like that. I've read this and Daisy Miller so far, and whew. Really tough.

I won't lie: it makes me feel dumb. I'm not sure whether I'd've understood James just fine if I was one of his contemporaries (or maybe just educated to more rigorous standards), or whether people even back then picked up his books and said, "What the hell, Henry?" My inclination is to keep beating my head against the wall, so to speak, until I get through the damn thing, but that's not generally what I consider a good time. On the bright side, with this particular book, the density of the writing really kept me at arm's length from the text. It's kind of like when a filmmaker uses bizarre camera angles to heighten the effect of a confusing narrative. I doubt that was James' intention, but that's what happened for me, and I can work with that.

I do hate running away from a challenge of this sort, but I probably won't be reading Henry James again any time soon. I've given it my best shot. But is it worth it to try? Oh yes. He's got a lot to say, if you can figure it out that is.
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