Henry James is one of the most celebrated authors in classic literature – worshiped by critics and literary scholars alike, but he’s often befuddling to the general reader. With this compact omnibus that contains four of his works: the short novels The Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw, which are often bundled together, and two short stories: The Beast in the Jungle and The Jolly Corner, I seem to have found out why. The two short novels are known to be quintessential Henry James – ambiguous yet somehow suspenseful narratives, wordy and fascinating psychologically-descriptive prose, and open to interpretation. Each seem to be simple stories on the surface; but if you’re dedicated enough, patient enough, if you could be bothered to delve and dig a little deeper into the texts, you’d be surprised, perhaps even rewarded, with some of the most subtly satisfying short works ever penned.
The Turn of the Screw is, perhaps, one of the greatest ghost stories ever written, a superb psychological drama which yields many treasures to the Freudian literary sleuth (as, indeed, do all four stories.) I’ve heard a great deal of criticism directed both at this novel and at Henry James himself. The Turn of the Screw has been derided as dull and uneventful, while James’ writing has been scornfully dismissed because of its complexity. I found myself quite surprised at this negative perspective, because while I did find it terribly tedious to leaf through, I still found it fascinating and remarkably entertaining.
The story itself is fairly simplistic on the surface. In the hands of a lesser writer, it would have been a simple “things that go bump in the night” ghost story of no consequence, no layers of meaning. However, the ambiguity of the narration brings the story a great deal of depth. Are you to trust the governess’s story, or is the entire plot merely a figment of her imagination or a neurotic response to her sexuality? The brilliance here is in the wide range of interpretation. The entire novella can be taken either way (or both ways at once) equally well, which I like.
While his prose can be difficult to master (I had to read several sentences multiple times to decipher them, and the sentences are long), the complex language does not merely use extra words for the sake of making the story longer. Instead, every bit of detail in the sentences modifies and elaborates on the text, helping greatly to create the haziness that permeates The Turn of the Screw. I thoroughly enjoyed the style of writing here, and this is coming from somebody who is very skeptical to, and choosy of, writers with propensities for the long-winded, overladen writing styles. The complexity enhances the novel, rather than weakening it.
I also liked The Aspern Papers. Much like The Turn of the Screw, It’s short yet sharp, and perhaps such is James’s facility with the essentials of theatre – concentrated narrative action; lengthy, dramatic scenes of dialogue; vivid characterization; pointed use of interior space, exits and entrances, and the revealing image – you eventually wonder why James failed as a playwright.
Of course, there is a defining element of James’ art that is impossible in the theatre – narration. The nameless narrator of The Aspern Papers is a portrait of a monster in James’ gallery of inglorious masculinity – the editor of a revered American literary poet, who tries to wheedle important documents from a celebrated lover, the now-decrepit Juliana, by installing himself as a lodger, and flattering her aging spinster niece. Like the hero – or anti-hero – of The Turn of the Screw, the narrator / protagonist of The Aspern Papers is someone who treats life like a selfish game: he has no idea what emotional havoc he is wreaking on the woman.
The tale has all the drive and tantalizing delay of a crime story – the hero is both detective and criminal, and the suspenseful climax suggests what a great genre writer James could have been. Just as exciting are the intricate, agonizing dialogues between the narrator and the niece, each wildly misunderstanding the other.
In the same vein, The Beast in the Jungle, seems to epitomize James. He takes a very simple, almost clichéd premise and transforms it into something uniquely his own. Here is a man who builds a fortress of emotional isolation and self-delusion around himself, one who cannot love, and here is a mysterious woman who becomes his partner. You will want to shake him, but his painful journey to understanding will grip you. This story, first published in 1903, tells the story of John Marcher, a man whose life has been driven by the belief that at some point in the future some catastrophic (or “eucatastrophic”) event is to befall him. This belief is so consuming that Marcher feels he can share it with no-one; however one day he meets a woman to whom he has confided many years before, and, to his pleasure, she is willing to accompany him on his journey to meet the event, the “Beast in the Jungle” waiting to pounce.
The Beast in the Jungle is an intense work, having the feel of a ghost story or gothic novel at times. You, like Marcher, gradually become obsessed with seeing the arrival of the event, while at the same time uncertain whether this belief is an example of supreme egotism or supreme foresight. Although short, this is by no means a quick read. As one would expect of Henry James the sentences are long and grammatically complex, requiring repeated re-readings. The reward, however, is complete immersion in James’ world, the opportunity to savor his rich language, and gradually to be granted access to his penetrating insight.
If you’re prone to lazy reading this is not the book for you. Henry James’ “late style” of writing is challenging at best, forcing you to pick through agonizing sentences in order to uncover the meat of the story. But the reward, especially in the final pages of each story, is worth the work. James has subtle mysteries and ambiguity and dense writing. Again, his prose is very wordy, but not flowery: it functions to convey the depth of emotion felt by the protagonist and also manages to plumb the depths of his mind. These short works are great reads for the James fan, and the introduction to the book manages to tie them in to the longer works in this volume.