Thursday, August 18, 2011

a little explaining, of the temperate zone

So James unveils his headline ghost in The Ghostly Rental but in The Turn of the Screw he does not unveil, in fact he makes the ghosts as vanishing as they can be and still be ghosts, or perhaps-ghosts, since it might be the case that fragments of the nameless governess' fear are taking on the morbid shapes of people. In The Last of the Valerii he comes closer than he does in Rental to the effect that Laura Miller refers to as "the dissolution of boundaries," but it's the change of narrator that really sets him loose in Screw. The voice in Valerii belongs to a sane character who describes the symptoms of a man who is being gradually won over by a supernatural force but in Turn of the Screw it's the possessed person who speaks, and the symptoms -- I saw a light! -- I heard a noise! -- are all we have to live on as readers. Reject them and we are expelled from the story, we have glanced into it through the window like Peter Quint and now we leave, gesturing backwards at the governess, who stares back at us with arctic fear.

James made boundaries dissolute even on the level of a sentence, and even in stories that were not about ghosts; he liked to allude, he liked to use metaphor, he liked to write as if a source of mysterious judgment was always waiting over a character's shoulder waiting to burst onto the page and condemn them, and so he danced fastidiously around subjects that had done nothing to deserve this fastidiousness -- he could have been fastidious about a man eating a sandwich -- he puts a thousand veils over a bean -- or a thousand mattresses over a pea -- and then he pats the mattresses and says, "My readers, you must be fairy princesses to feel me -- you must be fine." Everybody who reads James is potentially a fairy princess. The veiling even extends down to ordinary character background, the basic information that a less infiltrating novelist would state bluntly and quickly so that they could move on with the foreground parts of the story:

Lady Agnes meanwhile settled with her girls in a gabled latticed house in a mentionable quarter, though it still required a little explaining, of the temperate zone of London. It was not into her lap, poor woman, that the revenues of Bricket were poured.

(The Tragic Muse)

Always this crazy delicacy -- "mentionable" to whom? we never get to meet them yet we're asked to trust that they exist somewhere on a hovering level, a great and formidable They -- and why has London been turned into an exotic continent or globe with this "temperate"? -- and why screen us still further after the delicacy of "mentionable" with "although it still required a little explaining" -- this even finer categorisation of the refinement? (The language is faithful to Lady Agnes' point of view, but it's not as if the author has to step out of his own character to use it. In other words you could say that he's choosing her eyes to look through because they let him write like himself.)

It's as if he's smuggling meaning to us, as if the the main problem he and we face is not understanding, a more normal concern for an author, but exposure and invasion. Why would we bother with these layered disguises if there was not a possibility, a fear, that somebody else, like the creature outside my childhood bedroom door, might come in?

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