Posts Tagged ‘Southbank Centre’

The Turn of the Screw

September 30, 2013

After all the excitement of the Ham and High Literary Festival, EmilyBooks was whisked off by a kind and generous friend to Italy, to one of those rare and wonderful places with no internet, and not much of a phone signal either. Hence there was no post last week.

Truth be told, I’ve been rather restless with my reading, flitting between various novels and memoirs, not quite managing to get stuck in. Maybe it’s been a kind of hangover from the sheer wonder of Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger. At Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday, I found I was not alone in immediately wanting to re-read it. Many of us felt unwilling to leave it behind, perhaps because its teasing elliptical nature makes you want to go back and look for clues, as with a detective story. I suppose I ought to have just given in and re-read it straight away, rather than suffer this funny couple of weeks of dipping in and dipping out of things.

The Turn of the ScrewThe only thing I did manage to read cover to cover is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. This was no doubt aided by its extreme brevity and gripping ghoulishness. I was also chairing the Southbank Centre’s Book Club about it last week, and turning up not having read it since university would have been cheeky to say the least.

Why has Henry James earned a reputation for being so impossibly difficult to read? I adored The Portrait of a Lady; What Maisie Knew is what first inspired me to try to write myself; I remember The Ambassadors being pretty ace; and The Turn of the Screw is unputdownable!

I expect you know the story. Some friends are gathered around the fire telling ghost stories when one of them boasts of a story that is so horrible that:

It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it … for dreadful – dreadfulness!

This ushers in the main story. A young woman goes to work as a governess for two orphans in a big country house. Before long, she starts to see two ghosts – a man and a woman, who she deduces used to be a valet and her predecessor at the house. She grows convinced that they want to take control of the angelic children, and so does everything she can to stop them. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well.

The knot at the heart of the book is whether or not we believe the governess. She is such a persuasive, powerful narrator that, at first, it is hard to doubt her. You can’t fail to be sucked in, terrified of the ghosts, unnerved that the children seem to be in cahoots with them.

Yet, read it more closely, and you see that Henry James encourages us to question the reliability of her narrative. She is by the lake with Flora, one of the children, when she sees the ghost of the old governess. Flora is apparently ignorant of the ghost, and yet this is how she reports the incident to Mrs Grose, the housekeeper:

‘Two hours ago, in the garden’ – I could scarce articulate – ‘Flora saw!’

Mrs Grose took it as she might have taken a blow in the stomach. ‘She has told you?’ she panted.

‘Not a word – that’s the horror. She kept it to herself! The child of eight, that child!’ Unutterable still for me was the stupefaction of it.

Mrs Grose of course could only gape the wider. ‘Then how do you know?’

‘I was there – I saw with my eyes: saw she was perfectly aware.’

Henry James voices our doubts through Mrs Grose. How exactly does the governess know? How much do we trust what she saw with her eyes? We grow aware of quite how subjective her account is.

The ‘unreliable narrator’ is perhaps the ultimate Jamesian trope and one of those things that make teachers sweat with excitement. Once you start to question the governess, it is easy to jump on that school of thought that sees her as an unreliable narrator – mad, suffering from hysteria or from a displacement of her own anxiety or whatever else might explain these hallucinations or fabrications. Yet James doesn’t let you off so easily. He doesn’t make it irrefutably clear that the governess is making it up; there remains the distinct terrifying possibility that the ghosts are real.

Once you become aware of this knot, you see that every paragraph can be read both ways – as proof of the governess’s unreliability, or of the ghosts’ existence. It lends the book an intense claustrophobia, as its pages begin to close in on you and you feel desperate but unable to escape. I suppose it’s not unlike how the governess must feel – stuck in the house in the middle of nowhere with only ghosts and haunted children for company.

People get wretchedly caught up trying to argue this one way of the other. Truman Capote thought the ghosts were real; Edmund Wilson thought the governess was mad. It’s an argument that could go on forever. Henry James is the master of ambiguity. He teasingly tells us, when the friends are gathered round the fire:

The story won’t tell.

(His italics.) No, indeed it won’t.

In his Preface to the New York Edition of his work, James wrote the following about The Turn of the Screw. It comes at the end of a paragraph about different types of fairy tale:

The charm of all these things for the distracted modern mind is in the clear field of experience, as I call it, over which we are thus led to roam; an annexed but independent world in which nothing is right save as we rightly imagine it.

I love this idea of a fairy tale as ‘an annexed but independent world in which nothing is right save as we rightly imagine it’. This is what makes The Turn of the Screw at once intoxicating and terrifying. The governess imagines the ghosts and so they are ‘right’ and real to her. It is up to us whether we decide to go along with her and imagine the ghosts too, or whether we decide not to. What is right or not depends entirely on our imagination. Not just a fairy tale, but all fiction is a place where imagination roams free, and in The Turn of the Screw we see the horrifying edge to this – we are tantalisingly close to what might happen if we let our imagination roam a little too freely.

Henry James in 1897

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Getting Wonderfully Lost

August 16, 2010

There’s something so urbane about standing on those terraces on a sunny afternoon gazing across London. It makes you feel like a citizen of the city.

So said Steve Tompkins, the architect who redeveloped the Young Vic, about Lasdun’s modernist National Theatre on London’s South Bank. And it is a feeling I share on Saturday afternoon, when weaving my way around the South Bank, getting lost on my way to the Hayward Gallery.

I get off the bus on Waterloo Bridge and then go down, and then up, and then around, and then up again, and then around a bit more. I lose my bearings almost immediately and am soon reduced to guesswork, following the concrete around, occasionally climbing a staircase, turning a corner, hoping for the best.

And, as I walk, each step brings new vistas across the concrete. I see again and again incredible interlocking planes, lines, spaces; the greyness the perfect foil to the colourful crowds of skateboarders, freerunners, theatre-goers, families, tourists and the backdrop of the London skyline.

Needless to say, I don’t find the staircase leading directly from Waterloo Bridge to the Hayward Gallery entrance until it is rather too late. But I don’t mind – getting lost amidst the concrete is a wonderful experience.

But this experience of getting lost in a concrete jungle, finding oneself stuck in something akin to an Escher drawing, is usually a criticism of the South Bank and also another of London’s modernist complexes, the Barbican.

Architect Piers Gough responds to this criticism in a pretty inspiring article for Building Design (here), in which he lauds the Barbican as inspiration for his own architecture:

The criticism is a bit off because we expect and enjoy getting lost in cities and finding unexpected routes and vistas. The Barbican has these in spades. If you’re in the mood to explore, it’s a wonderful place with its changes in level, vistas up and down, intimate areas, dramatic piazzas, the gardens opening up below then there are amazing glimpses out to the city’s slick office buildings and the dome of St Paul’s. Of course the residents themselves rather revel in their maze-like world.

He’s right. Getting lost in the Barbican, or on the South Bank, can be exhilarating, eye-opening. It makes one see the city in new, unexpected ways. It makes me feel proud of London, excited by it again, amazed at how it all meshes together. As Steve Tompkins said, ‘a citizen of the city’.

Of course, on the occasion that one is running late and trying to get from A to B as quickly as possible, getting lost en route isn’t always such a fun experience. Enough of these amazing concrete views, where the hell am I? would be the predominant thought.

Yes, getting lost isn’t enjoyable, playful or particularly enlightening when one doesn’t have time to kill. And people rarely have time to kill in London – one of the most fast-paced, time-precious places in the world.

People often have a similar frustration in the bookshop. The books are arranged in a slightly, well let’s say ‘idiosyncratic’, manner. Most people expect everything to be arranged A-Z by author and neatly divided into sections like ‘Philosophy’, ‘Women’s studies’ etc. Frustrated when looking for a famous book, they march up to the till asking crossly, ‘Why don’t you have The Quiet American?’

Then we calmly explain our system and dash off to fetch them the book, often dragging them slack-jawed in tow.

Somebody complained to me about it the other day. ‘How am I supposed to find anything on my own? I always have to come and ask you to get it for me.’

Well, you see, that’s kind of the point. Everyone who works in the bookshop really loves books. We have all been involved in the book world for several years. We are all full of recommendations, tailored to suit a huge variety of needs. What makes the job interesting, and what makes the shop a success, is being able to talk to people about books.

If a customer comes up and asks me for The Quiet American, this sparks all sorts of conversations. We can talk about Vietnam and other good books about it – perhaps Norman Lewis, for instance – about Greene and other books by him, and then I might mention the new biography of Greene’s family by Jeremy Lewis. Likely as not the customer doesn’t know about this new biography but is very interested in it. Or he hasn’t heard of Norman Lewis. Or he’d like a few suggestions of other particularly good novels by Graham Greene. I go and bring him all these books and he spends a while in the shop having a very happy browse. Either he leaves with The Quiet American and is grateful for the help, sure to return soon. Or he leaves with The Quiet American and some of the other books that I’ve suggested, pleased as punch to have been introduced to them. And, of course, I’m happy as anything not only to have sold some more books, but to have helped someone find a good book or two.

Surely this is better than having everything unimaginatively signposted? Yes, people get momentarily lost, but then they get help and then they find all sorts of things, as well as what they were looking for.

The problem with the Barbican and the Southbank is that people – perhaps Londoners (dare I say male Londoners?) in particular – are rarely inclined to ask for help or directions. Rather than asking a passer-by which way to get to the Hayward, or where to find an elevated walkway, or the loo, people tend to persist in trying to work it out for themselves.

This trait has been greatly worsened by iPhones, with their Google maps app. Why bother to start a conversation when one can plug into some technology and work it out for oneself? Well, perhaps because people aren’t always as adept as map-reading as they would like to think. And because the Google maps of the Barbican and the Southbank are as good as useless in any case.

So perhaps an unexpected product of these two Modernist complexes is the need for conversation. Perhaps, in these particularly urbane London landscapes, we should be less urbane. Perhaps we should step out of our insulating bubble of iPods and iPhones and solitary individual lost wanderings and ask other people the way. After all these complexes are Modern, not Post-Modern. Conversations aren’t such terrifying things to start. Other people hanging out at the Barbican and the Southbank are generally pretty friendly, pretty interesting, happy to help if they can.

Unless, as was the case with me on Saturday afternoon, one is in no particular hurry and perfectly happy to get quite wonderfully, unexpectedly lost.