The Review--One Recent Release and One Classic Revisited
Fall 2006 Edition
Remembrances of Mysteries Past
Reviewer: Stedman Mays

Recent Release
book cover - BY A SLOW RIVER by Philippe ClaudelBY A SLOW RIVER by Philippe Claudel. Translated from the French by Hoyt Rogers (originally published in France by Stock, Paris, in 2003 under the title LES ÂMES GRISES--literally, THE GRAY SOULS). Knopf, 2006. Hardcover. 194 pages. Estimated length of the novel: around 56,000 words.

It's hard to remember things in great detail, especially long after the fact. The memory slips. You forget some things, you emphasize other things that you may have hardly noticed at the time. You start groping around in your mind. Sometimes you're not sure whether you're really remembering all the details or whether you're starting to manufacture or overemphasize or distort certain details that nevertheless seem to convey the truth of stories you tell to others. Or sometimes whatever it is from your past that you might be thinking about in private seems to undergo alterations of meaning with each new recollection and realization, as if the process of remembering is an almost endless chain of subtle--and occasionally not-so-subtle--revisions.

BY A SLOW RIVER is a story told by a provincial policeman long after a series of mysterious deaths occurred in a small town in France, around the time of World War I, 1914-1918. The novel consists of his recollections that he writes down in a kind of free-form journal that he keeps. It's been about twenty years since the war ended, so the setting of the telling of the tale--or should I say the setting of the writing of the tale--is the 1930s. The policeman-narrator sifts through his memories of those circa-World War I days to describe the gruesome dead bodies of a sweet-faced ten-year-old girl who's been strangled to death and is found dumped in a canal; the apparent suicide of a beautiful schoolmistress who had charmed all the men and seemed to have everything to live for; and the policeman's own beloved wife, who died in childbirth. These three females were perceived as innocents, making their deaths seem all the more senseless or unfair.

So, as you might suspect, we learn things about the townspeople--and, in some cases, the three women themselves--that cause us to revise any quaint assumptions we might have about the lack of tense undercurrents in small-town life. Though the war seems to be raging in the distance, away from the town itself, there are interpersonal conflicts beneath the day-to-day goings-on of the town that make for a psychological battlefield of sorts for the civilians.

The curious circumstances of the deaths--and the policeman's attempts to analyze them--intrigued me, but about halfway through the novel I began getting impatient with the weak point-of-view of the policeman-narrator. In general, I didn't find his voice very engaging or compelling. He seemed irritatingly generic through much of the narrative, as if the narrator's character and his relationships with other characters hadn't been thought through enough. And this is a shame, because some of the best parts of the book are the most personal comments by the narrator, in particular his curmudgeonly, world-weary comments on writing and his melancholy existence. He's a rather lonely, fiftysomething man with too much enthusiasm for wine, who claims at one point that he's only nonchalantly passing time with his journaling, which he does more out of habit than for any other reason:

"What good does writing this do, these lines serried like geese in winter, these words I string along with no apparent point? The days pass, and I return to my table. I can't say I enjoy it, but then I can't say I dislike it either...The worst of it is, I don't care what becomes of the notebooks. I'm on number four. I can't find two or three anymore. I must have lost them...It doesn't matter. I don't want to reread. I write, nothing more. It's a bit like talking to myself, a conversation from another time. I lay away portraits. I dig up graves without dirtying my hands."

Perhaps the author, Philippe Claudel, actually meant to cobble together "jagged bits and pieces" of stories--narrative gestures rather than slickly polished prose--and the narrator does say, "Words were never easy for me...I write as if I'm a dead man." But the policeman-narrator also says,

"If you would try to understand a human being, you have to dig down to the roots. It's not enough to nudge him along through time, into a flattering light: You have to probe the cracks and let all the poison seep out. You need, in other words, to get your hands dirty. "

It's too bad that we don't get more of the range of viscerally dirty, messy, poisonous energies of human beings in BY A SLOW RIVER. The narrator needs to take his own advice and let his hands get covered in muck.

I'm also disappointed by the way that Knopf, the American publisher, chose to package the book. The original French title, LES ÂMES GRISES--literally, THE GRAY SOULS--is much more appropriate for the novel. But the editors at Knopf saw fit to change it to BY A SLOW RIVER and got the author's permission for the change, according to the "Translator's Note" at the beginning of the book. And yet the previous title, THE GRAY SOULS, does justice to the murky ambivalences--ambivalences of memory and of the characters--that the text hints at. In my opinion, changing the title is symptomatic of the worst kind of futile and meddlesome fussiness of the publishing-by-committee mentality (anyone who would have read the book in a truly collaborative spirit would have seen that the title change was misguided). It's sad that a prestigious publisher like Knopf did something so wrong. Whatever reason it was changed for, marketing or otherwise, is indefensible as far as I'm concerned.

The book-jacket design is one of Knopf's weaker efforts as well. Although the Atget photograph on the upper part of the cover is lovely and seems to emit a quietly sinister glow, the banded type on the lower half doesn't relate to the photographic image successfully. (At least ninety percent of the time, banded or boxed type is the last refuge of a desperate designer.) As a result, the cover looks dowdy and clumsy to my eye.

Classic Revisited
book cover - THE END OF THE AFFAIRTHE TURN OF THE SCREW by Henry James. Edited by Deborah Esch and Jonathan Warren. A Norton Critical Edition, 2nd edition, 1999 (the original publication of THE TURN OF THE SCREW, in magazine installments as well as book form, was in 1898--James later made minor, but arguably significant, revisions in punctuation and wording for The New York Edition, a collection of his works, published in 1908, and it is this later text that is used as the basis of the Norton edition). Paperback. 85 pages of the text of the novel, with 186 additional pages of excerpts of criticism and other pertinent matter. Estimated length of the text of the novel: around 40,000 words.

You don't have to believe in ghosts to enjoy a good ghost story. We've all felt haunted by someone or something. A universal metaphor for the feeling of being haunted is the ghost. Or, for the believers among us in mystical phenomena as well as for characters in works of fiction who subscribe to such belief, the figure of a ghost can be taken literally. Or for those with varying or fluctuating points of view, any mixture of conceptual approaches, including the literal and metaphorical and whatever other ways of thinking about a book that a reader might come up with, might be used for interpretation.

From Shakespeare's Hamlet's father to Toni Morrison's Beloved, ghosts and ghostlike characters are the stock-in-trade of some very important writing. THE TURN OF THE SCREW, by Henry James, is unquestionably in a class with the very best in the literary history of the ghost story. Rarely has an author shown such a deft touch for the psychological and erotic implications of being haunted by presences from "the other side."

The story is told by a governess--actually, it's a story told by a decades-old manuscript she composed as a memoir of her experiences at one particular house. Before her death, she left the manuscript in the safekeeping of a man who had gotten to know her because she had been governess to his sister. The man decided to resurrect the old locked-away-in-a-drawer manuscript and share it with a group of friends hungry for some deliciously ghoulish entertainment.

The governess writes how at the age of 20 she was put in charge of two orphaned children--a boy, Miles, 10, and a girl, Flora, 8. The governess, a poor parson's daughter who needed work, was given this relatively lucrative assignment by Miles's and Flora's wealthy but uncaring guardian, a rakishly handsome uncle who's a ladies' man and who lives apart from the children and likes it that way. Indeed, it is reported that he gave the governess instructions amounting to Take full charge of the situation and don't ever bother me with any problems you might have. The children's country home is a magnificent and secluded estate, a brooding pile of gothic splendor with all manner of lakes, gardens, towers, and wonderful rooms in which demonic spirits appear to the governess and seem to threaten her authority and protectorship over the children.

The governess perceives that the children are being haunted by two demonic presences: the roguishly attractive Peter Quint, former valet of the children's permissive uncle and resident manager of the country estate in the uncle's absence, and Miss Jessel, former governess to the children and Quint's illicit lover (the Miss in Miss Jessel is emphasized throughout). Both Peter Quint and Miss Jessel died shortly before the arrival of the present governess. It seems from discreet scraps of information we receive that the two dead lovers carried on a tawdry and scandalously dissolute affair that resulted in their ruin. Peter Quint was adored by his young charge Miles, whereas Flora was drawn to Miss Jessel. Now, from the grave, Quint seems to be stalking young Miles, just as Miss Jessel seems to be stalking little-sister Flora. There are peculiarly homoerotic and pedophilic inflections in the longing of the depraved, corrupted ghosts, each of whom seeks to "possess" a child of the same gender for some vague purpose that remains "unspeakable."

The scenes of the governess's encounters with the two ghosts are riveting and all the more powerful for being restrained rather than over-the-top. We sense Quint's perverse sexual charm and the sad lost quality of Miss Jessel. We feel the governess interacting with their presences. The 1961 movie version, THE INNOCENTS, photographed in black-and-white CinemaScope by the great Freddie Francis, captures these encounters beautifully and with great sensitivity and is faithful to James's refreshing simplicity in such a genre as horror, which is often crude and ridiculously overwrought. These scenes are among the best ghost scenes--or scenes of the supernatural--ever filmed. Although critical debates on the book have raged over whether the governess's sightings of sprits are subjective hallucinations or objectively verifiable truth, when you see the ghosts on film they seem unquestionably real.

The movie THE INNOCENTS, while a classic, has flaws, however. For example, the casting of fortyish Deborah Kerr is off. She was too old for the part at that point in her career. Even though Kerr captures the obsessive drive of the character to get at the root cause of the evil that seems to be lurking in the house and on the grounds, her prim respectability gives the rich role of the governess a limited range. Sexual hysteria among most of the characters in THE TURN OF THE SCREW always seems to be about to break the surface. Except for the magical moment in THE INNOCENTS when the boy playing Miles lets his lips linger too long and too passionately as he gives a goodnight kiss to his surprised governess, the erotic strains are somewhat muted in the film.

But it's almost unfair to contrast any film too harshly against THE TURN OF THE SCREW. The subtleties of language in the book suggest sundry interpretations that are reduced in cinematic treatments. That's why THE TURN OF THE SCREW is one of those texts that is a testament to the special interpretive pleasures of reading words on a page--or an electronic screen.

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