Saturday, January 21, 2012

"Almost incurably frivolous"

Ferdinand Mount, reviewing M.R. James (LRB, gated), brings up The Other James in a way "incomparably light and deft":

Towards the end of his life, in 1929, [MR] James wrote a survey of ghost stories for the Bookman [...] The article ends in a characteristically self-deprecating but also unusually abrupt way: ‘There need not be any peroration to a series of rather disjointed reflections. I will only ask the reader to believe that, though I have not hitherto mentioned it, I have read The Turn of the Screw.’ [...] Is Henry’s exhaustive psychological analysis precisely what Monty will not permit himself, even if he were capable of it? Like Bertie Wooster, M.R. James seems not entirely at home with the psychology of the individual; for that sort of stuff, he relies on Jeeves. On his only recorded meeting with the other James, he thought that Henry looked ‘like a respectable butler’.
A few marginalia: (1) Livermere is a good place name -- at least for a ghost story -- and probably superior to Mortmere. (Liverpool might once have had similar potential.) (2) Mount on the ghost stories: "his phantoms do not, on the whole, haunt. They lie doggo in their holes and only when roused make a single surprise appearance. They are cabaret turns." (3) Also:
The spectral bedsheet in ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ attempts to thrust its ‘intensely horrible face of crumpled linen’ close into the face of Professor Parkins as he cries for help. The gender of the bedsheet is unclear, but the fear of domesticity and the fear of sex, tangled and intertwined like the bedsheet, are unmistakable.

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