Portland Opera is presenting Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw in February, and so in preparation for my pre-performance talks, I’ll be refamiliarizing myself with a work I haven’t heard in a very long time and posting some of my observations on it over the next couple of weeks.
I’m also (re)reading the Henry James novella that served as the basis for the opera’s tightly constructed libretto. I intentionally put parentheses around that prefix because although I was assigned “The Turn of the Screw” for my freshman American Lit class, I never got past the prologue. Nothing made the slightest bit of sense to me. Sure, I recognized each of the individual words on the page, but when they were all strung together into what should have been something meaningful, I kept tripping over verbal speedbumps like this:
“The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.”
Excuse me? And that’s just the first sentence!
I’m not sure why, but things are going much more smoothly for me this time around, and I seem to have settled into some kind of Jamesian flow. (I don’t know what that is, exactly, but I’m not going to fight it.) In order to get a better sense of the author’s style, I’ve even started in on “The Ambassadors,” a dense, sprawling, and puzzling novel that may take me several months–or at the rate I’m going, years–to finish.
Speaking of James, Laura Grimes had a terrific piece in this past Sunday’s Oregonian entitled “My adventures with Hank,” in which she recounted her well-meaning (but ill-fated) attempts at slogging through “The Ambassadors.” (Her description of trying to read it on the bus is priceless.) I got such a kick out of what she wrote that I emailed her about Turn of the Screw and my own ongoing encounters with the author. I hope Laura’s able to catch one of the performances at the Keller.