July 15, 2013

Review: "The Aspern Papers" By Henry James

The Aspern Papers is a brilliant novella written by Henry James and serialized in the Atlantic in 1888.  In short, The Aspern Papers is the story of an academic researcher, the novella's narrator, on the trail of bundles of personal letters and writings of a long-dead American poet, 'Jeffrey Aspern'.  Apparently, these letters and papers are in the possession of a very old woman, Miss Juliana Bordereau, who lives with her middle-aged niece in an old rambling palazzo in a shabbier part of Venice.  Our narrator rents a room from the women under false pretenses and endeavors to elicit the aid of the niece in discovering the whereabouts of the papers.  He is not above using deceit and artifice in ingratiating himself with the women.  It is clear from the outset that he is obsessed and consumed with obtaining the papers--he calls them his "spoils"--and cares little for the old woman's privacy or the memories of her lost love.

This is a creepy read, and one can't help but sympathize with the poor lonely middle-aged niece, Miss Tina, and even for the ancient Miss Juliana who lives for the memories of her love affair with Aspern.  It becomes altogether uncomfortable for the reader as the narrator emotionally and psychologically manipulates the niece into becoming his accomplice in trying to find and acquire the papers.  Frankly, the ending of the tale is incredibly satisfying to my mind.

I think the point that James is trying to make in this novella is that there really is quite the moral dilemma when it comes to personal privacy and the pursuit of information for intellectual or commercial purposes.  In other words, if an author or poet becomes famous and well-read, the question becomes just how much of their life becomes fair game, if you will, for future biographers, researchers, and so forth?  It is a tough question for sure. 

As I read The Aspern Papers, I realized that other authors have written about this dilemma as well.  For example, Edith Wharton's superb novella, The Touchstone, written in 1900 revolves around a man who sells bundles of very intimate personal letters he received from a former lover who was also a very famous author.  A.S. Byatt sort of gets to this same point with correspondence between two fictional Victorian poets in her Booker Prize winning novel, Possession (1990).  Towards this end then, if you read The Aspern Papers, I strongly urge you to immediately follow it up with a read of Wharton's The Touchstone.  It is a wonderful way to link the two novellas, and is made even more meaningful in that Henry James and Edith Wharton spent much time together and became very good friends.


The Aspern Papers & The Turn of the Screw
By Henry James
Penguin Classics Edition
Softcover, 272

No comments:

Post a Comment