Henry James, The Aspern Papers (1888)

There are various ways why this novella is striking. The first is James’ keen eye for expressing the beauty of Venice:

I don’t know why it happened that on this occasion I was more than ever struck with that queer air of sociability, of cousinship and family life, which makes up half the expression of Venice. Without streets and vehicles, the uproar of wheels, the brutality of horses, and with its little winding ways where people crowd together, where voices sound as in the corridors of a house, where the human step circulates as if it skirted the angles of furniture and shoes never wear out, the place has the character of an immense collective apartment, in which Piazza San Marco is the most ornamented corner and palaces and churches, for the rest, play the part of great divans of repose, tables of entertainment, expanses of decoration. And somehow the splendid common domicile, familiar, domestic, and resonant, also resembles a theater, with actors clicking over bridges and, in straggling processions, tripping along fondamentas. As you sit in your gondola the footways that in certain parts edge the canals assume to the eye the importance of a stage, meeting it at the same angle, and the Venetian figures, moving to and fro against the battered scenery of their little houses of comedy, strike you as members of an endless dramatic troupe.

The second would be the masterful art by which James manages to tell us a story without ever telling us about the essential facts of it. The story is indeed quite simple: a literature researcher obsessed by his subject, the romantic poet Aspern, hopes to get unpublished papers from his former lover, a very old American eccentric woman living in a rundown palace in Venice, alone with her niece. He so desperately wants them that he’s ready for anything, including deception and theft.

Yet we’ll never get to know the object of this strange passion: never will we get to judge by ourselves whether this poet Aspern is so worthy of adoration, never will we know what happened really decades ago between this poet and this former beauty, never will we get to read the letters! James is very clever in teasing us and sustaining our attention with false promises to show us the secrets of these people from the past, while he only ever shows us two rather banal and despicable people, the researcher and the niece, who’s in part innocent, in part ready for anything to get out of her boredom and isolation.

I like very much the lingering impression that this typically unreliable narrator leaves me: I take pleasure in reading his version of the story, in seeing how he justifies his action and leaves some parts in the dark, then putting down the book, to imagine the version of the American woman. Half of the story at least is left untold! The first paragraph is really a fine example of James’ craftsmanship. There’s no catching opening sentence here at all, the first sentence is a kind of anticlimax, the logical corollary of the narrator’s rambling thoughts. We’re put at once into his mind, without him taking care of explaining anything. The main subject is alluded for several sentences in a row, using only “them”, “the whole business”, and other really vague words, while the facts, like characters’ names, place of action, nationality, are to be gathered from clauses put in brackets or subordinated. Aspern himself is only introduced at the very last moment! I’ve pasted the whole first paragraph for you to enjoy.

I had taken Mrs. Prest into my confidence; in truth without her I should have made but little advance, for the fruitful idea in the whole business dropped from her friendly lips. It was she who invented the short cut, who severed the Gordian knot. It is not supposed to be the nature of women to rise as a general thing to the largest and most liberal view–I mean of a practical scheme; but it has struck me that they sometimes throw off a bold conception–such as a man would not have risen to–with singular serenity. “Simply ask them to take you in on the footing of a lodger”–I don’t think that unaided I should have risen to that. I was beating about the bush, trying to be ingenious, wondering by what combination of arts I might become an acquaintance, when she offered this happy suggestion that the way to become an acquaintance was first to become an inmate. Her actual knowledge of the Misses Bordereau was scarcely larger than mine, and indeed I had brought with me from England some definite facts which were new to her. Their name had been mixed up ages before with one of the greatest names of the century, and they lived now in Venice in obscurity, on very small means, unvisited, unapproachable, in a dilapidated old palace on an out-of-the-way canal: this was the substance of my friend’s impression of them. She herself had been established in Venice for fifteen years and had done a great deal of good there; but the circle of her benevolence did not include the two shy, mysterious and, as it was somehow supposed, scarcely respectable Americans (they were believed to have lost in their long exile all national quality, besides having had, as their name implied, some French strain in their origin), who asked no favors and desired no attention. In the early years of her residence she had made an attempt to see them, but this had been successful only as regards the little one, as Mrs. Prest called the niece; though in reality as I afterward learned she was considerably the bigger of the two. She had heard Miss Bordereau was ill and had a suspicion that she was in want; and she had gone to the house to offer assistance, so that if there were suffering (and American suffering), she should at least not have it on her conscience. The “little one” received her in the great cold, tarnished Venetian sala, the central hall of the house, paved with marble and roofed with dim crossbeams, and did not even ask her to sit down. This was not encouraging for me, who wished to sit so fast, and I remarked as much to Mrs. Prest. She however replied with profundity, “Ah, but there’s all the difference: I went to confer a favor and you will go to ask one. If they are proud you will be on the right side.” And she offered to show me their house to begin with–to row me thither in her gondola. I let her know that I had already been to look at it half a dozen times; but I accepted her invitation, for it charmed me to hover about the place. I had made my way to it the day after my arrival in Venice (it had been described to me in advance by the friend in England to whom I owed definite information as to their possession of the papers), and I had besieged it with my eyes while I considered my plan of campaign. Jeffrey Aspern had never been in it that I knew of; but some note of his voice seemed to abide there by a roundabout implication, a faint reverberation.


5 thoughts on “Henry James, The Aspern Papers (1888)

  1. I adored this novella when I read it. I’ve experienced lots of difficulties with James’s longer works, but this, and Washington Square were just marvellous for me. Love what you have to say about it too, Pauline!

  2. Oh, dear God, another James book for me to read! I just slated Portrait of a Lady for April, plus I have his last 2 novels on my TBR shelf.

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