Martine's Reviews > The Aspern Papers

The Aspern Papers by Henry James
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Aug 06, 08

bookshelves: british, nineteenth-century, north-american, psychological-drama, novellas
Recommended for: people who think they hate Henry James
Read in December, 1998

'Hypocrisy, duplicity are my only chance. I'm sorry for it, but there's no baseness I wouldn't commit for Jeffrey Aspern's sake.'

So says the unnamed narrator of Henry James' The Aspern Papers, a literary scholar who is writing a book about the fictional poet Jeffrey Aspern (loosely based on either Keats or Browning, depending on whose theories you choose to believe). At the beginning of the novella, the narrator discovers that Juliana Bordereau, to whom the poet addressed some of his most beautiful love poems, is still alive, a very old lady who lives with a niece in a dilapidated house in Venice. Not unreasonably, he suspects Miss Bordereau of having mementoes (possibly even love letters from the poet), and since a colleague of his has already established that she won't part with them the regular way, he inveigles his way into her house as a lodger. And then he waits -- waits for an opportunity to get his hands on the papers, or to get hold of them some other way.

In many respects, The Aspern Papers is an ideal book for people who dislike James, or think they do. A product of his middle period, it doesn't feature the late-period characteristics with which so many people associate him: the stupendous subtlety, the ponderous tone and the endless sentences whose meaning is obscure even after rereading them. The Aspern Papers is neither ponderous nor obscure. It's a perfectly straightforward and easy-to-read story about hope and obsession and where they will lead us. As is often the case with James, it's also about people using each other, but exactly who is using whom here is unclear. Indeed, a case could be made for all three leads using each other, which adds a bitter dimension to the tale. And it's a pretty bitter story to begin with -- dark and cynical with a bit of well-handled tragedy thrown in for good measure.

Reading The Aspern Papers is an interesting experience. It's quite fascinating to follow the narrator's progress, seeing him plot, attempt to justify his actions, pity himself and check himself whenever he's aware that he is about to do something which may ruin his chances. He's a calculating monster, but in a way you want him to succeed, both because you feel he deserves something for his efforts and because he has to put up with two very difficult women to get at the papers. For Juliana and her niece are difficult. The former poet's mistress has turned into a cynical, sarcastic and avaricious old lady, and as for her niece, Miss Tina, well, she's a bit of a simpleton, albeit an interesting one (the narrator nastily describes her as 'a piece of middle-aged female helplessness'). So how should the narrator go about dealing with them? How should he manipulate them into giving him what he wants? Jeffrey Aspern never offered any advice on that, so the narrator is left to find out for himself. But of course the women have an agenda of their own, and it doesn't necessarily match his.

As a story about academic obsession, The Aspern Papers is a bit too detached to leave a lasting impression. However, as a story about cold ambition and ruthlessness -- about the corrupting influence of want and need -- it's very successful. It's an intense and suspenseful novella with a few short bursts of melodrama, some near-gothic moments and an impressive, well-written ending. If it's a tad light-weight by James' later standards, I daresay there will be readers who will consider that a good thing. I know I do. In my weaker moments. :-)
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Rebecca Martine, how do you rate Wings of the Dove? *curious*




Martine Heh. Is it me or are you slightly obsessed with The Wings of the Dove? :-)

I like The Wings of the Dove, or at least I did when I last read it ten years ago. I'd say it's my favourite of James' three final great novels (The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl being the other two). If I had to rate it off the top of my head, I'd probably give it 4.5 stars and round it up to five. I'm definitely due for a reread, though.

Much though I appreciate James' later novels, I somewhat prefer his work from his middle period, as is probably blatantly obvious from the above review and my review of The Portrait of a Lady.

How about yourself?


Rebecca Just a tad. I had a friend like Kate. And a similar triangle, cept with fewer fatalities. ;)

And it was the book which broke my ten year anti-lit stance. :D

And and and the scene in the film when Merton and Kate pretend to be strangers is excruciating sexy. *gnaws arm off*




message 7: by Martine (last edited Aug 06, 2008 03:51PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Martine OK... You've got me all curious here about items 1 and 2, but I know better by now than to press for details. :-)

As for that scene, yes, I fully agree. I'd even go so far as to use the word 'arousing'. And God, wasn't Linus Roache something in that film? And wasn't Helena Bonham Carter breath-taking? Best role of her career, in my opinion.


message 6: by Rebecca (last edited Aug 17, 2008 06:19AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Rebecca I can do an abridgement. :p I was annorexic, suicidal etc and befriended by a girl intent on rescue. She decided to loan me her bf. And he cured me. I think my problem was a pathological longing for beauty. His was singular. Anyway... he fell for me and she encountered problems collecting. :p So she lied & manipulated. Engineered us apart. But, never got him back.

Moral of the story - never lend anything.


Martine Oh, wow. What a harsh lesson to learn. Lucky you, though. :-)

Just wondering -- have you read Donna Tartt's The Secret History? It pretty much opens with the narrator stating that his fatal flaw is a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs, to which I can entirely relate. Something tells me you can, too...


message 4: by Rebecca (last edited Aug 06, 2008 11:25PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Rebecca I haven't read The Secret History. Hmmmmmm it's not so much the picturesque. I crave otherworldiness. I don't like terrestrial beauty. ;) He seemed sculptured from light.


Martine Read The Secret History, anyway. It's very much about a craving for otherworldliness. Beauty, intensity and otherworldliness.


Rebecca *adds it to list*

Do you like your men otherworldly? *nosey*


Martine Yes, I do. I have a huge craving for the otherworldly, which certainly includes men. Which makes it rather amusing that my boyfriend is the most un-otherworldly person I know. I'm not sure what happened there, but it seems to be working, so I'm not complaining. :-)


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