I have continued my sporadic wandering around Henry James. I tried “The Aspern Papers” (1888), which everyone seems to like. It is easy enough to see why. It’s funny, clear, and clever: the humor is not especially rarefied, even verging on the broad; the prose never tangles itself into classic Jamesian knots; and James plays a little game with his unreliable narrator without turning the novella (or “tale” as James calls it) into a Modernist puzzle.
And the story is fun for bookish folks. The narrator is a literary biographer, working on a book about a famous Romantic poet, Jeffrey Aspern, based on no one in particular as far as I could see. He wants to acquire, or at least see, the papers owned by an old woman in Venice. She was once the subject of some of the poet’s famous love poems, and the biographer hopes that the papers include love letters. For some reason the woman is uninterested in assisting with this violation of her own privacy and early love life, so the biographer takes, under a false name, rooms in her Venetian mansion and tries to worm her way into her affection, mostly by pretending to court the woman’s only companion, her naïve spinster niece:
“I can arrive at the papers only by putting her off her guard, and I can put her off her guard only by ingratiating diplomatic practices. Hypocrisy, duplicity are my only chance. I am sorry for it, but for Jeffrey Aspern's sake I would do worse still. First I must take tea with her; then tackle the main job." (Ch. I)
In other words, the biographer behaves at every turn like a con man and a scoundrel. Most of the comedy comes from his belief that everything is justified by the importance of the poet. While telling – or, I guess, writing, although neither entirely fits the text – his own story he occasionally realizes that he may have gone a step or two or three too far in the pursuit of knowledge and art but can never admit that he really did anything wrong, no matter how much damage me might have done. His love of the long-dead Aspern, his love of poetry, crushes all objections:
My eccentric private errand became a part of the general romance and the general glory – I felt even a mystic companionship, a moral fraternity with all those who in the past had been in the service of art. They had worked for beauty, for a devotion; and what else was I doing? That element was in everything that Jeffrey Aspern had written, and I was only bringing it to the light. (Ch. IV)
It is as if his lies and schemes are themselves beautiful poems, or at least their moral (moral!) equals. A doubt begins to form: I thought “The Aspern Papers” was a satire against biographers, but perhaps James was after something else.