Wednesday, October 3, 2012

They had worked for beauty, for a devotion; and what else was I doing? - fun with Henry James and "The Aspern Papers"

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 his 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.


  1. The motif of two people fighting for the possession of a third seems to appear in various forms throughout James’ work, In “the Turn of the Screw”, we have a macabre twist on this: the governess is fighting for the possession of the children … but she is fighting with adversaries who are dead. In “The Aspern Papers” – which, I think, was published together with “The Turn of the Screw” – the narrator is fighting for, effectively, the possession of a dead person. The narrator’s adversary only appears briefly in the story, but she has a proxy (Miss Tina), who, I think, is considerably more astute than the narrator supposes. The comedy seems to me constantly on the brink of sourness, and it turns very sour indeed by the end.

  2. This is sort of Henry James lite, akin to the novella "The Coxon Fund," which is also a fun one. I don't know if I think there's much more to "Aspern" than is on the surface, really. It's a nice addition to the literature of purloined writer's memorabilia (LoPWM), of which by now there's quite a bit, if you stop and think.

    Anyway, I do think that James' big play in "Aspern" is to imply that there's a sort of cult of academics who cover themselves in borrowed glory that they've dug up from the graves of actually creative people. Maybe not *all* researchers, but some of them. I wish I remember the story better than I do.

  3. I'm not much of a fun of Henry James, but this and Daisy Miller are two lovely novellas. The Aspern Papers is especially delightful for book lovers.

    I tend to see this novella as a parody, a dismantling, of Romantic sensibilities. Everything the narrator does is contrary to the ideals of the Romantics - he's false, his love for the niece isn't genuine, his love for art is perverted by the materialistic need to own these rare writings.

  4. I liked the Aspern Papers a lot. It an Washington Square are both good started James works.

  5. This is why you - I mean I - don't write 2,000 words and dump it into one post but instead spread it out. Other people's ideas are better than mine. There are 3 good, complementary ideas here.

    1. The "two fighting over one" structure. Shared also by The Spoils of Poynton, Washington Square, perhaps "Daisy Miller."

    2. Creative people vs. their parasites.

    3. Parody of corrupt Romanticism.

    I'm with Scott about "Henry James" lite. This one was written in E-Z-James™ brand prose. The easiest I can remember.

  6. I guess I liked this less than you and much less than many others. In fact, I couldn't believe the hack who wrote The Aspern Papers was the same person who penned The Ambassadors. Couldn't buy into the narrator at all, who seemed as unpleasant and poorly-constructed/not credible a character as a modern detective gumshoe. Disappointing.

  7. What, what! "Unpleasant" and "not credible" - those are good things in a narrator. The best.

    The comparison to pulp detectives is good, since "The Aspern Papers" is effectively a parody of a detective story, the kind where the detective is incompetent.

  8. How serendipitous that this old comment thread was revived while you're reading Joseph Mitchell, a real life Jamesian writer character, if there ever was one.
    One of Mitchell's own real life writer characters, Joe Gould, alleged author of a 9 million word long oral story of their time, turned out to be an impostor, a fake. Some have claimed that the shock of that revelation caused Mitchell the writer to grow silent. For the next three and a half decades until his death, Mitchell would go to work at the New Yorker and publish nothing (other than one last piece explaining Joe Gould's secret), week after week, all 2000 of them. It felt almost as if written language kept crumbling like a Chandosian rotten mushroom in Mitchell's hands.

  9. Right. Talk about a tricky narrator. Although a pleasant one, full of North Carolina charm.