Publisher: Penguin Classics
Pages: 270 (Paperback)
The two tales in this edition, The Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw, reveal at its finest James’s genius for creating a world out of a single incident and charging it with unforgettable dramatic tension.
A story of ‘spoils and stratagems’, The Aspern Papers is set in a crumbling Venetian palazzo, where an old woman treasures up some letters sent to her by the great American poet Aspern. When a zealous literary historian arrives and attempts to prise the letters from her, he finds his charm, ingenuity and morals stretched to breaking point.
‘It is a most wonderful, lurid, poisonous little tale,’ wrote Oscar Wilde of The Turn of the Screw, James’s most puzzling and controversial work. In the story of a governess newly in charge of two small children, haunted by ghosts, our imagination is miraculously set free to conjure up terrors never precisely named, or explained.
This is (hopefully) going to be a pretty short review as I’m only going to focus on The Aspern Papers. Anyone interested in my thoughts on The Turn of the Screw, I already reviewed it here but essentially my thoughts boil down to ‘overrated and underwhelming’. The Aspern Papers, thankfully, was a story I got on a lot better with – though to say I actively enjoyed it is probably going a bit far. It was interesting and far more thought-provoking and challenging than I found The Turn of the Screw – more on that later – but I still found elements of it incredibly irritating.
Either I’ve just got used to James’ style of writing (the first few chapters of The Turn of the Screw were almost tortuous with their overabundance of very long sentences split up by awkward commas) or this is simply a much more smoothly written novella. I had no trouble, this time, getting used to the writing style and jumping straight in. This Penguin copy also, helpfully, has endnote translations for all the Italian words thrown in for Venetian flavour. Most words of course you can pick up from context but it was definitely useful on occasion – authors who expect me to be fluent in a second language of their choice to be able to understand their work are one of my biggest pet peeves (nobody is worse at this than ancient/medieval historians who quote blocks of latin with no translation or explanation of its meaning). So even to begin with I had a better impression of the writing than I did for the other novella. The story is also more interesting; the lengths an depths an obsessed editor and literary critic will go to possess the letters of a deceased poet – the fictional Aspern in this case.
As it turns out, great lengths and even greater depths. The unnamed narrator has no respect for either privacy or ownership as he puts together his plan to enter the house of Aspern’s former muse and lover as a lodger under an assumed name and there either integrate himself into a familiar enough position to be allowed access, steal them, or (suggested within the first few pages) seduce the woman’s niece into getting them for him. And here’s where I have to disagree with Anthony Curtis in his introduction that ‘In view of his predatory attitude to his quest it is perhaps surprising that we do not come to dislike the narrator, that he does not forfeit our sympathies altogether. This is never the case; the reason for our continuing benevolence towards him being…‘. I suppose it’s true that I didn’t ‘come to dislike the narrator‘ – but only by merit of me never feeling any ‘ benevolence towards him‘ in the first place. He’s a narrow-minded, obsessive, and not very intelligent con-man who defines his victims only in relation to the men in their life. Juliana Bordereau is always ‘Aspern’s Juliana’ or ‘Aspern’s muse’ and, although the narrator judges her harshly for acting differently to how his ideal of Aspern’s muse should he never bothers to even try to find out why she was Aspern’s muse, what was so attractive or compelling about her. He never views her as a person in her own right but defines her, completely, by her former relationship. Almost everything about his musings about her made me want him to beat him around the head shouting ‘women are more than just the men they’ve slept with!’. In fact that, along with his treatment of Juliana’s niece, even more than the whole ‘con-man’ thing is why I disliked the character from the very start. But, ignorant prat as I found him, you don’t have to like a character to enjoy the story they have to tell.
And the story asks some difficult and fascinating questions – is it appropriate to use private letters and correspondence for scholarship in a way that the writer never would have intended or approved of? At what point does it become appropriate? Does the furthering of our scholarly understanding justify the invasion of privacy? Are the people they were originally written for justified in keeping them to themselves or even destroying them? My university background is in history rather than literature, but they’re questions that have to be considered just as much in my field as that of literary criticism. Personal letters are an invaluable resource to us in understanding the past. They don’t just give us the ‘what happened’ but the ‘what people thought of it’ and beyond that they can give us an emotional anchor to the past – it stops being abstract and becomes more ‘real’ when there’s a personal story to relate to. A war museum, for example, that possessed no words or letters sent home by soldiers would generally be poorer and less powerful than one that did. But is this a form of voyeurism? These letters were never intended to be read in this way, to be seen by anyone other than who they were written for. In the case of famous people (either historical or literary) it’s an even finer line because you’re not looking for general thoughts and attitudes of a time period but are in fact prying very deeply into a person’s life and using their own private words, never intended for us to read, to do it. The results can be fascinating, but does the figure being dead make it any less an invasion of privacy or any less disrespectful? Well, being from a history background and aspiring to get into a museum career I’m going to have to say yes, it does make a big difference. But that letters, like objects in museums, should be freely given, donated, or honestly purchased – potential historical significance does not and should not invalidate the rights of the person a letter was actually written to do with it as they will.* And that’s where our narrator jumps off the deep end – by believing that he has more of a right to Aspern’s letters by merit of being a scholar than the actual woman they were written for does. He doesn’t.
So more smoothly written and more intellectually interesting than The Turn of the Screw, but I also found the characters vastly improved as well. Again we have the story told by a deeply unreliable – and, for me, unlikable – narrator, but one with slightly more art in describing – if not quite understanding – the people around him. Juliana Bordereau, the now ancient former-love of Jeffrey Aspern, is a compelling almost Miss Havisham-esque character with her strange clothing, frail body, and powerful personality. Though appearing only infrequently her presence and the force of her character are felt throughout the story, constantly oppressing the narrator. Her niece, Tina (Tita in the first edition), is a bizarre mix of old woman and young girl, bold and timid, matter of fact and romantic – the result of a sheltered and reclusive life and the force of her aunt’s domineering personality. Even more than the crumbling Venetian palace the story is set in, these two women help create a gothic and grotesque tone to the story. It’s the strangeness and the strength of these two women that really pulled me through when the unnamed narrator started to annoy me too much. Although he sees one only in terms of her lover or an obstacle to overcome and the other as a means to an end and something to be pitied what he fails to realise is how strong and clever not just the aunt but the niece actually is and, in my opinion, how they’ve clearly both been playing and manipulating him throughout the story even when he thought he was pulling the strings.
So, I’m still not a huge Henry James fan. I doubt you guys will ever see me read and review The portrait of a Lady or any of his other works – he’s just not my thing and I find the things critics tend to write about him to be a pretentious wank to the nth degree most of the time (I certainly thought much of the introduction to this edition was). But despite all that I quite liked The Aspern Papers, I won’t say ‘enjoyed’ because I’m not really sure that I did, but it was interesting. The Turn of the Screw, though, I just couldn’t get on with.
* (This is purely about the use of personal or private letters used for scholarship, research and display, not official documents, letters that genuinely are matters of public interest, or potential legal evidence – Prince Charles and David Cameron for example certainly do need to disclose their letters lobbying parliament/emails to the former editor of the Sun)