Review: The Aspern Papers by Henry James

The Aspern Papers by Henry James


"With a decaying Venetian villa as a backdrop, an anonymous narrator relates his obsessive quest for the personal documents of a deceased Romantic poet, one Jeffrey Aspern. Led by his mission into increasingly unscrupulous behaviour, he is ultimately faced with relinquishing his heart's desire or attaining it at an overwhelming price."

This novella tells a story of an editor who adores and writes about the famous Romantic poet Jeffrey Aspern. Once the editor learns that one of Aspern's lovers, Julianna Bordereau, still lives somewhere in Venice and has in her possession some love-letters she exchanged with Aspern, the editor goes to Italy. He pretends to be someone else and makes Julianna and her niece Tina (or Tita, depends on which edition you read) to rent him some of the rooms in their big villa. He is of course after the letters and his shameful behaviour has its fatal consequences. 
The characters of Jeffrey Aspern and Julianna Bordereau were inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Claire Clairmont (Mary Shelley's step-sister).
This is my very first story by Henry James, so I can't really compare it with his other works etc. However, this seems to be one of those stories where what is not said is more important than what is said. For a start the fact that we never learn the name of the editor underlines that he is just nobody, even though he is the narrator. He fancies himself an adventurer who follows this great poet around the world. Aspern is his idol and he longs to get as much information about him as possible, so that he can be closer to him and maybe become him. Sadly, his stubborn insisting on following his plans and getting the papers blinds him and he fails at his own life. Also, his behaviour is hardly reminiscent of Aspern (or Shelley). The editor doesn't really get it and he turns down his opportunity for a happy life, and more importantly to finally become someone, and not just a nameless pathetic Aspern imitator. Only the very last sentence suggests that maybe he realized how he totally messed up and what a failure he is.
Great story, even though a bit painful.


Anonymous said...

Dialogue can be so revelatory by what is witheld, right? As opposed to what is expressed. But that requires close reading though.

Petra said...

Exactly, but it makes reading more enjoyable! :)

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Sounds interesting, I must read some Henry James when I find the time! The relationship between the main characters sounds vaguely reminiscent of that in On the Road??

Petra said...

Me too!
I read that such a long time ago that I hardly recall anything :/

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