The Aspern Papers by Henry James (1888)

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.
(Chapter I)

The Aspern Papers was published in three parts in the March to May 1888 editions of The Atlantic Monthly, and published in book form in London and New York later in the same year. It is a novella in nine chapters.

What I know about James

Surprisingly, shamefully, for an English graduate, I’d never read any Henry James before. Tried on various occasions but never managed to make any headway. Obviously I know about his position as, in many people’s opinion, the novelist, the peak and acme of the evolution of the novel as an art form.

One reason for this is that James really thought through the problem of point-of-view in the novel; he reacted against the casually, comically all-seeing authorial voice of the mid-Victorian novelists like Dickens and Thackeray or Wilkie Collins, and experimented in different works with what happens when the narrator’s point of view of the events described in the text is restricted and limited – as, of course, it is in ‘real life’.

Alongside his experiments with the handling of subject matter, I also know James is famous – or notorious – for his convoluted prose style: that it evolved from the already nuanced and crafted style of the 1880s towards its apotheosis of length and complexity in his trilogy of great works – The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904), where a single sentence can sometimes last over a page.

This is the ‘late style’ that many readers find literally incomprehensible. In David Lodge’s two historical novels – Author, Author and A Man of Parts, both of which feature Henry James – even loyal James fans freely admit that they never managed to finish any of his Big Three novels. So I am not alone in finding reading his books a challenging experience.

The Aspern Papers belongs to James’s ‘middle period’, roughly 1885 to 1900, and so significantly before the challenging Late Style had arrived.

Thus my fore-knowledge and what anybody, frankly, could pick up by reading any article about James online.

The plot

The plot, like many of James’s plots, was elaborated from an anecdote he was told at one of the many social occasions he attended (as a confirmed bachelor with a wide circle of friends) and it does have a slightly fleshed-out feel.

An unnamed American narrator is a passionate devotee of a (fictitious) American poet, Jeffrey Aspern who flourished and died in the early part of the 19th century. He and an English colleague, Cumnor, are ‘bringing Aspern’s work to light’ which I took to mean publicising, maybe even editing, his works for a newly interested reading public.

They have learned that a lady to whom Aspern devoted numerous poems is still living, 60 years later, living in a run-down house in Venice, going under the name of Miss Bordereau, with a young lady companion.

Cumnor writes to ask if Miss Bordereau has any memorabilia of the great man and she fobs him off. Whereupon the unnamed narrator picks up the story and describes his campaign to rent rooms in the ladies’ big Venice town house, inveigle his way into their affections, and get his hands, by hook or by crook, on the letters and memorabilia of the Great Poet which he is convinced – without real definite evidence – that she must possess.

He travels to Venice where he takes a middle-aged American lady friend, Mrs Prest, into his confidence about his campaign. Then he takes a gondola to their address, knocks and presents himself. He meets the young miss and the old lady and spins them a line about how he’s fallen in love with the lovely garden attached to the house and it’s just the place for him to spend the summer on his vague and undefined ‘literary projects’. So he persuades them to let him some rooms on the upper floor at an exorbitant rate, gets his people to move in furniture, pays a gardener to overhaul the house’s garden, plant flowers, set up an arbour where he can sit planning his next move.

Their paths rarely cross for weeks, but on several key occasions the narrator encounters young Miss Tita in the newly renovated garden and they have tremulous, vague and sometimes difficult to understand conversations, but which lead the narrator eventually to be invited into the ladies’ rooms where he scans the furniture for hiding places for the much-longed-for Aspern papers.

On a successive occasion he goes down to their rooms expecting to meet with Miss Tita again and, finding their door on the latch, goes into their living rooms unaccompanied and is poised to open wardrobe which is the likeliest hiding place of the papers, when he hears a gasp and turns to see the wizened, witch-like Miss Bordereau standing in her doorway with an accusing stare.

I never shall forget her strange little bent white tottering figure, with its lifted head, her attitude, her expression; neither shall I forget the tone in which as I turned, looking at her, she hissed out passionately, furiously:
‘Ah, you publishing scoundrel!’ (chapter VIII)

She collapses backwards into the arms of Miss Tita. the narrator flees the scene, packs his bags, and spends weeks travelling in a blur of confusion around Italy, viewing grubby pictures in smoky churches and staying in cheap hotels, his mind in a ferment.

Eventually he returns to Venice and revisits the house, only to find that Miss Bordereau has passed away, probably from the shock of his intrusion, and has been buried. Miss Tita greets him and there is a long conversation in which it seems to emerge a) that there definitely are papers, lots of papers, from Miss B’s long-ago relationship with Aspern b) that Miss B asked Miss Tita to burn them but she hasn’t. And then it sort of emerges, from Miss Tita’s stammering, hesitant broken sentences, that she promised Miss B not to give away the papers but that if, somehow, the narrator and she were one, were united, legally, then what was hers would automatically become his and – … and with horror, the narrator realises that Miss Tita is saying she will hand over the papers if he will marry her.

‘I have found nothing of the sort — she destroyed it. She was very fond of me,’ Miss Tita added incongruously. ‘She wanted me to be happy. And if any person should be kind to me — she wanted to speak of that.’
I was almost awestricken at the astuteness with which the good lady found herself inspired, transparent astuteness as it was and sewn, as the phrase is, with white thread. ‘Depend upon it she didn’t want to make any provision that would be agreeable to me.’
‘No, not to you but to me. She knew I should like it if you could carry out your idea. Not because she cared for you but because she did think of me,’ Miss Tita went on with her unexpected, persuasive volubility. ‘You could see them — you could use them.’
She stopped, seeing that I perceived the sense of that conditional — stopped long enough for me to give some sign which I did not give. She must have been conscious, however, that though my face showed the greatest embarrassment that was ever painted on a human countenance it was not set as a stone, it was also full of compassion. It was a comfort to me a long time afterward to consider that she could not have seen in me the smallest symptom of disrespect.
‘I don’t know what to do; I’m too tormented, I’m too ashamed!’ she continued with vehemence. Then turning away from me and burying her face in her hands she burst into a flood of tears. If she did not know what to do it may be imagined whether I did any better. I stood there dumb, watching her while her sobs resounded in the great empty hall. In a moment she was facing me again, with her streaming eyes. ‘I would give you everything — and she would understand, where she is — she would forgive me!’ (Chapter IX)

The narrator is overcome with confusion and rushes out the door, down into his gondola and tells his gondolier to go anywhere, everywhere, to go far away, and he is spirited all over Venice, his mind in a turmoil.

We are right at the end of the story now, for the next day the narrator returns to find Miss Tita oddly transformed and transfigured by his rejection. But they have barely begun speaking before she reveals that, in light of his rejection of her, she has been up all night burning the papers and now every single one has been destroyed!

Impressions

1. Upper class These are very upper-class personages and so their entire upbringing and worldview is very limited and very polite. Having never done manual work or carried out any practical, day to day tasks – they have servants to do all that – the focus of their narrow lives has been on registering minute flickers of meaning in carefully nuanced conversations. And so the text focuses on subtle dialogue, the characters’ interpretations of the dialogue, the characters’ interpretations of each other’s interpretations of the dialogue, and so on.

In our day the internet, twitter and email have accelerated the whole 20th century’s tendency to make communication quicker, more focused, punchier. To give James a chance you have to make a mental effort to cast yourself back to a long lost time of aristocratic leisureliness and the culture of an upper-middle-class which was brought up to be – or at least give the impression of being – untroubled by material concerns.

2. The characters are Americans in Europe and so running through the text is a surprisingly crass keenness to show off their local knowledge and familiarity. The very setting – Venice – makes a statement about the cultural and social expectations of all parties i.e. living at the highest pitch of European culture and civilisation. James is keen to show off his familiarity with the lingo and so almost every page contains Italian vocabulary (carefully noted and translated in the Penguin edition):

  • piano nobile – first floor
  • felze – cabin at the back of a gondola
  • padrona di casa – landlady
  • scagliola – little chips
  • forestieri – foreigners
  • serva – maid
  • contadina – peasant woman
  • pifferaro – piper
  • passeggio – stroll, promenade
  • capo d’anno – New Year’s Day
  • giro – stroll

This keenness to show off reminds me of Ernest Hemingway’s enthusiasm to drop into French or Italian or Spanish forty years later. The American author’s need not to be mistaken for one of those ghastly American tourists, to show that he is infinitely above crude sight-seeing, that he is one of those who knows Italy (Paris, Spain etc) remains consistent over time.

3. Seeing the sights An aspect of tourist anxiety is James’s keenness to show off his knowledge about the sights. ‘I know all about Venice,’ the text says. ‘Darling, I virtually invented Venice.’

I forget what I did, where I went after leaving the Lido and at what hour or with what recovery of composure I made my way back to my boat. I only know that in the afternoon, when the air was aglow with the sunset, I was standing before the church of Saints John and Paul and looking up at the small square-jawed face of Bartolommeo Colleoni, the terrible condottiere who sits so sturdily astride of his huge bronze horse, on the high pedestal on which Venetian gratitude maintains him. The statue is incomparable, the finest of all mounted figures, unless that of Marcus Aurelius, who rides benignant before the Roman Capitol, be finer: but I was not thinking of that; I only found myself staring at the triumphant captain as if he had an oracle on his lips. The western light shines into all his grimness at that hour and makes it wonderfully personal. But he continued to look far over my head, at the red immersion of another day—he had seen so many go down into the lagoon through the centuries—and if he were thinking of battles and stratagems they were of a different quality from any I had to tell him of. (Chapter IX)

The narrator of course drops into Florio’s, the famous café, on St Marks Square. He of course knows what is the best drink to partake of at that time of day. He is, naturally, a connoisseur.

4. Imprecision Although James namedrops the tourist highlights of Venice and the Lido, and knows the Italian word for various things, he is surprisingly unprecise about things. I was very struck by the vagueness of his description of the old palace where the two ladies live, struck at his lack of interest in architectural details. Later the narrator looks out over the rooftops of Venice and gives a general impression of the view. I began to realise that the text focuses on the feelings and impressions of the participants and glosses or floats over the actual details of the external world, the kinds of precise details of build, design, feature and functionality that I enjoy in prose.

5. Lack of ideas I was surprised and then, on reflection, not  so surprised, to come across no ideas at all in the story. This lack of ideas is epitomised in what is presumably an ironic moment in the story where the narrator and the aged Miss Bordereau come face to face for the first time. The naive and simple Miss Tita has settled down to watch an exchange between Giants of Intellect, a distillation of the essences of these two extraordinary souls, a dialogue of superior beings.

Miss Tita sat down beside her aunt, looking as if she had reason to believe some very remarkable conversation would come off between us.
‘It’s about the beautiful flowers,’ said the old lady; ‘you sent us so many—I ought to have thanked you for them before. But I don’t write letters and I receive only at long intervals.’
She had not thanked me while the flowers continued to come, but she departed from her custom so far as to send for me as soon as she began to fear that they would not come any more. I noted this; I remembered what an acquisitive propensity she had shown when it was a question of extracting gold from me, and I privately rejoiced at the happy thought I had had in suspending my tribute. She had missed it and she was willing to make a concession to bring it back. At the first sign of this concession I could only go to meet her. ‘I am afraid you have not had many, of late, but they shall begin again immediately—tomorrow, tonight.’
‘Oh, do send us some tonight!’ Miss Tita cried, as if it were an immense circumstance.
‘What else should you do with them? It isn’t a manly taste to make a bower of your room,’ the old woman remarked. (Chapter VI)

So. The ‘remarkable conversation’ turns out to be bickering about the flowers which the narrator for a while sent the ladies and then got bored and stopped. Not exactly Plato and Socrates.

6. Crudities I was also surprised, in a text which seemed to go to such pains to emphasise its good breeding and aloofness, by other instances of crudity and bathos. The entire story is itself rather crude – young man on the make uses his wiles to cheat and deceive an avaricious old lady and her simple-minded companion. Not a nice story.

There’s an odd rhythmic pattern which I noticed happening several times, whereby pages and pages of static and clotted dialogue or of the narrator’s long-winded ratiocinations, would suddenly be interrupted by an abrupt and surprisingly melodramatic moment. The sudden appearance of the old lady like a ghost in her doorway, startling the intruding narrator – quoted above – is a good example of the text suddenly switching from being a long, rather dreamlike stream-of-consciousness flowing to – bang! – a sudden Edgar Allen Poe-like eruption of apparently corny histrionics.

On a micro level the same is true. From everything I’d read I expected James’s style to have a consistent smoothness of long-drawn-out rumination and ponderousness. So I was surprised that, quite regularly, the prose dropped into rather obvious proverb or cliché. Here the narrator has returned after his week or so away from Venice, is revisiting Miss Tita and has just learned that Miss Bordereau is dead.

It came over me for the moment that I ought to propose some tour, say I would take her anywhere she liked; and I remarked at any rate that some excursion—to give her a change—might be managed: we would think of it, talk it over. I said never a word to her about the Aspern documents; asked no questions as to what she had ascertained or what had otherwise happened with regard to them before Miss Bordereau’s death. It was not that I was not on pins and needles to know, but that I thought it more decent not to betray my anxiety so soon after the catastrophe. (Chapter IX)

‘Pins and needles’? I have no objection to this and the other demotic phrases scattered around the text, just that I was surprised to come across them and discover that it is not at all written on an airlessly high aesthetic note.

If it was all perceived and written in the same slow, long-winded dreamlike style it would be easy to relax into the meandering narrative and drift along with it. But there are these regular moments of suddenness which bring you up short: another example would be when, after pages and pages of the narrator speculating how he will manage his conversation with the old lady at their first meeting, she surprises him by raising the issue of money and quite bluntly asking for a large sum of money in rent. Oh.

So the effect isn’t of a sustained high style – something like Walter Pater’s aesthetic style or Oscar Wilde’s shiny surfaces. It is of a text which moves between a number of registers, sometimes with surprising abruptness, of long dialogues you have to read twice to properly understand them, leading up to someone saying:

‘Did you mean francs or dollars?’ (Chapter III)

It was not the much-vaunted loftiness of his style but the strange mongrel mix of tones and registers which I found most striking and memorable about this story.


Credit

I read it The Aspern Papers in the 1984 Penguin paperback edition but it is freely available online.

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