Henry James, The Aspern Papers (Laurel, 1888)
[originally posted 27Mar2001]
One of James’ shortest novels, and one of his least-known, The Aspern Papers is a (supposedly based on a true) story about a young biographer of famed poet Jeffrey Aspern (based, depending on to whom you talk, on either Browning or Keats) who contrives to get his hands on the love letters Aspern wrote to a mistress by presenting himself at the now-ancient mistress’ Italian villa and passing himself off as a wealthy traveller and author looking for lodging. The mistress lives with her spinster niece, whose age is never given (one assumes mid-forties, a few years older than the narrator), and the two are impoverished. Things go as planned until the narrator finds himself starting to like the niece a bit more than he bargained for.
The novel runs a bit over a hundred pages, which makes it an excellent introduction to James’ extremely dry wit; it’s much lighter-weight than the ponderous tomes he’s known for. The prose here has an agility which is absent from works such as The Bostonians or The Wings of the Dove, but still manages to convey emotion quite well with only a few words and a gesture. The novel’s last pages are a triumph of minimal writing, and probably deserve closer scrutiny than the works of James’ that are normally assigned in English classes around the globe.
Oddly, the one major failing of this novel is that James abandons the minimalism every once in a while, and his characters go overboard with hysterical crying and the like so common to Victorian literature. In a book that’s otherwise so controlled, these episodes—never longer than a few sentences—seem absurd more than anything; perfectly composed people suddenly collapse into tears as if shot with pepper spray, and then within the space of a paragraph are back to their cool, collected selves once again. These intrusions are minimal, and while they detract from the scenes in which they’re placed, the novel overall is still a worthy one. If you’ve been turned off by James through exposure to one of those million-page drawing room comedies, you may want to give him another try with this. ** ½