The Aspern Papers by Henry James
When I went back on the morrow the little maidservant conducted me straight through the long sala …as the door of the room closed behind me I was really face to face with the Juliana of some of Aspern's most exquisite and most renowned lyrics. I grew used to her afterward, though never completely; but as she sat there before me my heart beat as fast as if the miracle of resurrection had taken place for my benefit. Her presence seemed somehow to contain his, and I felt nearer to him at that first moment of seeing her than I ever had been before or ever have been since. ..
Then it came to me that she WAS tremendously old—so old that death might take her at any moment, before I had time to get what I wanted from her. The next thought was a correction to that; it lighted up the situation. She would die next week, she would die tomorrow—then I could seize her papers. Meanwhile she sat there neither moving nor speaking. She was very small and shrunken, bent forward, with her hands in her lap. She was dressed in black, and her head was wrapped in a piece of old black lace which showed no hair.
observations: Not a nice young man at all, but only too believable. He is an academic who has come to Venice to try to find the aged mistress of a great poet, the Jeffrey Aspern of the title. Miss Juliana Bordereau must surely have some letters from the great man tucked away – papers that no-one else has seen, papers that will make the young man’s career and fortune.
He had been surprised to find she was still alive: “it was as if I had been told Mrs Siddons was, or Queen Caroline, or the famous Lady Hamilton, for it seemed to me that she belonged to a generation as extinct.” Henry James is thought to have based his story on the idea of one of Byron's mistresses living into extreme old age.
This is one of the most creepy, atmospheric stories you could ever read; the picture of Venice is such that the city forever becomes James’s version; and there is a moment of shock in it to match the best ghost and horror stories. It also makes you wonder about James - who seems a blameless and honourable chap with a very restrained life – and his ability to portray the oily man's totally cynical manipulation of Miss Bordereau’s niece, and his contemplating selling his soul in marriage to her. What a great book.
Last week’s My Search for Warren Harding – about a young man trying to find the papers of a lost president – is clearly based on this novella, and in many ways couldn’t be more different. For a start it is hysterically funny, which The Aspern Papers isn’t. But reading them both in quick succession you can see how cleverly Plunket followed Aspern, there are endless parallels, and you can also see how absolutely brilliant both books are in very different ways.
Links up with: Venice was one of the settings for another Henry James book, blog favourite Wings of the Dove, and carnivale came on the right day. Don’t Look Now is another classic Venice book.
The picture is by Sandor Bihari, and can be found on Wikimedia Commons.