Death in Venice: The Aspern Papers

Henry James, The Aspern Papers (1888)

Henry James and I have not gotten along in the past. When I was compelled to read The Turn of the Screw in school, I was completely befuddled. Then I heard from other readers that James’s writing was convoluted or impenetrable, and I wasn’t interested in trying to break through that tangle.

But I’ve been nagged by the need to give him another chance, and a novella seemed the best way to do so without a huge time commitment. The Aspern Papers is only 86 pages long, so how painful could it be?

Actually, not painful at all. This sample of the Master’s writing, at least, is quite lucid. Written in the first person, it tells the story of a man who is in pursuit of papers left behind by the poet he idolizes and studies, Jeffrey Aspern. He tracks them to Venice, to the house of the great man’s former mistress, now an impoverished old woman who lives alone with her niece. Under an assumed name (we never learn his real one), he becomes a lodger in the house and awaits his opportunity to worm out some information about the precious documents. However, complications arise through his growing intimacy with the isolated, attention-starved niece.

With echoes of Rappaccini’s Daughter and Sunset Boulevard, this subtle and quietly chilling character study explores how people can manipulate and hurt one another in manifold ways, not through evil intentions, but through thoughtlessness, ambition, pride, or unresolved suffering. None of the characters is sympathetic, but none can be seen as entirely damnable. The tension builds up gradually to a shocking conclusion worthy of a horror movie, while the setting of the crumbling, aged city with its ineffable beauty complements the human drama perfectly.

The Aspern Papers novella is based on a true story about the poet Shelley (see this post at Behold the Stars for more on that) but it’s not necessary to know that to enjoy it. I can’t say that I found this an entirely congenial read — it was too bleak — but I did find it haunting and well-crafted. Now I’d like to try one of James’s longer works, since the ice has been broken. Any suggestions?

Classics Club list #12
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic Novella
Victorian Celebration 2015



18 thoughts on “Death in Venice: The Aspern Papers

  1. You make me wish I was reading this instead of Wings of the Dove, which is what I am in fact reading, somewhat reluctantly. Go for Portrait of a Lady instead, I liked that pretty well.


    1. I don’t think I’ve heard from anyone who actually liked The Wings of the Dove. Good to know that Portrait is not so painful, I may well try that next.


  2. The Turn of the Screw is not James’ best; I’m glad you tried him again. I have to admit, he’s one of my favorite authors. (And The Wings of the Dove is my favorite James book!) I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love the way he writes, and the beautiful language in his books; I even love his long sentences. Call me crazy, but I’m a Henry James girl all the way. 🙂


  3. I think I’ve only read Turn of the Screw by James, and while it was an interesting story for it’s atmosphere, I was turned off by the ambiguity and haven’t tried another book since. This sounds really interesting though – I probably wouldn’t love book (as in my needing to own it) because of the bleakness, but as a character study it would be a fascinating quick read. I’m glad you picked this James book to read!


  4. I have never read Henry James but I want to do so.

    This one sounds really good. I think I am drawn to the Sunset Boulevard type of story where aging people are haunted by ghosts of their pasts.


  5. I read The Turn of the Screw years ago for my university course, but I do vaguely remember being gripped by it. I really like the sound of this one too. I’m afraid I haven’t any full length novel by Henry James; I hope you enjoy future reads.


  6. Oh, lordy, no! I just recently read Henry James’ Turn of the Screw and The Golden Bowl back to back, I couldn’t possibly bring myself to stomach another word from him :-/ I know you say the Aspen Papers is a lot more straightforward and engaging, and it is bound in with Turn of The Screw in my edition, but… I just have such an aversion now, I can’t do it! A pox on the house of the friend who told me I’d “love” James’s writing, ugh. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, though, I’ve not come across a lot of bloggers who have read his work and can understand my pain!


    1. Not having to read Henry James is one of the reasons I’m glad I’m not still in school. I can read him if I please, and stop if it’s too much to stomach, thank you. Though I still would like to attempt one of his novels. Portrait of a Lady is sounding like the one to try.


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