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