Let the dead describe their own dead

The Aspern Papers

Jeffrey Aspern was a world-class poet, and as such attracted a gaggle of biographers shortly after his death, all clamouring to tell the definitive story of the great man. The narrator of James' The Aspern Papers is one such devotee---or hack, depending on your point of view. He travels to Venice to hoodwink two generations of ageing Aspern-satellites into yielding the papers that he is certain the elder has hidden. Inveigling himself in their household as a lodger, he worries away at the younger woman but ends up too deeply involved in the household, tempting the onset of the older woman's ill health as she begins to suspect his motives. Worse still is the prospect he finds inconceivable: failure to procure Aspern's papers.

James' convoluted, ornate style is ideally suited to this sort of work, conjuring as it can tension and suspense out of the most apparently innocent of situations. His circumlocutions appear to orbit subjects which, when talked of directly, might be innocent enough; seen from the corner of the eye they take on an altogether sinister object, as is also clear from his other novella The Turn of the Screw. James' writing is at once tangled and wandering, yet is still dense and tight: like certain mathematical maze forms, his verbal journey fills every single nook and corner of the space allotted. James is able to turn what might be a rather banal tale of the hunter-gathering of a dead author's papers from two unsympathetic old women into a novel of tension that makes the reader's nerves twang and jangle with the effort of reading.

Not only that, but James is able to cover so much ground with his method that almost every aspect of this novel is practically overdeveloped to the point of giantism. We get rich, intricate descriptions of the atmosphere and aspect of Venice almost as asides; the two women are compared and contrasted until each becomes as three-dimensional as the lone subject of almost any full-length novel; and we see in the narrator the conflict between James' own horror of the vultures that might circle his still-warm body and his sense of his own literary duty. Indeed, there seem to be even more likenesses between author and narrator than are made explicit, as the protagonist, fresh from the male-oriented environment of hinted-at academic institutions, shies away from a marriage proposal as a means to his concealed ends: deified, unattainable Aspern is the only object of his desires. Ultimately, though, we find in The Aspern Papers a novella of complexity in all forms: thoughtful, careful and brilliant. Aspern himself could not have written better.