Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Aspern Papers by Henry James (1888)

Attention all archivists and historians: you should read this book! It gets 27 thumbs up from me.

Henry James' The Aspern Papers (1888) is a tightly constructed and satisfying novella that explores the ethical implications of biographical research through a pointed character study. In the book, our protagonist is a literary critic and historian who specializes in the life and work of Jeffrey Aspern, a prominent American poet. He learns that Aspern's lover, Juliana, is living in a dilapidated mansion in Venice with her spinster niece. Juliana is now an old woman, but the narrator is sure that she has some precious letters and other material relating to the great Aspern.

After his colleague inquires about the letters and is quickly dismissed, the narrator decides to take a different track -- approaching the two women as a fellow American interested in renting some rooms in their large house so that he can have access to their garden. They are in need of money and quickly take him up on his offer, and he attempts to ingratiate himself to Juliana and woo the niece to gain access to the precious documents.

The three main characters in this book are very nicely drawn, and the narrator is deliciously unreliable and self-serving. The implications of the narrator's actions and the awareness (or naivety) of the two women shift through the story and continue to change in your mind after you read it. The "at all costs" attitude of the narrator as well as the ending of the book (which I won't reveal here) remind me quite a bit of Julian Barnes' novel Flaubert's Parrot. In format and style the books are very different, but the themes and characters are sometimes interchangable.

An excellent read -- one of Henry James' best.

Sorry for the lack of posts lately -- I went up north for the holidays, and forgot to put a note up here. Never fear: I read plenty of books while I was keeping out of the winter weather.

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