The Aspern Papers by Henry James

14 Jan

I thought I’d ease back into posting with a novella I admire greatly–The Aspern Papers by Henry James. It may be about a literary scholar, but you don’t need to be one to enjoy the haunting story James crafts. If you’re looking for something a little different but not a gigantic tome that you have to devote a month to, look no further than here. I look forward to reading more James one day, and I hope you all with give suggestions and/or feel the same!

The Aspern Papers by Henry James

Published: 1888

Quick Read?: It’s not long page-wise, but James’ prose is notoriously complex. So I would say all things considered, it’s an average length read.

Difficulty: This book can be a bit challenging. As I said, James’ prose is complex and even a bit manipulative. His sentences are long and take more twists and turns than the city of Venice itself, where the story is set. That being said, the plot itself isn’t hard to follow, just be sure not to skim–you’ll miss a lot.

Synopsis: The narrator is an anonymous literary scholar who travels to Venice with a clear purpose: to find the deceased poet Jeffrey Aspern’s missing love letters to his beloved, the mysterious Juliana. And while Aspern may have loved Juliana, we see that the narrator himself is in love obsessed with Aspern–or, rather, his poetry. What seems like a straightforward trip to get the papers becomes convoluted when the narrator finds himself embroiled in a strange standoff with an ancient, blindfolded woman who is supposedly the beautiful Juliana. The narrator lives with her and her niece, and over the course of months, slowly admits to trying to manipulate them to gain access to these documents. As the narrator manipulates niece, old woman, and audience, a twist at the end will bring closure, but possibly tragedy as well.

What makes this book awesome? The Aspern Papers is a deceptive book on the outside. It may seem like a slim volume, but it’s packed with sophisticated language and complex grammatical structures. Any fan of language (especially what one might think of as stereotypically 19th century language) will love James’ style. It may not be light, breezy language, but it has a unique appeal all its own.

James also tackles the often tricky world of literary history and criticism. For any avid reader (as I’m sure many of you readers are!), falling in love with a past author can be so enticing, obsessive, and over the top that it is easy to forget that they too were once human (for the record, Woolf will always be a goddess to me, but that’s neither here nor there). Yet here, we see the danger that comes with idolizing someone we have never met. The need to know every detail, every feeling, every quotation becomes dehumanizing to the author and the life they wished to live. Aspern’s every intimate feeling may feel like the natural object to want to preserve for the history of poetry, but also ultimately hurts everyone in the story. The novella highlights a somber side of literary greatness–that of possibly losing privacy within one’s life. It’s a problem that still persists today, perhaps even more so, and feels timeless when reading.

An interesting fact or two:

It's easy to be smug when you've mastered the art of complex sentence structure and writing really creepy short stories. Lean back, James, lean back and enjoy.

  • The novella was actually published in three parts as a serial–it was only collected and published as a novella afterwards.
  • James moved between the U.S. and Europe for 20 years. He was fascinated with Americans interacting with Europe and European peoples, and wrote about it often in his novels. It casts an interesting light on how to read his narrator’s take on Venice, which is heavily romanticized and characterized like an author might describe a character.
  • I, personally, am a fan of the shorter fiction, and James himself was interested in the “compression” of stories with complex subject matter. Just goes to show wonderful things can come in small packages!

If you like this, you might like: “The Turn of the Screw,” Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, or The Bostonians by Henry James; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William Gass; The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells; any of the Romantic poets.


One Response to “The Aspern Papers by Henry James”


  1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain « Better Know A Book - April 28, 2012

    […] Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Twain; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; The Aspern Papers by Henry James; A Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Share […]

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