stories of writers, readers, and literary reputations
The Aspern Papers (18888) was composed at a critical period in Henry James’s life. It might seem odd one hundred and thirty years later, but his reputation took something of a minor dive in mid career. He was disappointed by the reception of both The Bostonians (1885) and The Princess Cassamassima (1887) and he retreated for a while into the pleasures of the shorter forms of the novella and the short story – both of which he described as ‘tales’. This collection brings together four pieces of work which have a common subject matter – the relationship between authors, readers, and the texts which join them. James was well aware of the rich fictional potential in the writer as a public figure.
The most famous here is his celebrated novella The Aspern Papers, which like many other of his works has been a fertile source for film, theatre, and opera adaptations. An unnamed writer goes to Venice in search of letters written by Jeffrey Aspern, a famous nineteenth century poet. They were written to and in the possession of Juliana Bordereau, an elderly American woman who was his lover many years ago. She wishes to guard her privacy; the writer wishes to get hold of the letters as material for a biography he is working on. A battle of wills ensues, in which Miss Bordereau dangles before him the prospect of marriage to her niece, Tina Bordereau, a plain middle-aged woman.
It’s a very typical James work, in that there is very little movement or external drama. The three characters are living in the same palazzo in a very charged psychological atmosphere, keeping a very close eye on each other. The denouement is precipitated by Juliana catching the Narrator snooping in her room late at night. The papers have indeed been hidden in a most significant place – but in the end nobody triumphs. In fact, they all fail to get what they want.
James knew full well that many accomplished writers and artists were unremarkable in their private lives, and that conversely there were exuberant talkers and entertainers over the dinner table who had no creative talent. The Private Life is a curious exercise in exploring this difference between an artist’s public manifestation and his personal life. Clare Vawdrey is perfectly at ease in a social group, but when asked to present his latest literary creation, he is unable to face his admirers. He needs privacy and seclusion in order to reveal his imaginative life. This case is wittily contrasted with an example of an accomplished public figure whose personality disappears completely once there is nobody present with whom he can interact.
The Middle Years is a much anthologised tale in which a dying novelist meets a young doctor who is also an enthusiastic reader of his work. Feeling re-charged with creative force by the quality of the younger man’s appreciation, he conceives of a ‘second chance’, an extension to his creative life, in which to say all that he feels he still has within him. But it is too late: he finally realises that life has presented him with his one and only ‘chance’ – and dies.
The Death of the Lion is a variation on the same theme. A journalist feels he must guard and nurture the reputation of Neil Paraday, an ailing novelist he admires. He befriends Paraday, who shows him the manuscript of a novel he has written but not yet published. Paraday becomes celebrated, and he is drawn into fashionable society that basks in his fame but does not actually read his work. The journalist is horrified to learn that the manuscript is being passed around and is eventually lost. Paraday is distracted from his work, becomes ill, and he too dies. But in this version, the journalist marries a fellow Paraday admirer, and they settle to search for the lost manuscript.
There are plenty more stories in the James oeuvre which deal with writers and artists (though none about musicians): he wrote more than a hundred stories in all. But this is an excellent selection – and worth it for the inclusion of the magnificent Aspern Papers alone.
© Roy Johnson 2011
Henry James, The Aspern Papers and Other Stories, London: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp.212, ISBN: 0199538557