This is my review of The Aspern Papers by Henry James.
Determined to succeed where his colleague failed, an unnamed editor insinuates himself into the decaying Venetian villa of the ageing Juliana Bordereau. His aim is to obtain by some means the literary treasure he believes her to possess, the papers of her former lover, the long-dead, celebrated poet Jeffrey Aspern. Inspired by scholars’ interest in the letters of Shelley to his sister-in-law Claire Claremont, this novella is a subtle and absorbing psychological study of the destructive and corrupting effects of obsession, and of the complexity of people’s motives, set against the background of a crumbling, magical nineteenth century Venice with which everyone who has visited this city will still be able to identify.
In what James apparently regarded as one of his best works, his famously convoluted prose seems surprisingly clear and accessible, the dialogue is sharp and the descriptions evocative and vivid, as in the description of Venice viewed from a gondola as a series of scenes from a play. I like the way that the narrator made predatory by his obsession is not the only main character to be flawed: the ageing Miss Bordereau is understandably concerned to safeguard her privacy and may wish to provide for her faithful niece’s uncertain future, but proves mercenary and manipulative; Miss Tita may be a longsuffering companion with a sense of honour and duty, but proves not to be above taking the opportunity to exploit her exploiter. I think it might have been even better if the narrator had not appeared so self aware at times, but overall would recommend this as an introduction to Henry James, or in my case a book I have reread with undimmed admiration.