Review: The Aspern Papers, Henry James

Me and Henry James have a quarrel. Our quarrel is that he called Oscar Wilde a fatuous fool and a tenth-rate cad, and when Oscar Wilde’s trials happened, he claimed to feel sorry for him but refused to sign a petition in support of shortening his jail sentence. Number one, those are really lame insults. Number two, it’s painfully obvious from the accounts of their encounters that Henry James was jealous of Oscar Wilde for being smarter and writing more successful plays and getting laid more often. Which is to say, more often than zero times. YEAH I WENT THERE HENRY JAMES.

(I know that was needlessly cruel but I had to. You can’t insult Oscar Wilde and expect me not to take it to a personal place.)

There are, therefore, a couple of possible reasons that I did not care for The Aspern Papers, and among the likeliest is the sense I have had, almost at once thereafter confirmed in Keepers of the Flame (about which more later), that Henry James believed Oscar Wilde was a bit overdone. And this sense has often led me to give Henry James a miss, even though Turn of the Screw sounds like just my kind of thing. I gave in and read The Aspern Papers as a companion to Keepers of the Flame, but I may have had an ulterior motive where I wanted to be able to say: “Eh. I read one of Henry James’s novellas. I didn’t care much about it.”

Soooo…yeah. I read this. I didn’t care that much about it.

The story is that the protagonist, who goes unnamed, takes lodgings with two women, one of whom was a former lover of writer Jeffrey Aspern. The old lady, Juliana Bordereau, has declined to share the massive cache of papers of Aspern’s that she currently holds. The protagonist hopes to ingratiate himself to her or to her niece, a timid spinster called Miss Tita, in order to gain access to the papers, and then presumably to acquire scholarly renown by publishing them and being the premiere Aspern scholar in all the land. And then party at unnamed protagonist’s house. And cocktail parties. And monuments to his Aspern scholar renown or whatever.

The Aspern Papers is an oddly tentative novel. The protagonist’s love of Aspern’s work, which should be the bedrock of the book, amirite, hardly seems real. It motivates everything he does — supposedly — but he doesn’t say much about what makes Aspern so great, or how he came to love him, or what gaps in knowledge he hopes to fill with these papers. Details like this would have given stakes to the way the story ends, or what goes on throughout it.

Oh, yeah, but another complaint I had was that nothing goes on throughout this entire story. For heaven’s sake. I thought the protagonist was going to have a bunch of engaging moral dilemmas, but James hardly dares to let him entertain an immoral thought. He has to be awfully awfully decent about everything. He doesn’t do any schemes to get the papers. The schemiest thing he ever does is to stop sending flowers to the women for a few days. To get their attention. That’s like his number one most schemy scheme. Great scheme, Henry James. I presume Pollyanna was your Chief Scheming Consultant on this book?

Hrmph. And do you know how old Henry James lived to be? He lived to be seventy-two m.f. years old. Seventy-two. If Oscar Wilde had lived to be seventy-two, we’d probably all be talking about how the early promise of The Importance of Being Earnest was truly fulfilled in [insert name of play(s) we’ll never read because Oscar Wilde died tragically young while much much lamer authors lived to be seventy-damn-two].


20 thoughts on “Review: The Aspern Papers, Henry James

  1. I dunno. You’ve really made me think this morning. I love Oscar Wilde’s plays, and I love many of Henry James novels/novellas. Is it necessary to choose? if one is not so admirably loyal to Oscar Wilde? And could Bunburying to get to do what one wants be at all like making up to an elderly woman to get the papers you want? Not sure but thinking. Thanks for your slant on this.

    • It is definitely not necessary to choose. I only have this reaction because I have a longstanding prior devotion to Oscar Wilde, and if he’s ever in a quarrel and not clearly in the wrong, I have to side with him.

  2. “Which is to say, more often than zero times.” Ahahaha YOU GOT BURNED JAMES

    Also remember that time we talked outside a brunch place in the rain about Henry James? Because I do. And phrased that way makes me feel like we’re terrible people. EXCEPT we were mainly saying he sucks, so whatevs.

    He’s one of those authors where people kept telling me I hadn’t read the right work yet. “Oh no no, you have to read The Ambassadors.” Well, guess what, I hated The Ambassadors. But you should totally read Turn of the Screw, because it is Not Awful.

    Also your blog is snowing.

    • I do remember that, but I wish I could reframe that memory in a way that, yeah, makes us sound not douchey. Next time we will go to a completely unhipstery place — at least as unhipstery as brunch can be.

      I arranged for my blog to be snowing. That is by DESIGN.

  3. This is one of the many reasons why, if someone tries to tell me something about the personal life of one of the authors I like to read, I want to put my hands over my ears and hum.
    A lot of times people think the way I do things is a bit overdone; I’ve actually been writing a post about that.
    But geez, the quiet, contemplative pleasures of reading Henry James–which I haven’t enjoyed in years and years– are lost to me now.

    • Hahahaha, I’m sorry. Even when I know it’s going to make me sad, I still have a hard time resisting learning about people’s personal lives. It’s because I’m eternally optimistic! I always hope I’ll discover that they were stupendously cool and awesome, even though that’s not the likeliest outcome.

  4. I was certain enough that Turn of the Screw was just my sort of thing that I read it twice because I was so sure that I just needed to try again and I would love it. Meh. I love the idea of it. I love the film version of it. I don’t love it. Or Daisy Miller.

    However, I love Portrait of a Lady with an intensity that requires me to overlook any rude things James might have said about Oscar Wilde. But I’m one of those people who is perfectly happy to read good books by rotten people. But there’s no reason others need to follow my example, because we all need reasons to mark books off our TBR list and the fact that the author is a jerk works fine for that 🙂

    • Ha, good to know Turn of the Screw isn’t that great. I’ll adopt that as the reason I’m not reading it — my friend Teresa says it’s bad! — rather than the much less rational thing of just not liking Henry James. Isn’t Portrait of a Lady crazy long? If I decided to give in and read a full length James novel, it would be Portrait of a Lady, because I read a book when I was a kid where the main character was reading that and loving it. Shallow reasons…

      • Portrait of a Lady is long but not crazy long. IIRC a couple of people commented when I read it that they like Henry James better when he writes long books that when he writes short ones. I liked it because I like almost any Victorian/Edwardian novel about messed up relationships between women and men.

  5. Oh, Teresa. So much effort on Henry James’ behalf, all for nought!

    If I am reading this post correctly, you are avoiding The Turn of the Screw because you do not want to read something by James you might like. Oh, Jenny. If only Oscar Wilde had you for a friend and/or lawyer.

    I feel that now i must admit that I didn’t love The Picture of Dorian Gray. I’m SORRY.

    • Okay I hadn’t really thought of it that way Aarti, but since you bring it up — yeah. That is the basic reason I am not reading Turn of the Screw. It’s because I’m psychotically loyal! I just can’t take the cognitive dissonance! Aaaaaa.

      THAT IS OKAY. I really love Oscar Wilde for his life and personality not his writing, although I am very fond of his writing too.

  6. ‘The Portrait of Dorian Gray’ has a great premise but no middle act. A lot of Wilde’s charm (for me) was a certain lightness of touch, but I think this mitigated against him when trying to produce a full-length novel.

    Has anybody ever seen that Max Beerbohm cartoon of Henry James standing in a London pea-souper, staring at his own hand? ‘…It was therefore, not without something of a shock that he, in this to him so very congenial atmosphere, now perceived that a vision of the hand which he had, at a venture, held up within an inch or so of his eyes was, with an awful clarity being adumbrated…’

  7. I recall liking The Aspern Papers when I read it about a zillion years ago, but I have no other details at all I can call to mind. That’s okay, I’m really here to say that I would love to read Ian Hamilton’s book which you talk about in your next post. I would have commented on it there, but the internet has gone beserk and decided to post a page 404 notice instead. I loved Hamilton’s book on 20th century poets, Against Oblivion, so Keepers of the Flame is seriously a must for me.

    • I have no idea what you are talking about. No such post about Ian Hamilton has ever existed. I definitely didn’t post it accidentally instead of scheduling it for January and then hastily delete it. THAT DID NOT HAPPEN.

  8. Hi!

    I am a big fan of James and Wilde and I think that this review isn’t really objective. In this novella there IS scheming and there IS a point to why the ending is what it is and why we don’t read much details about Aspern’s person. What makes a writer good or bad isn’t about how many times he got laid!! it’s irrelevent in writing a review. the French writer Céline is probably a nazi, it doesn’t make him a bad writer. Reviews are about objectivity, what’s good, what’s bad AND at the end what we think about the book we’re writing about.

    • Oh gosh I know! I think the ideal of objectivity in reviews is a bit of a red herring — taste isn’t about objectivity, or else you’d be able to argue people into liking what you like. When I write reviews, I’m definitely bringing my own biases to it, and I absolutely don’t claim to being objective. I do try to admit my biases up front, though.

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