If memory serves, it was during our discussions of The Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw that Fr. Murphy introduced us to the concept of “pot boilers.” I even remember the exact words in which I wrote the definition in my notes: “pot boilers: when good writers write bad books so they can eat.” I thought this idea was funny back then, and I still think it’s a little bit funny now, although of course when I was seventeen I could hardly anticipate how much I would later envy people who make their livings writing books – even bad ones.
The Aspern Papers isn’t a bad book – not exactly – although it’s not exactly a good one either. It’s about an unnamed scholar who goes to Venice to ingratiate himself to an elderly woman – Juliana Bordereau – who was once the lover and muse of a poet named Jeffrey Aspern. Juliana lives with her niece, Tina, who is sometimes described as “elderly” herself, but who mostly reminds me of Pansy Osmond – ethereal, submissive, childlike, and desperate for affection. Henry James seems to have a thing for ingenuous women. We are told repeatedly that Juliana and Tina are terribly impoverished – so, like other poor people in James’ novels, they live in a palazzo. The narrator successfully makes use of their poverty and their enormous living space by offering to rent some rooms from them. He claims to be totally enamored with their garden (insert Eden reference here, or woman-as-walled-garden Song of Songs analogy – whichever you wish). Juliana asks for an exorbitant amount in rent, but the narrator agrees to the amount readily. He moves in and then spends most of the novella trying to strike some kind of balance between remaining aloof, pretending to court Tina (whom he finds repulsive), and scheming to get inside Juliana’s private rooms so he can steal a cache of love letters Aspern once wrote to her. Since he obtained the rooms by claiming to be a flower expert, he spends a lot of time in the garden hoping to ensnare one or the other of the women in conversation, returning to the house every so often to deposit flower arrangements in the central living area.
The primary impression I had of both this novella and The Turn of the Screw (but especially of this one) is that they seemed Nabokovian to me. I realize that James was writing about a generation and a half before Nabokov, so really it’s more accurate to say that Nabokov is Jamesian, but “Jamesian” makes me think of the “Ellen Jamesians” in The World According to Garp, and who really wants to do that? The Aspern Papers reminds me in particular of Pale Fire, and I was a little disappointed when this narrator did not turn out to be quite as crazy as Charles Kinbote in that novel. Both of these authors address the question of the very thin line between scholarly obsession (which is considered healthy, I guess) and insanity. Kinbote in Pale Fire is undeniably insane; the narrator in The Aspern Papers is only questionably so. Every thirty pages or so, James seems to be preparing the narrator to do something really ridiculous, but he always backs away. I think I would have enjoyed this book more if James had been place his protagonist more clearly on the spectrum between insane and just a little weird.
Here’s a very loose summary of what happens when the narrator moves in with Juliana and Tina Bordereau. He works in the garden, of course, since gardening is part of his cover. Tina starts meeting him there, and soon the narrator reveals to her that he loves Jeffrey Aspern’s work, and Tina admits that her aunt is the same ‘Juliana’ that is the famous love interest in Aspern’s poems. The narrator even manages to coax out of her the fact that Juliana still keeps Aspern’s letters, but that Juliana has never allowed anyone, including Tina, to see or touch them. The narrator also learns that Juliana is desperate to leave Tina a sizeable amount of money in her will and, ideally, to find Tina a husband before she (Juliana) dies – this is the reason, Tina reveals, that Juliana agreed to rent rooms to the narrator and the reason she asked for such an outrageous amount of money in return. This ambition is reasonable enough, given the culture of the late nineteenth century and the difficulties of supporting oneself as a single woman – although a part of me wishes that Juliana would just haul Tina to Rome and marry her off to Gilbert Osmond before he has a chance to meet Isabel Archer and ruin her life forever.
The narrator grits his teeth and accepts the reality that he will have to pretend to court Tina. I didn’t like this novella very much, but I did find this whole pretending-to-court-Tina subplot to be fairly amusing. He takes her for gondola rides, and they spend lots of long hours in the garden talking to each other. Finally, though, when Juliana dies (not the first time, when she only almost dies, but later, when she dies for real), Tina informs the narrator that she has inherited all of Juliana’s property, including the letters from Aspern. She strongly hints to the narrator that if he were to marry her, all of her property would be his by law, and there would be nothing stopping him from reading the letters and including them in the biography he plans to write about Aspern. He considers this possibility, first coming down vehemently against it (“I couldn’t, for a bundle of tattered papers, marry a ridiculous pathetic provincial old woman” ), but later actually seeming to take the possibility seriously: “Poor Miss Tina’s sense of her favor had produced a rare alteration in her, but I had been too full of stratagems and spoils to think of that. Now I took it in; I can scarcely tell how it startled me. She stood in the middle of the room with a face of mildness bent upon me, and her look of forgiveness, of absolution, made her angelic. It beautified her; it made her younger; she was not a ridiculous old woman. This trick of her expression, this magic of her spirit, transfigured her, and while I still noted it I heard a whisper somewhere in the depths of my conscience: ‘Why not, after all – why not?’ It seemed to me that I could pay the price” (141).
What happens next is sort of an O.Henry ending. The narrator has just come to the decision that he will marry Tina in order to get his hands on the letters, but in that same short interval Tina has changed her mind and has decided to rescind her offer. In the final scene, Tina informs the narrator that she has burned the letters, lingering almost sadistically as she tells him, “It took a long time – there were so many” (142). At this moment, the narrator notes that “the transformation was over and she had changed back to a plain dingy elderly person” (142). This ending is callous, of course, and reveals the single-minded selfishness that has been part of the narrator’s character since the beginning of the novella, but on another level I kind of sympathize with the narrator here. I can imagine few things worse than having to marry someone that I don’t love; on most days, the thought of having to marry someone that I do love seems almost as bad (these facts may provide some insight into why I don’t like Shakespeare’s comedies very much). I’ve never been as obsessed with an author as much as the narrator is obsessed with Aspern (though I did park my car outside of Pat Conroy’s house once, when I was in high school, in hope of catching a glimpse), but the emotional territory of what happens to the narrator at the end is familiar to me. I sympathize with his disgust as he realizes what he almost did – yoke himself for life to a “plain dingy elderly person” in exchange for a pile of paper and ink. He’s horrified, and so am I.
I’m glad I read this novella, and I think that after reading The Portrait of a Lady, The Aspern Papers, and The Turn of the Screw, I am starting to get a sense of who Henry James was as a writer. But it’s true that this book does not reflect James’ best work. I found that I had to rely on my notes more than usual to write this review, even though I finished the novella only last week. The details just didn’t stay with me. With the possible exception of A Doll House, this novella is my least favorite text we’ve read so far in the A.P. challenge. I’m still glad that I read it, of course, and I’m happy that – here at what is really almost the end of the challenge, with only a few more books still to read – I am this one little bit closer to finally being the student Fr. Murphy wanted me to be.