The Aspern Papers is a novella written by Henry James, originally published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1888. It is the story or rather the quest of an American editor – he is also the unnamed narrator of the story – to obtain a collection of letters by the American Romantic poet Jeffrey Aspern.
He believes that Juliana Bordereau, an elderly and ill lady who lives in Venice in a dilapidated old palazzo, with her spinster niece Miss Tina, in “obscurity” and “almost on nothing”, is in possession of these unpublished and priceless “literary remains”. In order to get access to them the narrator becomes a lodger of theirs, under a false name. He does not have a plan of how to acquire the papers but it did not make him too miserable, “for the whole situation had the charm of its oddity.” Meanwhile, what better place is to spend summer than in Venice?
“See how it glows with the advancing summer, how the sky and the sea and the rosy air and the marble of the palaces all shimmer and melt together.”
This is a fascinating small story; even if you are not a James fan, you would definitely enjoy. Henry James describes skilfully the decaying atmosphere of the damp and gloomy palace. What is more impressive though, is the way he says the story. The narrator presents the events without intense or personal colouration, as they were related not to him, but to a third person. He offers no opinion, no explanation of his unscrupulous behaviour. His desire for these papers is so powerful, his determination to obtain them so strong, that he fails to recognise or rather he chooses to ignore the impact of his behaviour towards the lonely and miserable Miss Tina.
The brilliance in this story is exactly that. Henry James leaves the readers to draw their own conclusions about the narrator’s behaviour. At the end of the story we are still left with unanswered questions. Can morality confront a man’s personal ambition and intellectual curiosity? Ambition is a complex process, can make people liars and cheats, can cause an inability to connect with others emotionally. Is that what happened to the narrator? Are there any limits of morality that he could not transgress in order to obtain the precious papers?
Looking at the picture that it hangs above his writing table, he admits
“I can scarcely bear my loss.”