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Recommending Henry

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A friend recently wrote to me asking for recommendations of classic books he could read over Spring Break.  (Plainly, he's not one of my friends who believes that nothing in the classics can rival Girls Gone Wild: Endless Spring Break; and for those of my friends who do hold such beliefs, what about the "lioness on the cheese grater" position referred to in Lysistrata?)

So back to my friend: I replied with a list of books that included Henry James' The Aspern Papers, possibly my fave of the James oeuvre.  Short, shocking and chock full of nasty conflicts of interest and sexual tensions, The Aspern Papers is my idea of reading satisfaction.

Not so much my friend: "I tried reading the Aspern Papers, but didn't really enjoy the writing style."

Poor Henry!  All those long sentences with tangential, intermediary clauses; all that punctuation - those dashes, those commas; all those asides, all that effort, all that style: all beyond the ready appreciation of today's reader.

And poor friend!  Henry James is not called "The Master" for nothing.  All his learning, his intimate knowledge of the human viscera, his understanding of emotional contortion and manipulative behavior, of the corrupting power of money and the dangers of life on society's periphery: all inaccessible under the lock of his impenetrable prose.

The situation brought to mind the scene in E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, when Aziz spontaneously recites a poem by Ghalib to an assortment of well-wishers who have come to his bedside when he's sick:

[The poem] had no connection with anything that had gone before, but it came from his heart and spoke to theirs.  They were overwhelmed by its pathos; pathos, they agreed, is the highest quality in art; a poem should touch the hearer with a sense of his own weakness, and should institute some comparison between mankind and flowers.
. . . .
Of the company, only Hamidullah had any comprehension of poetry.  The minds of the others were inferior and rough.  Yet they listened with pleasure, because literature had not been divorced from their civilization.  The police inspector, for instance, did not feel that Aziz had degraded himself by reciting, nor break into the cheery guffaw with which an Englishman averts the infection of beauty.  He just sat with his mind empty, and when his thoughts, which were mainly ignoble, flowed back into it they had a pleasant freshness.
(p. 99-100.)  With humor and a deft description, Forster captured - almost 90 years ago - what we have lost and, still today, haven't been able to replace.  The "infection of beauty" imbues even the ignoble thought with a "pleasant freshness."

Translation: Girls Gone Wild is even better after reading The Aspern Papers!

(Image of John Singer Sargent's portrait of Henry James from State College of Florida website)

A pleasure incapable of repetition

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Henry James' The Aspern Papers made me giddy, the way children are delighted when a beloved uncle plays a trick on them. 

By this admission, I don't mean any backhanded compliment.  The Aspern Papers isn't in any respect cheap, superficial or manipulative.  Nor, on reflection, do I think it really has a trick ending - not in the sense of Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace," or O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief."

But James' rendering of Juliana Bordereau, the elderly ci-devant lover of (fictional) poet Jeffrey Aspern, is so compelling that it utterly blinded me to where James was heading with the plot.  (Warning: I am about to mention some plot spoilers.)  When Juliana catches the narrator opening her secretary cupboard, and he sees "for the first, the last, the only time . . . her extraordinary eyes" (p. 112), the confrontation was so electric that I could only feel, upon learning four pages later that Juliana had died, that James had lost his way in the plot.  Surely, I thought, the story hinges on the narrator's conflict with this indomitable, controlling, ancient woman - a woman so crushing and incomprehensible that she seemed a pagan god?

But, no, Juliana was an elaborate distraction in a story more directly about innocence than about conniving. 

On my second go-round through the story, I noted Juliana's emphasis on pushing the narrator into relations with her middle-aged spinster niece, Miss Tita.  I had registered the references before, but they hadn't clued me into the endgame of Miss Tita's marriage proposal, partly because I couldn't ever decide whether Juliana's relationship to Miss Tita was supportive or destructive.  Juliana's desire that the narrator spend time with Miss Tita seemed more likely to be a ploy to embarrass and control them both, or to get them out of the house in order that Juliana might burn the Aspern papers; a shidduch for Miss Tita's benefit and pleasure didn't seem an obvious option.  That Juliana's relationship to her niece turned out to be both supportive and destructive only deepens the realism and resonance of the story.

Seeing and analyzing the mechanism that tricked me, I feel admiration . . . and also a little disappointment.  Now that I know the trick, it won't work on me again: I'll never be able to feel the same giddiness at the conclusion of The Aspern Papers.  All the more reason to savor its memory.   

(Image of Henry James from The Guardian)

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the The Aspern Papers category.

The Age of Innocence is the previous category.

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