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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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