The Aspern Papers
Reading Henry James is a bit like trying to walk backwards and forewords simultaneously. It isn't just that James is subtle; he asks us to read his sentences with the equivalent of mental double-jointedness. In The Aspern Papers, afirst-person novella about a young researcher in Europe determined to wrestle some letters from a former lover, Juliana Bordereau, of a famous American writer, Jeffrey Aspern, James will frequently shape his sentences round a negative. "Yes, I remember my emotions in their order, even including a curious little tremor that took me when I saw the niece not to be there." "I took possession of it, assuring her I was perfectly aware of my intrusion and of my not having been properly introduced, and that I could but throw myself on her indulgence." "...And I had been let into the house, after pulling the rusty belt wire, by a small red-headed and white-faced maid-servant, who was very young and not ugly and wore clicking pattens and a shawl in the fashion of a hood." First of all, let us imagine rewriting a couple of these sentences. "I recall now the little tremor I felt when I noted the niece's absence." "I was well aware that I had intruded upon this scene as an unwelcome guest, and hoped she would nevertheless indulge me." It would be the height of arrogance to assume we have improved James' sentences but we can't deny that we have made them simpler. Why does this American writer who lived for many years in England make his sentences so difficult to comprehend? Is it the consequence of a writer in two literary minds, caught between the straightforward sentence that would become so respected in Hemingway's prose and a more ornate English style that would be so admired in Virginia Woolf's work? Again, this would seem to be too easy, finding a geo-biographical explanation for a writer who remains not just complicated but complex, as if his common theme (Americans in Europe) needed a style to capture the wide gap that could exist between what should hardly have been a gap at all: the sensibilities of people who often share a language but who nevertheless don't always share the same assumptions about how to use it. James' prose is a working through of such a position as he seeks not the humorous misunderstandings that can commonly arise between people whose habits are subtly different, but instead the perplexing possibilities in a liminal set of codes caught between the two continents.
Ostensibly the novella concerns the ambitious young nameless narrator who is well aware that any material associated with the late writer is a publisher's boon but also becomes aware while visiting the now very old Juliana, that the letters will not be so easy to acquire. This is hardly a setback for a young man who enjoys a challenge and the book works through his attempts to get what he wants. Often a novel's narrative goals and its character's are one and the same. In Oliver Twist, the eponymous character wants to find a decent home and escape the orphanage and Dickens wishes for the same result. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway wants to find out more about Gatsby and though the novel will, of course, forestall aspects of that search to retain a mysterious aura around Jay, this is not the same thing as saying the writer's goals are contrary to the central character's. Sometimes a novelist will show that the character is slow to find their hearts desire because they are blinded, deluded or arrogant, but by the end of Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth will know she has found the right man in Darcy, just as Bathsheba in Far from the Madding Crowd will find the right man in Oak. The characters might initially follow contrary paths to the books' intention, but by the end the aim of the writer (or let us say the implied author by way of Wayne C. Booth to avoid confusion between writers and narrators) is the same. No such equivalence is apparent in The Aspern Papers, as though 'James' (as implied author) possesses intentions quite distinct from the first person narrator. The narrator believes that it is to everyone's benefit that the Aspern papers are published, it would seem the implied author would be less sure. The 'negative' style James adopts allows these contrary positions to be expressed simultaneously, just as it also allows for the ambivalence of the narrator's feelings towards the niece who, before the end of the book, suggests she is willing to give him the papers, but only, it is implied, if he will marry her. This is how she is first introduced in the early stages of the novella. "Her face was not young, but it was candid; it was not fresh, but it was clear. She had large eyes which were not bright, and a great deal of hair that was not 'dressed', and long, fine hands which were - probably - not clean." This is an impression of ambivalence that captures well the character's clear desire for the papers much more than for Miss Tina, but also James' ambivalence towards many things.
If we talk of the narrator, the implied author and the 'author' it is to avoid confusion in making certain key points. When we talk of James' ambivalence what we mean by this is not the narrator's equivocalness, nor the implied author's alone, but also James as the writer of Portrait of a Lady, 'In the Cage', What Maisie Knew, 'The Figure in the Carpet', The Turn of the Screw and others. The narrator would be the character narrating the tale, which could be first-person but where the implied author does not agree with this position. This is where we have for example an unreliable narrator: someone who tells the tale but who cannot be relied upon to tell it honestly or completely. Maybe we find out they are mad, the murderer or just jealous, but we finally realise we cannot trust their perspective. This would be where the implied author may come in, making clear by various devices that the story told by our narrator is contained by another who will make clear to the reader that the narrator's words are to be taken with caution. Yet the implied author is not the same as the author. As Wolf Schmid says, "the implied author has become a widespread term for a concept referring to the author evoked by, but not represented in a work. The concept appears in various forms. Many users treat it as a term for an entity positioned between the real author and the fictive narrator in the communication structure of narrative works." (The Living Handbook of Narratology) Both these terms, the unreliable narrator and the implied author come from the aforementioned Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction, but we also have the 'author' distinct from the person called Henry James even if the two often unavoidably, or even deliberately, combine. The 'author' is that Jamesian style we see evident in much of his work, what he might see as the realism in his oeuvre when he says "I may therefore venture to say that the air of reality (solidity of specification) seems to me the supreme virtue of a novel...if these be there, they owe their effect to the success with which the author has produced the illusion of life." But James also says "all life solicits him, and to 'render' the simplest surface, to produce the most momentary illusion, is a very complicated business." (The Art of the Novel) It is this complicated business, over what many saw as irrelevant issues that Istvan Todorov defends James against in 'The Secret of Narrative'. "Contemporary and later critics have agreed that James's art was perfect technically, but they have agreed also that he lacked important ideas, that he was too deficient in human warmth - his subjects were too insignificant...James has been ranked among the authors inaccessible to the common reader, and only professionals are qualified to appreciate his overcomplicated art". For various reasons Todorov thinks the critics are misguided, but few will deny that James's art is complicated, not least James himself. And it is complicated because it is complex - because life is complex. But not all writers have a prose style that reflects this complexity; James clearly does, and it is this style that leads to the Jamesian, and thus to the author who is not quite the same as the person himself.
We offer the above analysis partly to understand an aspect of James' interest in the minutiae made large, and also not so much to imitate it but be in sympathy with it stylistically: to indicate that to understand James we perhaps need just a little to go into the labyrinth with him. If Hemingway offers a simple prose style to create a sub-text that the reader can more or less find, James insists on a complex style that indicates there is no sub-text we can easily arrive at, merely a perspective that is inevitably limited. This is what Todorov suggests when saying we must then "set out upon a quest for the meaning of his oeuvre, though we know that this meaning is nothing other than the quest itself." What matters to us is not that James is subtle (which is usually seen as a literary positive) but that he is obscure (usually a literary negative). It is this obscurity that generates the Jamesian, and why very different schools can read the novella often accompanying The Aspern Papers, The Turn of the Screw, very differently. For some, it is a book about a governess hallucinating ghosts rather than observing real ghosts, with Edmund Wilson seeing the governess as "a classic example of neurotic sexual repression..." in Anthony Curtis' introduction. For others, it is a plausible account of someone's capacity to see ghosts, according to the Society of Psychical Research, also talked about in Curtis's introduction. A subtle writer would perhaps play up the possibility that it is all in the mind only then to reveal that it isn't, or vice versa. But James would seem to allow both possibilities to exists simultaneously; hence the obscure.
The Aspern Papers is a less famous text than The Turn of the Screw, less given to interpretation and analysis, but the principle of obscurity we believe remains central, even vital. What interests James is not the content of the papers but the behaviour of those surrounding the long-dead author whose papers they were: chiefly the old ex-lover, her niece and the first person narrator who seeks to access them. This is indeed like Todorov suggests, a quest where the quest is the meaning itself. By making the quest less important than the behaviour surrounding it, James, of course, risks triviality, but he also insists on revealing obscurity as a positive mode of literature. When quite near the end of the novella the narrator says to himself, "what in the name of the preposterous did she mean if she didn't mean to offer me her hand?" we have once again the negative formulation all the better to muse over the motives of Miss Tina. In a novel where motive is clear the story could be clear also, as we would accept, at what we might call two-faced value, the manipulations involved. A good crime thriller doesn't work at face value: it creates characters who are capable of saying one thing while doing another all the better to get what they want. This is Janus-faced fiction that can suggest open and hidden motives, but James looks for something closer to Picasso's The Weeping Woman. This is is a perspectival complexity that can keep multiplying motives not because they are motives, but because they are manifold perspectives.
When John Orr says in Tragic Realism that "Henry James has suggested that the experience necessary for writing fiction can be gained from as little as a momentary glimpse at a group through an open door", he compares him to Zola, whose "method is exactly the opposite. Stranded in a kind of no-man's land between journalism and sociology, he displays a voracious appetite for collecting as much raw data as he possibly can." Zola wants to indicate the depth of character and situation, getting to the core aspect of biology and physiology, and the permeating presence of milieu. James' interest in character and milieu was quite different, with James in need of a textured world in which the situation wouldn't be closed down in primal necessity but opened up to myriad possibilities.As Henry Gifford says in The New Pelican Guide to English Literature , in reference to James' book on Hawthorne: "James drew up a list of 'the items of high civilization' missing from American life: a court, an aristocracy, an established church; country houses, cathedrals, old universities and schools; the arts, a political society, a sporting class." (The Drama of Discrimination') We are superficially in the hands of a snob, perhaps, but more pertinently we are in the mind of a writer who was interested in the most complex archeology of feeling, one that wouldn't promptly see the consequences in milieu and the blood as Zola so brilliantly did, but in an almost infinite complexity that would have to take into account each individual's personal thoughts, their thoughts on others' thoughts, and the other's probable thoughts on them. The more culture that is built up around the self, the more permutations become possible. Gifford says "another kind of novelist - Melville, for example, of whom James apparently knew nothing - may live immensely without these things, or on their sparest counterparts. But for James, with an indefeasible sense of Europe, America gave too little suggestion." It is this notion of suggestion that proves so important to James' work as he manages to register so many possibilities in feeling. The danger is of course that so many suggestive feelings prove weak next to categorical ones. Yet perhaps it is more useful to think of primitive novelists and sophisticated writers: Hemingway, Zola, Melville; against Fitzgerald, Kafka and Woolf. This doesn't mean that Melville cannot write a story as obscure as 'Bartleby, The Scrivener', which could almost be a Kafka story, nor that Fitzgerald couldn't write stories crudely aimed at the short story market. But some sensibilities very astutely find the specifics of behaviour that seem unequivocal; others that are very equivocal indeed.
We can think here of the passage in The Aspern Papers where our narrator first arrives at the house in Italy. "She had not contented herself with opening the door from above by the usual arrangement of a creaking pulley, though she had looked down at me from an upper window, dropping the cautious challenge which in Italy precedes the act of admission." The narrator adds, "I was irritated as a general thing by this survival of medieval manners, though as so fond, if yet so special, an antiquarian I suppose I ought to have liked it; but with my resolve to be genial from the threshold at any price, I took my false card out of my pocket and held it up to her, smiling as if it were a magic token." Compare this to a passage from Zola's Therese Raquin. "A week after his marriage Camille bluntly informed his mother that he meant to leave Vernon and go to live in Paris. Madame Raquin was up in arms; she had mapped out her existence and did not want to alter a single detail of it." Zola's style is blunt rather than obscure, forceful rather than elusive. We know exactly what is on Madam Raquin's mind and precisely what is on Camille's. Even if the narrator's initial aim in the novella is to access Aspern's papers, the book presents such a task as always secondary to the stratagems involved in trying to get them, evident late on the novella over a conversation with Miss Tina. "I thought I had allowed for the falsehoods I should have to tell, but I found that in fact when it came to the point I hadn't. Besides, now that I had an opening there was a kind of relief in being frank. Lastly, it was perhaps fanciful, even fatuous - I guessed that Miss Tina personally wouldn't in the last resort be less my friend." This comes after she has asked whether he writes and he eventually replies that he has indeed written about Aspern and is looking for more material on him, offering what he believes is a strategic truth rather than the lies he is expected to offer. While he could see she was visibly alarmed by his disclosure he was also sure that in the last resort he rely upon her, even if that alarm will cause her to retreat for a couple of weeks. Accounts of the book provided by enotes and Bartleby.com indicate a cat and mouse game with the women much more astute in playing the game than the nave narrator. However, this gives no indication as to why James offers such a complex approach to the material. Diane G. Scholl, though, sees the book working off less manipulation than limitation: "in the end he is the only one left in the dark, the reader having had multiple chances to read between the lines of an account fraught with hints, evasions and ambiguities." ('Secret Paternity in James's Asper Papers') The way enotes and Bartlebey.com describe the story it could have been written by numerous writers; the way Scholl examines the tale it becomes very Jamesian indeed.
This is where we can return to the distinctions between the narrator, the implied author, the author and Henry James. One reason why we were reluctant to make too much of James's geographical shift is that it would have allowed us to see in the style a biographical fact: that James moved from the States and spent many years of his life in England. It tells us something about James but isn't likely to tell us too much about the style itself. By utilising and distinguishing between the narrator, the implied author and the author we can see how James's involved style comes into play. In a strict sense all narrators are unreliable, and first-person ones more likely to be unreliable than those that are apparently third person omniscient. But for most fiction, this is not a diegetic problem. Someone tells a story and we believe it because whether first or third person they have been given the narrative license to tell it. Why should we doubt the telling? Yet any story we hear from a friend over a relationship break up, a bad mark they received in an exam, an argument with a colleague, will almost certainly have a counter story that would be told differently. Just because they are telling the story this doesn't mean they have complete cognizance of the narrative. Few writers more than James could see that partiality could be a narrative device, a way of telling a story without showing it, and in the telling leave out numerous details that would reveal less the story than an aspect of the characters within the tale. If creative writing classes so often insist on showing over telling, we might wonder if showing is from a certain perspective more explicit than telling. James indicates that by telling the story through a narrator who constantly thinks about the various permutations that are usually no more than hypotheses, the showing of the story remains concealed all the better to leave us musing over precisely what is taking place. In our example from a crime thriller, the characters may be very manipulative but they are also transparent. A femme fatale will insist she loves the central character, and the central character will insist he loves her back, but what we are seeing is a woman who wants to get away with a crime she has committed, and the detective determined to bring her in. She might quite like the cop; he may be falling love with the femme fatale, but the book will not be generating the proliferating interpretations James's work insist upon because its purpose is to show not tell.
Whether one likes James's work or not, whether we find exasperating the contorted sentences and the characters' internal musings, we cannot deny that James's work raises very interesting questions about telling stories as opposed to showing them. One of the problems with creative writing courses insistently demanding students show rather than tell is that they are bypassing much that makes modern literature modern. It is as if they are asking students to write stories Gerard Genette would call 'nonfocalized narratives, or narrative with zero focalization." This first type represents for Genette classical fiction, but the second type insists on emphasizing the focal points of the telling, as Genette gives as examples, James' The Ambassadors, "where everything passes through Strether, or, even better, What Maisie Knew, where we almost never leave the point of view of the little girl, whose "restriction of field" is peculiarly dramatic in this story of adults, a story whose significance escapes her..." (Narrative Discourse) What showing does is often make clear what is shown, even if sub-text is allowed within this showing. In other words, someone details a conversation between various people at a dinner party, and within the conversation there happen to be things said which are saying more than is ostensibly evident. Someone asks somebody to pass the port but does so in a manner that indicates the person passing it is obviously seen by the first person as a social inferior. Nothing is said but the implication is clear. This is showing, but underneath it sits a categorical telling. We are in no doubt that snobbery is being presented. But telling can open up the complexity of that snobbery by saying for example that at a dinner party, recently, someone appeared to treat them with contempt and the narrator tries to explain how and why they believed that to be so. Instead of a clear subtext, we have a partial perspective. The speculation is a mode of telling but it can seem far less obvious than the showing.
This we feel is an important aspect of James's work, even if John Mullan points out that James had problems with first-person narration, with James "a novelist whose analysis of motivation require[s], at least in all his novel-length fiction, a third person narrator, even believed that the first-person method was inherently inferior." Mullan takes this to mean that "the trouble is exactly that the first person can speak all too freely and directly to us". (How Novels Work) But a skilful use of first-person narration won't be speaking freely and directly to us; it will make us aware of the partiality of perspective. James, after all, uses the first person in both The Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw (with a narration within the narration in the latter instance) and creates high degrees of ambiguity in both instances. The question isn't one of first person or third person, but, taking into account Genette's claims, about the complexity of the focalization the tale generates. In Madame Bovary, the story is Charles', then Emma's, then Charles' again, and one reason why focalization can seem so much more present in modern fiction, even as early as Flaubert's novel, rests on the emphasis on character over story, psychology over narration. The more the story would seem to tell itself, the less the specificity of character need intrude. Yet much modern fiction attends to this specificity, and hence the centrality of focalization.
James' work is preoccupied with this problem, so that the classic tale collapses into the perspectives that can be generated around it. We cannot know exactly what anybody's motives happen to be, and though superficially the narrator in The Aspern Papers wants to find material of the title, James is far more interested in the ambiguities and aporias than he is in pushing the story along. What matters is the focalized complexity, evident in the numerous examples we can give of the narrator musing over his own motivations and those of others. In one passage the narrator is observing the door of Miss Bordereau's part of the house and he reckons, "a person observing me might have supposed I was trying to cast a spell on it or attempting some odd experiment in hypnotism. But I was only praying it might open or thinking what treasure probably lurked behind it." In another moment, the narrator says, "I liked to take this for a subtle allusion to the rapture she had known in the society of Jeffrey Aspern - though it was true that such an allusion would have accorded ill with the wish the imputed to her to keep him buried in her soul." In the first, he muses about what is in the house, but also how somebody might perceive his behaviour. In the second he credits a remark to a reference to Aspern, only to believe that Miss Bordereau would be unlikely to reveal so clearly a thought about Aspern. These are not at all examples of telling, but about speculating. Whether first person or third, it is the interpretive possibilities that matter, not the categorical claims made.
This can lead inevitably to further speculation on the part of the critic. Whether it happens to be Todorov or Scholl, critics can find in James what they wish to find because there is little enough that is unequivocal. If there are those who feel that first person writing is too explicit, and believe that telling is more obvious than showing, then James's The Aspern Papers is one example that counters the idea. And indeed partly why we need terms like the unreliable narrator and the implied author to explain what writers like James happen to be doing. In a text practising zero focalization this wouldn't be necessary, even if much speculative criticism on James also utilises 'the author' and Henry James - never more so than in Scholl's analysis of the novella where she wants to suggest that Bordereau isn't Miss Tina's aunt but actually her mother, relying on information outside the text as readily as within it. Or, rather, relying on material that has a semi-external relationship with the text since she relies on James's preface, as well as his notebooks, to further the argument. "It is significant that James's account of his novella's source makes reference to 'Claremont' as the mother of Byron's daughter. While Byron's aging mistress did indeed live in Florence (not Venice) in the 1880s with a niece, acknowledged in James's Notebooks...Did the existence of the child conceived out of wedlock gives James an idea for a radical revision of the Shelley-Byron-Clairemont menage in his story?" We needn't get involved in the speculations of the novellas's source, but if a writer invokes events from life as he explains an aspect of his fiction, especially within a text that will accompany the work, does this make it harder to read the work exclusively in relation to itself? We are no longer only in the realm of the unreliable narrator or the implied author. We are not even in the realm of the author, as we would if we chose to see the Jamesian running through various texts. No, this is Henry James explaining to his reader in the preface that "Juliana, as I saw her, was thinkable only in a Byronic Italy", but he also later says he wanted to postulate "for the purposes of my fable celebrities who not only hadn't existed in the conditions I imputed to them, but who for the most part (and in no case more markedly than in that of Jeffrey Aspern) couldn't possibly have done so."
James is yet again playing hide and seek, this time beyond the boundaries of the fiction but perhaps as if to warn readers of those very boundaries. We aren't saying Scholl is wrong to try and read into the novella the possibility that Miss Tina is Juliana's daughter, but in finding in fiction what must be bolstered by external fact, involves a particular notion of authorship - Henry James, the man and his motives - that would be to endanger the slipperiness that James would so often seek. To arrive at the key to the mystery indicates there is only one lock; James is more inclined to insist that there are as many locks as there are readers. The purpose of his work isn't to unlock the mystery with a skeleton key that opens all doors, but that like the characters who propose their own hypothesis of events, so the reader ought to offer their own as well. This doesn't mean anything goes, even if this could be the consequence of insisting on interpretation while at the same time agreeing with aspects of Scholl's argument. Scholl believes that the narrator is very unreliable indeed, hopelessly incapable of seeing what is in front of his eyes as he fails to realise that Juliana and Tina are mother and daughter: "look to the margins as the narrator has not." "At the last he again misunderstands her, failing to recognize the source of her serenity and forgiveness." Scholl reckons she has probably read the letters and is now aware of her parentage: she burns them containing a secret that has been for her a revelation and the narrator cannot see it. Perhaps, but we would want to keep a Jamesian narrative a bit more speculative than that, closer to Todorov's insistence that "in the realm of art, there is nothing which is antecedent to it, nothing which is its origin". Thus Todorov is more inclined to acknowledge the Jamesian as a sensibility and thus acknowledge the 'author', without going so far as to acknowledge 'Henry James'. As Todorov quotes passages from 'The Real Thing' and 'The Author of Beltraffio', so he emphasizes the Jamesian sensibility without insisting on the causal link between art and life that will produce the autobiographical, and thus Henry James. To reduce a Jamesian story to its biographical source would surely be a very un-Jamesian thing to do, denying the possibilities in interpretation for the assertion of fact. James' world can sometimes seem close to the meaningless because it is so full of the meaningfully manifold, of the number of perspectives applied to it, rather than the singular meaning that can be extracted from it. Is this not, after all, what The Aspern Papers is about, without at all suggesting this is necessarily how we should read it? After all, a young man arrives in Italy determined to find out the truth concerning Aspern and Miss Bordereau, and leaves without the papers and instead with a handful of hypotheses.
© Tony McKibbin