Henry James looking pensive. Photo source here.
One of my favorite authors is Henry James (when he’s not writing from a woman’s perspective that is). He definitely has a way of setting the scene, of building suspense, and of either gratifying his reader with the perfect conclusion or plummeting his reader into a chasm of disappointment. The latter is exactly what he does to us poor readers in his short story (some might say novella) The Aspern Papers.
I remember reading The Aspern Papers for the first time in college. The story completely engrossed me, as I sat surrounded by the dinginess of my dorm room. I was transported to a dilapidated Venice buzzing with expectation and exasperation, a place so hot I imagined the canal water might boil.
The story is about an un-named historian ( perhaps James entended us to insert our own names) who goes in search of letters a famous, ficticious author wrote to a lover in his youth. Aspern’s lover, who is now ancient, is named Juliana and she lives with her niece, Tita, in an old gray and pink palace. The palace has a garden attached, which gives the protagonist the perfect excuse to go bother the women, who have decidedly shut themselves away from the world. He secures a room in the palace (only after forking over a large amount of rent money) and then the waiting begins. His hope was to befriend Juliana or make Tita fall in love with him, and then snatch the papers (those letters the deceased Aspern wrote to Juliana) from them or, perhaps in his wildest dreams, be given them. Without spoiling much of the ending, it doesn’t work out well for this nameless fellow.
After my original Dover edition got lost in a series of moves I made after college, I bought James’ complete works on Kindle… I can’t help but think that reading this story from a physical book was so much better. And that wouldn’t a first edition be all the more appropriate.
A quick look at Abebooks revealed the there is a first edition for sale, with a beautiful blue cloth cover adorned with silvery gilt. According to the bookseller’s description the volume was published in England in 1888 and is in fairly good condition. You can check it out here. My excitement was high until reading the price tag ($475!!). I’m not surprised. I guess in this case I’m a lot like the un-named protagonist, despairingly close to the object of my literary desires but forever barred by some insermountable keeper. My Juliana is money.
Thank you for reading!!