An American editor arrives in Venice on a quest to acquire some unpublished letters written by his favorite Romantic poet, Jeffrey Aspern. He tracks down the mistress to whom the letters were addressed, a now elderly Miss Bordereau, and presents himself as a prospective lodger.
In hopes of gaining access to the secret papers, he begins courting Miss Bordereau's plain spinster niece, Miss Tina. As his obsessive mission leads him into increasingly unscrupulous behavior, he finds that his desire can be obtained only at the price of his honor.
Written with taut suspense and brilliant insight into complex human motivations, The Aspern Papers is one of Henry James' most acclaimed stories.
Great story and great narration. James' sensitivity to the subtle shifts in his characters' motivations and emotions is apparent on every page. A wonderful book, with an ending that manages the very-Jamesian trick of being genuinely dramatic without ever for a moment straining credibility.
I'm far from a Henry James fan, and friends who claim (or let's be honest, boast) that they read him for enjoyment have always struck me as liars; even his much revered "Turn of the Screw" seems absurdly overrated. But "The Aspern Papers" is sort of fun, especially if you've ever dreamed of discovering some unknown literary manuscript by a writer you idolize. It's also genuinely suspenseful and -- thanks to its secluded, decaying Venetian setting -- richly atmospheric. All of which makes it the only James I've read that I actually liked. (P.S. One thing that bothered me, this time around, was wondering where and how the three main characters got their meals. Like a lot of mundane details, it's left unexplained.)
Robin Field's performance is practically flawless (i.e., I think it was literally twice, in this entire novella, that I felt he'd emphasized the wrong word in a sentence). He's come up with precisely the right voice and accent for the narrator -- snobby, fussy, sensitive, a bit precious, slightly quavering, definitely low on testosterone -- and is especially skillful in his renditions of the two female characters; one of them is very old, and Field gets her cracked voice perfectly, never overdoing it, never making us wince. His brilliant reading really pulled me out of modern-day Manhattan (even its subways) and made for an extremely pleasant four hours.
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