My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The more I am exposed to the writings of Henry James, the more he rises in my favor. I can strongly recommend both “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Aspern Papers”–and while I started this volume specifically for the former, it was the latter tale that proved to be my favorite.
“The Aspern Papers” reads sort of like a crime thriller focused not on a violation of law but rather of manners, complicated by an unreliable narrator and turned almost baroque by the leisurely summer setting in expat Venice and by the lovely, elaborate language. (The dense prose, the examination of the affairs of well-to-do socialites, and the dialogue that can be naturalistic or elaborate as the situation demands all hint at James’s status as part of a bridge between literary movements.) I was eager to see just how far the narrator would go in his pursuit of the titular papers of his literary idol, Jeffrey Aspern, a (fictitious) early American poet. The narrator is a critic and historian who has learned that Aspern’s lover still lives with her niece in Italy, in seclusion; she apparently has kept letters and the like from the late writer, and while she would never part with them in life, the narrator contrives to stay on as a boarder in the hopes that he might nonetheless find an opportunity to gain access to those documents. In his telling of events, the nameless narrator often seems to minimize his behavior or to emphasize his embarrassment at what he said and did, but his obsessive greed, regardless of the justification, is apparent. While the narrator seeks understanding for his actions and perhaps shared interest in his quest, it was the niece who most earned my affection. Middle-aged, lacking in many lived experiences or much education, stuck with her aunt in a too-big house in isolation, too meek to change things, Miss Tina is initially pathetic and lacking in agency. But by the end of the story, she finally gains some shred of confidence and independence, though it can be hard to see this through the smoke-screen of alternating pity and disgust that the narrator throws up around her (she can be plain or almost attractive, middle-aged or elderly, overly trusting or plain stupid, depending on his mood and the events surrounding the situation). She’s trapped on both sides by predators–by her dominating aunt, and by the manipulative new tenant with his secret quest for spoils. Only by the end is she given the opportunity to define herself. It’s interesting that the strongest character growth can be observed in a character obscured and misunderstood by the narrator, and I can’t help but imagine how fascinating it would be to see a version of the story that was centered on Miss Tina. (And the relationship between aunt and niece, fallen from a sort of nobility and living on in the corpse of a once-great dwelling, reminded me of the much-later documentary Grey Gardens.)
“The Turn of the Screw,” on the other hand, is an excellent ghost story. Set within a frame narrative of a holiday gathering in which this tale is allegedly being recited from a manuscript drafted by the haunted protagonist, a young governess finds herself in over her head on a new assignment in caring for two young children when she begins to see the glaring figures of a strange man and woman about the house and grounds. It is soon confirmed that the visages she sees match the descriptions of a deceased servant and the deceased former governess. The protagonist fears that the two have begun to corrupt the children and plan to take them away. While there is much debate among academics over whether the ghosts should be interpreted as literal or psychological, I found the story to be agnostic on the point, yet another disturbing mystery to ponder. There are many mysteries in the story, including just what exactly former tenants Quint and Jessel actually did. Certainly it is suggested that they had an affair, that Quint may have violated or abused or degraded many women, and while the sexual implications are only ever suggested, never stated outright, they certainly suggest a sadist of a man. How they implicated the children, and what they want with the children in death, is even more troubling. I have my own interpretation, and I’m sure there are many others. So much of the story is about ambiguous, disturbing events that invite multiple interpretations and explanations. And the end is far from happy.
Both stories are excellent. I don’t particularly care if you read this volume (although I appreciated the introduction by Anthony Curtis), but I do strongly recommend that you read these stories in whatever format you can.