Saturday, June 30, 2012

Half-done Book a Week!: The Aspern Papers

Not often you see an exclamation mark followed immediately by a colon, is it? I can only hope reading these twenty-six books in half a year earned me the right to do it at least once. May the next twenty-six be just as great.

June 24-30: The Aspern Papers by Henry James

Literature (1888 - 96 pp.) 

"When Americans went abroad in 1820 there was something romantic, almost heroic in it, as compared with the perpetual ferryings of the present hour, when photography and other conveniences have annihilated surprise." (846, 1999 Campbell edition) 

In The Aspern Papers, Henry James combines his love for international experiences (he writes about Americans in Venice) with his love of the Romantic era (the book's namesake Jeffrey Aspern is loosely based on Percy Shelley). The result is a surprisingly quick read that is not only full of literary references but also full of humour for those who get said literary references. James writes a literary critic in as his protagonist, echoing his own profession, which allows for self-parody at times and exploration of the discipline at others. It all holds together well. Although The Aspern Papers is very much a relic of a time when the most literary works rarely had enticing plots, James's world is so vivid and so flippant (flippantly vivid? vividly flippant?) that it is easy to stay entertained the whole time. 

A key aspect to The Aspern Papers - and this is not even a spoiler - is that the papers themselves are an extreme MacGuffin. Not only does the reader not know what they contain, or are they ever read by any of the characters while the story is taking place, but they are never seen to the reader or the protagonist. We merely presume they exist through the testimony of characters the protagonist, and to some extent the reader by extension, are inclined to distrust. 

It was difficult to pick which Henry James story to read for this week, as he was so prolific in his time that there is an abundance to choose from. I readily admit I could have read something else, something longer, perhaps The Aspern Papers plus a short story, yet this format worked well. This is his fourth I have read, the preceding ones being "A Landscape Painter" (1866), "Daisy Miller" (1878) and "The Real Thing" (1892). The Aspern Papersfalls in the middle of the latter two, and it certainly seems that way thematically. That James not only wrote so much but did so over such a long period allows the reader to progress from the travelogue-style narration of his earlier years toward the realism of his later years. If you have a lot of time on your hands, or a good enough memory to read a bunch of his stories over the course of years without forgetting them, it is worth doing. 

What may be one of the book's greatest bits of wisdom comes almost as a throw-in. James, writing potentially years before his time, has his protagonist state that "Writing books, unless one be a great genius - and even then! - is the last road to fortune." (873) However true that statement was in 1888, it is certainly even truer in 2012. 

Ease of Reading: 4 
Educational Content: 6 

Book a Week is now half done! At the most convenient possible time as well, on the last day of June. The happy miracles of New Year's Day being a Sunday and it being a leap year, thus making July 1 also a Sunday, make 2012 the best year for Book a Week in... quite some time. Some things are just meant to be, I suppose.

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