The Aspern Papers came at exactly the right time for me, and completely by chance. Big C and I were on our way home, and we had got to talking about biographies, first editions, and celebrity memorabilia, and how strange it was that so many people would yearn for a personal item of their favourite author, musician, or celebrity, yet how much we understood it. One of my prized possessions is a signed copy of Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson, and he used to own an autograph of John Lennon. We also know someone who has leaves from Elvis Presley's grave. We were talking about possession and intimacy, and he referred to a letter that was sold for thousands by a friend of John Lennon's, who cut the letter short by saying, "I have to go, John's just walked in". And we were asking why: I mean, if I had Virginia Woolf's pen - well, it's just a pen, right? But it's not, is it? It's more than that. The pen becomes this mystical, revered object. There's a kind of intimacy. And Big C once sat in Charles Dickens's chair, and we both knew just how important it was. A shared connection. Dickens wrote I don't know what sitting in that chair, and this proverbial pen I'm on about - if Virginia Woolf wrote Orlando, To The Lighthouse, or Mrs. Dalloway - imagine holding the pen that produced those works. It's not an object anymore, it's the damn Holy Grail almost.
We arrived home around midnight, and I thought it was too late to do any NaNoWriMo (I'm still on track, ahead actually, but slacking) and I thought it would be good to read a whole book that night. My reading is all over the place with NaNo, so I decided to pick something fairly short. On my top shelf, I have some Henry James (why I have so many, I don't know) and I thought, "Well, The Aspern Papers looks short enough, I'll read that" (I know that's a bad way to choose reading material, but it is something I have been known to do on many occasions). As I walked to the bedroom, I read the back of it:
In an elegant and crumbling palazzo old Miss Bordereau lives on with her niece, closely guarding her most precious treasure, a hoard of letters written to her in her youth by the great American love poet Jeffrey Aspern. Adopting a nom de guerre the tale's narrator, a literary researcher, arrives at the palazzo and inveigles the two ladies into taking him in as their lodger. There he watches and waits for the moment to pounce. For he is determined to gain possession of the Aspern papers and willing to pay almost any price.
James's tale - in part a warning to over-zealous historians and biographers - grips the reader with steadily mounting suspense and is regarded by many as the most brilliant of all his stories.
What a perfect follow-up to the conversation Big C and I had!
I often say, the mark of a good book for me is seeking out Big C and reading bits to him. Because, after only about twenty pages, I had gone looking for him twice, and we ended up having an hour long discussion about just a sentence, I didn't finish the novella that night, but I did finish it last night.
It's perfect for someone who loves books. As you can see by the quote, it's about an unnamed man who is absolutely hell-bent on getting these Aspern papers. Some of the passages many of us may identify with:
Every one of Aspern's contemporaries had, according to our belief, passed away; we had not been able to look into a single pair of eyes into which his had looked or to feel a transmitted contact in any aged hand that his had touched.
... I was really face to face with Juliana of some of Aspern's most equisite and renowned lyrics... Her presence seemed somehow to contain and express his own, and I felt nearer to him at that first moment of seeing her than I ever had been before or ever have been since.
The narrator objectifies these women, Miss Bordereau (Juliana) and her niece, Miss Tina. These papers are precious, they are his Holy Grail, and he goes to great lengths to get past their gate keeper, Miss Bordereau. I won't spoil this for you by telling you what happens, and I don't need to - the point of it is this desire to be 'close' to an idol. Jeanette Winterson wrote that "the intersection between a writer's life and a writer's work is irrelevant to the reader" (I've written about this here in a sort of review of Art Objects), but I think this approach goes completely against human nature.
It's absurd, in a way. Look at Sylvia Plath, look at what she produced, not the quality, not how important you may or may not find her, just look at the number of words she produced (guess, as I have done, I don't know the number). Two slim volumes of poetry, The Bell Jar and Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. Then consider what has been written about her. The ratio of what she wrote to what has been written about her is staggeringly disproportionate. And does it matter? Does it matter what Virginia Woolf thought of her servants, does it matter than Sylvia Plath killed herself, does it matter if the pen on my desk belonged to Virginia Woolf?
Aside from the obvious fact that knowledge of an author can shed new light on what they produced, is it not natural to want to know more? Is it not natural to want to share something - holding then pen, sitting in the chair, looking into the eyes of a muse?
Aspern's biographer, as I said, objectified Juliana, and he went to great lengths in his quest to see or own these papers. But what is alarming, whilst I would not go to this man's lengths, was empathising with him. I should have thought less of him, I suppose James's point was for you to think less of the biographer. "Ah, you publishing scoundrel!" Juliana shouts in her fury. Their privacy was a mere obstacle to the biographer, he was morally reprehensible. And yet I got it. I understood him and his obsession, his need for the connection, and even intimacy with Aspern, the pleasure he got from looking into Juliana's eyes - would you not think twice, shaking the hand of a woman who had inspired your favourite author? Why else do we buy biographies? Why else would I be sat with 75 or so books by or about Virginia Woolf? It's not simply an "interest", sometimes it's a need, a need to know.
Perhaps I should be worried that I wasn't utterly disgusted by Aspern's biographer's actions....