The Henry James Review 25.3 (2004) 296-298
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"The Aspern Papers" is one of those rare works of fiction in which mysteries of scholarship dramatically reveal human character. Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire is another, along with A. S. Byatt's Possession. But James's novella remains the quintessential cautionary tale about literary motives, which turn out to be as dubious as motives in any profession. It is of course about much more as well. Like so much of James's writing, it is about Americans abroad and failures of affection in deeply damaged lives. One can see why John Drury chose James's story as a subject for his longer poem, the centerpiece of this solid new collection. This ambitious poem of more than four hundred lines re-imagines the dilemmas of James's characters and reminds me that, in such capable hands, verse is the perfect vehicle for dramatic narratives.
James's tale is told by an unnamed scholar renting rooms from the Misses Bordereau, who "lived now in Venice in obscurity, on very small means, unvisited, unapproachable, in a dilapidated old palace on an out-of-the-way canal" (153). The elder of the two women, Juliana, was once beloved of Jeffrey Aspern, an American poet, while her niece and caretaker, Miss Tita (Tina in the New York Edition), remains a hopeless spinster. In James's realistic vision all human ideals succumb to expediency and passing time. In fact, he gives us an image of this in what amounts to pentameter—"The divine Juliana as a grinning skull"—that signals to a poet something of the lyrical shape of James's narratives (168). This one focuses on the duplicity of the narrator, his willingness to exploit the emotional desperation of the niece in order to get at the aunt's papers, including any letters from her deceased suitor. As it plays out, we never see the Aspern papers, at last discovering that Miss Tita has burned them, partly to get back at the narrator, who refused her proposal. [End Page 296]
Drury's most daring move has been to give us Jeffrey Aspern's letters—in rhymed verse, no less—interspersed with the blank verse interior monologue of the woman who is destroying them. We are allowed, in other words, to "hear" two voices that no one will in fact ever hear. The poet's most intimate words are consumed by the fire, and the woman who destroys them will live on in utter neglect, "unheard" by any companion. It is a devastating conceit, and Drury handles it with deft restraint.
While burning the letters, Miss Tina addresses her thoughts to the scholar who had sought them and had trifled with her affections:
You wouldn't talk so foolishly to me
if you could answer, looking up from reading.
I'd love to watch you reading silently
in this dark room. The paper isn't silent—
it catches at the edges, and I hold on
as long as I can, watch it burn, and drop it.
As she says, the paper isn't silent, but it's not just the crackling flames she means. It's also the voice she systematically burns, and this image of a soul's most intimate expression being ruthlessly eradicated is chilling to say the least. "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen," wrote Thomas Gray, "And waste its sweetness on the desert air" (540). The vision of private devastation in both James and Drury is far less serene.
In Aspern's ardent verse epistles we have a voice that questions conventional scruples, desiring to know and be known. The attractive personality Drury conveys makes Tina's gesture even more appalling. Here is one in sonnet form:
Getting lost is a solace of the blest,
a sweet prerogative, through turning lanes
and sudden bridges as I take the crest
and look out at dark water, darkened panes.
It matters little what had been my plans...