- James and Fame Enduring
He would have demurred; he might even have harrumphed. But make no mistake: Henry James would have loved to learn that three of his novels were living on The Big Screen in a single year.
He was a popular writer. We need no longer fight the fight against Parrington’s stereotype of the Ivory Tower Sissy. Henry James took up puppets from the toy chest of nineteenth-century fiction and modified them in ways he assumed would produce both Art and Cash. It never occurred to the apprentice James that he would “fail” to be another Dickens or Eliot or even Balzac—revered by the fine, read by the many.
That it didn’t happen precisely this way in James’s lifetime is only as true as another fact—it has happened since his death. Obviously, James’s books stand manifold on bookstore shelves as his plots shine forth from the silver and TV screens. What I want to focus on now are two other forms of popularity.
One is immediate and direct. James probably would have disliked the fact that he’s been made a character in the fiction of other novelists, but he would surely have been pleased to learn how he’s influenced elegant minds two generations after his death. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the most flattering imitation is bestowed by the best writers. Geoffrey Wolff is one instance. My focus will be on a still more major postmodernist, a provincial cosmopolite like James, an upper-middle-class émigré drawn from the Western Hemisphere to the metropolitan centers of Europe, a writer esteemed by the cognoscenti and popular with readers in diverse languages. Carlos Fuentes. His novella Aura, one of the evident masterpieces of the Paris effulgence of the 1960s, is patterned self-consciously on “The Aspern Papers.”
Fuentes (b. 1928) came to James’s novella in his seventeenth year, then attended Michael Redgrave’s stage adaptation in London in 1958, and saw “The Aspern Papers” appear in Spanish the same year as Aura (1962). Since then, Redgrave’s adaptation has been revived at Oxford, and the 1947 film starring [End Page 264] Robert Cummings revisits the late show every so often. What keeps movie and stage audiences and diverse readerships coming back to “The Aspern Papers” is obviously an intricate question—one that Aura allows us some purchase on.
Fuentes responds to the gothic James. And here is where the second form of popularity comes in. It’s indirect. And it would probably have repelled James, if he could even have conceived of it. Even privately. At least initially. I’m referring to the way James’s self-confessed “imagination of disaster,” his familiarity with the quieted crawlspaces of the psyche, is in tune with the gothic films that have played so prominently in the last forty years. (Aura is being written in Paris as Psycho is drawing longline crowds there.) Much of what readers admire in Fuentes’s best work is what he shares with James and with popular gothic today— an awareness of the violence that waits in ordinary moments, of the compulsion that makes desire insistent and inept, of the damage that parents do and the lingering fears that leave us all undone.
Borges says we can only read Hawthorne today through Kafka. I want to read “The Aspern Papers” through both Aura and popular gothic film 1 and to focus especially on two of the archaic motions that break the surfaces of art and life remorselessly: The fear of mother and the desire for merger. Henry James constitutes today the international presence he always intended to be—because he continues to speak to what we can’t quite understand, or do without.
“‘Might I Ask What You Are?’”
Fuentes specifies that “five, at least five, were the witches who consciously mothered Aura” (“How I Wrote” 38). That one of the coven was “the greedy Miss Bordereau” (39) highlights what’s been largely ignored by readers of “The Aspern Papers”—that the Misses Bordereau are associated with “witches” early in the novella (49) and that Juliana is subsequently called “a subtle old witch...