sábado, 16 de enero de 2016

The Turn Of The Screw and The Aspern Papers by Henry James

Henry James, great though his name remains, can be something of an acquired taste for some readers. Lest it be said, in terms a lay person unacquainted with this writer’s indeed impressive array of both products and talents, that this particular artist of the written word might, on occasions perhaps far too frequent to count, might occasionally employ one or two -  let us fall short of the word ‘many’ - employ just a few too many of the aforementioned raw materials of his craft - words - for good measure. And sometimes this opacity of prose does obscure rather than enhance meaning, of that there is no doubt. Equally obvious, however, is the writer’s complete mastery of elegance and pace. So what better place for the still wary to start than a pair of short works, The Turn Of The Screw and The Aspern Papers?

The Turn Of The Screw is a classic ghost story. It’s told as the first person account of a governess appointed to a well-to-do family that has no mother. A distant father and a housekeeper live alongside a young girl and an older boy, who has just returned from school with a letter that suggest he does not return.

There is something strange about the children. They seem worldly wise beyond their years, almost political in the way they seem to require adults always to comply with their wishes. And then there are the sightings, apparitions of previous employees, perhaps, people who might have looked after these same children. What is the history? What are the circumstances that led to these poor souls being apparently trapped in this place in the psyche of two small children?

Turn Of The Screw is a ghost story, but it certainly avoids the clichés and falsely hyped drama that so often affect the genre. It thus, in the hands of Henry James, achieves a status that is merely fiction. No genre need claim to intervene, since its development and indeed denouement is always more about the characters rather than the events.

The Aspern Papers is another first person account, but here the storyteller is engaged in a search, a pursuit, in fact, and not a self-analysis. The Aspern of the title was himself a writer, but one active in the early part of the nineteenth century. By the time our narrator goes in search of the writer’s papers, we are decades into the future, well past the writer’s death.

Aspern’s former lover, now known as Miss Bordereau, who, it is believed, still holds the archive of this revered but little-documented genius, lives in Venice with the young and attractive niece, Miss Tina, who is likely to inherit. The narrator travels to Italy, makes contact with the household by renting rooms in their dilapidated canal-side home.

Miss Bordereau proves to be something of a recluse, so even arranging an audience where the narrator might discuss the Aspern Papers proves difficult. But the old lady knows how to do business and exacts a high rent from her tenant, meaning that the mission must be completed as quickly as possible, before funds run out. The eventual financial beneficiary of the arrangement will be the young Miss Tina, who soon becomes an object of interest for our storyteller.

The Aspern Papers is a thoroughly successful short novel that works by layering various plots and motives so they can all progress together via luscious, if rather dense prose. For a reader unused to James’s style, these two often coupled classics perhaps form a perfect introduction.

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