The Aspern Papers Background

The Aspern Papers Background

Henry James first published his novella The Aspern Papers in the Atlantic Monthly, an American literary and cultural commentary magazine, over the course of several issues in the spring of 1888. Later on the same year, it was released in book form. The novella has been universally praised as another manifestation of the singularly idiosyncratic brilliance of James in composing stories of great depth by means of an unreliable narrator. In addition to being highly regarded by critics and scholars, The Aspern Papers is also considered a superior achievement in the art of fiction, and is often compared to James' more widely known masterpiece The Turn of the Screw by dint of its gothic and mystical atmosphere.

The Aspern Papers is, in fact, based on the letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley to Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley's step sister who saved them until her death. Such features have given the book certain elements that are familiar with the gothic tradition of horror, which James had explored, to a greater degree, in his famous ghost stories. The novella follows the narrator's quest of a mysterious lost manuscript, and even features a once glorious mansion, fallen into decay, which makes of it the perfect setting for a horror tale. The unnamed narrator is unreliable primarily because of his utter anonymity which adds to the mystery at the heart of the plot.

This anonymity serves to reinforce many of the central themes of the book. Furthermore, it is another characteristic, which reveals the literary capacities of Henry James in the midst of his fellow literary giants in the arena of mystery. By the same token, the anonymity of the narrator becomes a powerful metaphor engaging the critical reader with the admonition of judging the art, and not the artist.

James agreed with the universal positive evaluation of his novella, and had put it ahead even of The Turn of the Screw. Such high opinion of his own work was later corroborated by the long list of adaptations starting with the 1947 film The Lost Moment, the 1959 and 1984 stage adaptations, again a film production in 1985, an opera in 1988, and many other film adaptations in 1991, 2002, 2010, the most recent of which was the 2018 movie directed by Julien Landais.

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