This novella follows an unnamed narrator as he travels to Venice to obtain some papers left with Juliana Bordereau by her lover, poet Jeffrey Aspern. Knowing that honesty will result in instant rejection, the narrator enters the house as a lodger and sets about working on the spinster niece of Juliana, Miss Tita. She eventually learns the truth but there's no guarantee that the papers will be handed over.
I said I wanted to read this after watching The Lost Moment (1947, review here) and I was relieved that most of what made the film melodramatic was not drawn from the original story by James. This novella is tight and, really, frustratingly short. It left me wanting more which is, I suppose, quite a good way to be left by an author of exceptional talent.
The crumbling, lethargic atmosphere of Venice and the house itself is possibly the most captivating aspect of the story. The plot itself is rather thin - man sets about to retrieve papers by duplicity - but the setting is everything. The narrator's motivation is, of course, important and brings up questions of the professional and the private and what rights we, the public, have to know all about the personal life of a 'famous' person, a debate we have daily now. Locating these papers in a dilapidated house under the guardianship of an ailing woman and her unworldly niece only adds to the sensation that some things should be left unearthed.
For me, The Aspern Papers was tantalisingly short but it covered what needed to be covered in the story. Economical with words, James nevertheless created a potent portrait of Venice that threatens to stay with me for a while.