The Aspern Papers

It’s taken me days to write a review on this book – and not because I’ve been busy. I just can’t figure out what to say about it! ……………….. If I MUST, all I can say is that the book strangely led nowhere for me.

In The Aspern Papers Henry James shows the common practice of publishers to invade the private lives of public figures, how the family members or intimate acquaintances react to this invasion and the awkward situation created when a publisher schemes and lies for what he wants.

The narrator of the novella, an unnamed publisher, wants “The Aspern Papers”; papers he is sure that Juliana Bordereau, former lover of the famous poet Jeffrey Aspern, must have. He goes prepared to do whatever he must to get those papers and, under false pretences, obtains admission to the house she lives in with her niece Tina. Eventually, he is caught in an awkward position and must decide whether he will be absolutely unscrupulous or if he still has some standards of his own.

This is one of those few times that I loved the development of the story – it had me reading till the last page. The obsession for those unseen papers increases as the story progresses and the reader, along with the publisher, would do anything to just know what they contained. The interaction in the book is namely between the publisher and Tina Bordereau. Having revealed the truth to the niece, he hopes for some help from her. The ending was a shock to say the least. I, like the publisher, was unbelieving. I had invested so much in finding out what the papers were and if he would get them that I felt I had lost something myself. This is why The Aspern Papers felt like it went nowhere – because as far as the poor publisher was concerned, nowhere is where he ended.

The Turn of the Screw

A young governess’ manuscript is read at a gathering in which ghost stories are being told – only this is not the typical ghost story. Hired by an enigmatic man to look after his orphaned nephew and niece, the unnamed governess tells of her journey to the country house Bly. She instantly falls in love with the angelic children Miles and Flora. Nothing could be more perfect. She has a good salary and complete control over the servants. But why all the rules? What is the mystery behind the previous governess’ death? But these questions come much later.

One day, the governess spots an unknown man on the premises. A trespasser she presumes. But on giving the description to the housekeeper, she is never more surprised when the man is identified as Peter Quint – the master’s previous valet who is now dead. This apparently terrifying turn of events is accepted both by the young woman and the housekeeper! It isn’t long before the two make another startling discovery: the children know of the spirits. The governess soon begins seeing Peter Quint and her predecessor Miss Jessel walking about the grounds and the house. The children are interacting with the dead – with an evil too appalling to think of. The real evil is never made clear; it is left to our imagination. The governess guards the children hoping to save their souls. One day things come to a head with tragic consequences.

Critical Analysis
I don’t usually like critically analysing a book, but in some cases it is called for. The Turn of the Screw is a book that has baffled many critics. Many questions remain unanswered to this day: For example, the nature of the evil the children are involved in with the valet and the previous governess is never fully revealed. Then many critics are doubtful as to whether the children were really evil and interacting with spirits; they assume that the governess herself could have been hallucinating as no clear statement is made otherwise. Against this argument is of course the fact that the boy Miles actually asks for Peter Quint before dying. Their is also the letter from Miles’ headmaster indicating bad behaviour – somewhat odd considering his angelic demeanor at Bly.

It has never been proved that Henry James meant The Turn of the Screw to be anything other than the straightforward ghost story most assume it to be. I myself can never get over the odd children. Children are usually portrayed as either good or ‘naughty’ – rarely pure evil. The effect is to say the least horrible! Before I started this blog I had never been in the habit of articulating my impressions about a book. Of course I knew whether I liked it or hated it, but this book lay in between. I didn’t like it – but neither did I hate it. It was eerie and uncomfortable with a depressing atmosphere, but had a strong pull. For those interested in more critical analysis go here.

Behind a Mask or A Woman’s Power

In Behind a Mask Louisa May Alcott takes a turn from her usual style. Known for writing the light family drama Little Women, Behind a Mask glimpses towards the darker side. The characters all seem charming in the beginning but we are left wondering how an author who can create such good characters as Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy March can create a Jean Muir.

Louisa May Alcott, in her novels, focused a lot on morals. Her heroines are strong-minded young woman who, at the same time are feminine. Jean Muir, a governess, is at first shown as a meek, misunderstood girl of 18 – but she is not what she seems. She quickly instigates herself into the family, worming her way into the hearts of all the occupants. Even the most mistrusting soon succumb to her unique charm. Is she what she seems? Or does she have a dark purpose behind all that she does? What is behind the sweet, misunderstood mask of Jean Muir? Lucia, the fiance of the master of the house, has enough womanly instincts to see past Jean Muir’s feminine wiles, but she lacks the scrutiny and cleverness of Jean Muir. She knows something is wrong but does not have enough insight into the matter, or quickness to do anything about it. Instead, she plays right into Jean’s hands and becomes a catalyst for the inevitable reaction.

I really enjoyed reading Behind a Mask. I have always loved Louisa May Alcott’s writing style and after reading this novel, I like her character portrayal even more. It was refreshing to see another side of human nature and to see how the less fortunate members of society may act. Set in England, the book appeals to me even more; especially since I love books set during the Victorian Era!

Heart of Darkness

I begin the New Year with exams (It’s horrible I know!) I can’t start any new books yet so I thought I’d review one of the novels from my course! I know it sounds boring but Heart of Darkness took me by surprise; its tackling of issues prevalent in Europe during the 19th and 20th century is superb. The massive continent of Africa is divided into various colonies rules by different European countries. Marlow, an English seaman, takes a long desired voyage to the heart of darkness – Africa. What he finds there leaves him a changed man.

Joseph Conrad is said to have been ahead of his time. He viewed his age as the next generation was to view it: with a critical eye for its faults. He saw imperialism for what it was and Heart of Darkness abounds in his use of symbols to portray it. The novel is semi-autobiographical; Conrad believed that literature should be realistic; it should include one’s own experiences.

Marlow, the protagonist, tells his story to a few of his sailor friends who then narrate it to us.  He pulls off the mask of virtue from imperialism and shows it for what it really was: greed. Money is the primary concern of everyone, and here money takes the form of ivory. In one of the most expressive dialogues Marlow describes the lust for ivory that had ensnared them all,

“They word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By  Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life.”

The natives are maltreated to the point of death and starvation. Everywhere Marlow looks he finds misery. But the ‘pilgrims’ stand firm in their belief that they have come to Africa to ‘civilize’ the brutes. They are here to bring a change. Marlow travels to the interior to find the one man he has heard so much about. A man, who had ideals, and now possesses strength and power over the natives. He is said to bring in more ivory than all the rest put together. Marlow’s interest in him increases as his journey progresses and when the final meeting takes place, the mask is off and all the ugliness of the situation in Africa is shown at its height. Marlow returns, having fulfilled his wish at a cost. He knows now what other men don’t. How is he to carry this burden?