Toward the end of “The Aspern Papers” Henry James, giving in to a traveler’s impulse, pronounces the character of Venice:
Without streets and vehicles, the uproar of wheels, the brutality of horses, and with its little winding ways where people crowd together, where voices sound as in the corridors of a house, where the human step circulates as if it skirted the angles of furniture and shoes never wear out, the place has the character of an immense collective apartment, in which the Piazza San Marco is the most ornamented corner and palaces and churches, for the rest, play the part of great divans of repose, tables of entertainment, expanses of decoration.
In his preface to the tale (written later for a new edition) James again indulges himself, revealing a little more, not so much of Venice as of Italy as a whole: “So, right and left, in Italy […] penetration fails; we scratch at the extensive surface, we meet the perfunctory smile […].” To follow James’s imagination–not, of course, to measure its worth in fact, which is anyhow far beyond the abilities of an untraveled American–to follow his imagination, then, I make his Venice out to be a house that does not yield secrets readily, that offers only “the perfunctory smile” of its displayed decorations of history to the researcher. Venice becomes an amplification, then, of the Bordereau house. The monumental domicile of the city, its grand stone furniture: an inscrutable hive of locked rooms and locked secretaries, of traveling trunks and heavy mattresses, of stoves and furnaces. Henry James’s Venice is the stronghold of secrets, and the incinerator, too.
The roving American boarder, you see, doesn’t have a prayer of getting at the Aspern papers or any other Italian treasure. One must be of the house to unlock its doors; to pace and and to knock are the devices of strangers. The Bordereau women, on the other hand, have committed. They own the house, and they are, despite American roots, privy Venetians. Until the end the narrator fails to grasp this essential requirement. Turning over the impoverished heiress’s suggestion of marriage one last time he tells himself, “I would not unite myself and yet I would have them,” in reference to the papers.
James does not begrudge the narrator his folly in that miscalculation. No, he cannot get Jeffrey Aspern’s letters, and the comedy ends gently with that simple acknowledgment of futility. I detect the author’s judgment, however, in the germ of the story, in the narrator’s need to “have them” in the first place. Again, from James’s preface: “The historian, essentially, wants more documents than he can really use; the dramatist only wants more liberties than he can really take.” The protagonist of “The Aspern Papers” is just such a historian; the tale’s author is just such a dramatist. What does the historian expect to accomplish with his documents? They will of course contain or confirm facts, but these facts are just more impenetrable Italian walls, and the secret they harbor is nothing less than the past. Again, it is by becoming of the house, by immersion, that one wins a truth. Fiction–or, more broadly, imagination–is that wedding, that plunge, and therefore in the very act of composing the blundering historian’s tale, James refutes him.
The narrator stumbles into the past during an attempted burglary of the Aspern papers. Caught by the elder Miss Bordereau, for the only time in their acquaintance he receives an unobstructed view of her eyes–earlier she rests them behind an eyeshade or veils herself. The view chastens him. History it seems is the finicky employ of amateurs. Artists must probe the past for truth.