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‘If she didn’t live in a big house how could it be a question of her having rooms to spare? If she were not amply lodged you’d lack ground to approach her. Besides, a big house here, and especially in this quartier perdu, proves nothing at all: it’s perfectly consistent with a state of penury. Dilapidated old palazzi, if you’ll go out of the way for them, are to be had for five shillings a year. And as for the people who live in them – no, until you’ve explored Venice socially as much as I have, you can form no idea of their domestic desolation. They live on nothing, for they’ve nothing to live on.’

Right that’s it. I am decided. I will never travel to Venice. Only bad things happen there. As for evidence, I present you with Death in Venice; Don’t Look Now; the city’s a literary death trap! Plus I hear Venetians don’t like tourists and I look just like a tourist. Even when I am at home.

So this book’s setting earns a black mark from me, but also its author. I have had a troubled history with Henry James. I tried to read The Portrait of a Lady when I was a teenager (I believe the Nicole Kidman film had just come out). I did not make it past the second chapter. The prose just killed me, it was far too dense. I have since managed to read The Turn of the Screw (an excellent book that has been adapted into an equally excellent film – The Innocents), but that was nice and short, not long enough for James’ prose style to hurt my fragile brain.

This book is equally short and I am quite grateful for it.

The Aspern Papers is concerned with the efforts of our nameless narrator, a poetry devotee, to worm his way into the affections of two ladies who may in possession of missing material belonging to the dead poet Jeffrey Aspern. Pretending to be an innocent lodger, the narrator moves into the home of Miss Juliana Bordereau, a former lover of Aspern. Attempting to feel out how she would respond to his request for information about his literary hero, he discovers that her reserve is unaffected by his obsequious entreaties. Instead he turns to her niece, Tina, who proves more amenable to his advances.

A curious game of cat and mouse emerges, bound up in wordplay and the limits of politeness. As Miss Juliana’s health begins to fail, the narrator becomes more desperate to become the beneficiary of his literary hero’s legacy. How far is he willing to do.

I have to say I actually found myself enjoying the prose of my nemesis with this book. James invests an incredible amount of psychological detail into his characters. The narrator’s treatment of Tina is quite cruel, but she is revealed to have hidden stores of strength, taking him by surprise before the story’s conclusion. Miss Juliana might be a Dickensian Miss Haversham (certainly in the narrator’s covetous eyes she is), were it not for the fact that she has lived a full life and now simply wants to be left to her memories. What right does this book thief have to plunder them?

A civilized battle of wits, with a satirical bent. Surprisingly enjoyable for me.

For one thing, as any writer will tell you, people do tell a writer things that they don’t tell others. I don’t know why, unless it is that having read one or two of his books they feel on peculiarly intimate terms with him; or it may be that they dramatize themselves and, seeing themselves as it were as characters in a novel, are ready to be as open with him as they imagine the characters of his invention are.

Most people have had the good fortune to have at least one teacher during their time at school able to inspire and guide them. Mine was a geography teacher. He was a strong influence on my growing wanderlust, interest in movies (Easy Rider for one) and the books I read. One afternoon in class he mentioned W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, although he was quick to add, ‘it’s not that kind of book’. I chased down a copy and found it to be a book about failed ambition and our need to find a purpose in life. It was inspiring to read when I was a teenager and caused me to question many certainties I had.

Of Human Bondage was a semi-autobiographical work, but Maugham goes even further in The Razor’s Edge, inserting himself into the text as a character. The opening chapter has the author speak directly to us, insisting that the story he wishes to tell is based on actual events. He refuses to introduce fiction into the proceedings besides changing the names of his ‘characters’, to protect their reputation. Instead he only relates events in their lives as he witnessed them, or as they were told to him by those directly involved. The three principals are Elliott Templeton, a kind-hearted insufferable snob whom Maugham befriends in Paris; Templeton’s niece Isabel, who confides in the author; and the strangely aloof Larry Darrell.

For all intents and purposes this is Larry’s story. A childhood sweetheart of Isabel’s he returned from the First World War strangely apathetic, not wishing to find work, or enter business as his peers have done. Growing up a member of the American upper class, his decision to devote his life instead to study is bewildering to those who know him. Elliott is personally offended that Larry has rejected the kind of life he lives for, networking at parties and ensuring that one is always a friend to the right people. Isabel, while hopelessly in love with Larry, is troubled that he would prefer to lead a penniless life than settle down with her and enter business.

Eventually she breaks off her engagement to him and he vanishes from their lives. Maugham manages to reconstruct what happened next to Larry and tells his story to us in chronological order, although for the majority of his acquaintance with the intense young American his actions remain a mystery. Having abandoned America just as it takes its first strides to becoming a superpower, Larry travels the world, looking for enlightenment at the bottom of a mine, in a monk’s cell and under the guidance of a yogi. The events of the book take place during the roaring twenties, with the 1929 Stock Market Crash a rude awakening for Isabel’s dreams of a life of ease. When next she meets Larry she finds they are both very different people now, a discovery that is hard for her to accept.

Maugham writes with sincerity and conviction, as well as an obsessive degree of detail. Larry’s quest for happiness and a purpose in life with meaning is eked out in such a way that we are not overburdened with long philosophical rants. By balancing the story between Isabel, Elliott and Larry, he gives equal perspective to three very different accounts of what is important in life.

He also writes in a self-conscious manner, almost apologizing at both the beginning and end of the book for the way in which he has written his tale. He tartly criticizes Henry James for failing to capture the English voice, hence the pretence of being a witness to actual events. This book continues to enthrall readers, with its audacious insertion of philosophy into an entertaining narrative. Most surprisingly Bill Murray was obsessed with making a film of it early in his career.

I can see why.

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