The Aspern Papers by Henry James (1888, 84 pages in Barnes and Noble Edition)
The Aspern Papers is considered from the start of James middle period. ( James was born in New York City in 1843 into a wealthy very educated and cultured family. He lived in Europe for many years and eventually became an English citizen. He died in 1916. He produced a huge diverse volume of literary works. Several of his novels often show up on lists of 100 best novels.) It was published between The Bostonians and a Tragic Muse. I greatly enjoyed The Bostonians and have not yet read The Tragic Muse. It is considered by many a small master work of 19th century American prose. I would say first it is not hard to read. It does not have super long sentences with four or five subordinate clauses. It does not have a lot of characters, only three in fact. It in fact is a pleasure to read and the plot action is easy to follow.
The central figure of The Aspern Papers, we never learn his name, is a literary biographer and collector and seller of memorabilia of famous writers. He has heard a rumor that a very elderly lady living in Venice, Juliana Bordereau, was at one time the lover of a deceased now famous American poet, Jeffrey Aspern. (Aspern is creation of James.) He finds out the elderly lady lives in genteel poverty in a very large house in Venice. He quickly discerns that they are barely surviving on an annuity and offers to pay an above market amount to rent a room in her house. Living with Mrs Bordereau is her niece Miss Titus. They are Americans. Both have been out of the country so long they do not feel any more like Americans but for sure they are not Italians. The city of Venice so lovingly described that we long to be there and feel strongly the beauty of the background of this story. The narrator wants the papers he thinks the elderly lady so much that he begins to court the niece with compliments and gifts. The niece herself is far from a young woman. No ages are given but I see the Mrs Bordereau in her 80s or so and the niece late 40s. The narrator wants the documents so bad that he sneaks into room of Mrs Borderau and is caught by her as he is going through her possession in search of the documents. Just a few days after this incident she dies and the narrator feels the shock of catching him may have been the cause. The niece, in a question of the player playing the player, suggests she might give the documents to the narrator if he marries her, something he has no interest in doing. We are shocked when we find out what has really happened to the papers.
Part of the theme of The Aspern Papers is a simple attack on literary biographers (sort of the equivalent to writers for scandal magazines now). It also deals with the very common theme in James of the American living in Europe. It is also about loneliness and lost love and a beautiful city. It is also about relationships between men and women that never advance beyond the "starting gate". It is about the relationship of an artist to his life. I have to say also it is fun to read. It is a fine example of late 19th century fiction and will well repay the time it takes to read it.
I am reading this for The 2010 Reading Themes Challenge. This is a very interesting challenge in that you are ask to "pick your own theme". I picked as my theme "Flaubert and Friends". While in Paris Henry James socialized and dine with Gustave Flaubert and his good friend Ivan Turgenev and others in Flaubert's circle.
Henry James was the brother of the philosopher Williams James. So far I have posted on Indiana by George Sand, a brilliant book on women's rights (among other things) and Pierre et James Guy De Maupassant (James called it a masterpiece) for this theme.