‘…Mrs. Prest knew nothing about the papers, but she was interested in my curiosity, as she was always interested in the joys and sorrows of her friends. As we went, however, in her gondola, gliding there under the sociable hood with the bright Venetian picture framed on either side by the movable window, I could see that she was amused by my infatuation, the way my interest in the papers had become a fixed idea. “One would think you expected to find in them the answer to the riddle of the universe,” she said; and I denied the impeachment only by replying that if I had to choose between that precious solution and a bundle of Jeffrey Aspern’s letters I knew indeed which would appear to me the greater boon…’
From ‘The Aspern Papers’, Henry James
Whilst we wait to find out what project Jeremy Northam has chosen as his follow-up to Miami Medical, it has certainly not been a case of out of sight is out of mind for me! I have been busying myself with catching up on some of Jeremy’s work that I had saved up for just such a rainy day (or, as it has turned out, rainy few months!).
Henry James’s name has had a position near the top of my list of authors whose works I fully intend to read for some considerable time. I’m sure a great many of you have a similar list.
James was a prolific author and much of my failure to get reading is due to not knowing where to begin. So you can imagine how delighted (and relieved) I was when my favourite actor chose to read Henry James’s ‘The Aspern Papers‘ for Silksoundbooks; delighted because any performance by Jeremy is a treat to be relished, and relieved because I could at long last begin to discover Henry James, and in very safe hands.
In 1887, James heard an anecdote about a sea captain who was obsessed with the poet Shelley. On discovering that Claire Claremont (Byron’s mistress) was still alive, the captain had tried, by illicit means, to get hold of some letters belonging to Byron and Shelley which he suspected she might have. When Claire Claremont died, the captain then tried to persuade Claremont’s niece to deliver the letters to him, and was told that the price was marriage to her.
Thus inspired, later that year James wrote ‘The Aspern Papers‘, published in 1888 in three installments in the Atlantic Monthly, and shortly afterwards in book form by Macmillan and Co (as an aside, James later substantially revised the novella for the 1908 New York Edition, but the Silksoundbooks recording uses the original 1888 text).
‘The Aspern Papers’ is set in Venice, and tells the story of a publisher (our unnamed narrator) who suspects that the extremely aged and reclusive Juliana Bordereau, muse and mistress of the great, and long dead, poet Jeffrey Aspern, still has some of his private papers. Miss Bordereau and her spinster niece Miss Tita have not left their house in years and insist, by letter, that no such papers exist. However, the narrator procures rooms in their enormous home by paying far more than they are worth, and lies about his need to be there, in order to be near to ‘the papers’ that he strongly believes Miss Bordereau has. He declares that ‘he really would give almost anything to possess them’, and as the story progresses, we wonder just how far he will go, and who is deceiving whom.
He befriends timid Miss Tita, eventually taking her into his confidence, and hopes she will work in his interests. But is Miss Tita as naive as she seems and will the formidable Miss Bordereau give up her treasure? The suspense builds to a magnificent climax, but you’ll have to listen to find out if the unscrupulous narrator gets what he wants.
It’s an extremely engaging story on the page. James’s understanding of human nature, his fascination with the role of the artist and the concept of the line between the public and the private make it still resonate with a modern reader whilst evoking the atmosphere of the far distant past, and Venice’s decaying beauty, extremely vividly.
Not that it should surprise you, but Jeremy Northam’s reading of ‘The Aspern Papers’ is quite astonishingly good. To begin with, he has a voice that I could listen to forever, and in this audio performance his confiding tone suggests that you alone are the narrator’s intended audience. It’s quite thrilling!
James’s language is not without its complexities for the modern reader, and as his career progressed, his sentences became ever more labyrinthine as he experimented with ways of expressing his exact meaning. Here is one of the big advantages of listening to an excellent audio performance by an extremely talented actor used to interpreting complex language. Jeremy not only reads James fluently, but he accesses the meaning and interprets it for us in the same way as he does so expertly on stage and screen, and rather than struggling to understand, we need only experience the performance.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of this audio performance is that both tremulous Miss Tita and her spectral, ghastly aunt are utterly believable as female characters (Jeremy has a very recognisable, very masculine voice, yet you forget you are not listening to women’s voices when they speak). His building of the suspense and balancing of our sympathies and suspicions throughout his performance is masterful, and his obvious deep understanding of the work enables our deeper understanding.
Francesca Hunt, Literary Editor at Silksoundbooks, told me:
We had a superb time working with Jeremy, as I imagine most do. Part of the premise behind setting up Silksoundbooks was that many actors were not the movable props that some take them to be, and we worked closely with the readers to work out which works they wanted to read, whether they had any favourite authors or books, etc.
Jeremy was a classic case of a very clever man suggesting some superb choices. He read the Henry James beautifully, he would read a railway timetable pretty well, obviously, but the fact that he knew and loved James quite as well as he did added immeasurably to the recording and to the pleasure of preparing the piece.
It was such a good experience that we went on to record a second series of short stories with him all suggested by Jeremy himself. They’re listed on the Silksoundbooks website as ‘The Real Thing and Other Stories‘. They were a superb choice - he really knows his Henry James.
Jeremy became closely involved with Silksoundbooks, becoming a founder shareholder and providing much support and obviously the publicity we needed to get the site established.
He is a lovely and an intelligent man and it was a great pleasure working with him. I think anyone who appreciates Jeremy’s work will love his astonishing readings.
If you admire Jeremy’s work in Miami Medical and in his movies and have yet to experience his audio work, then you have a real treat in store.
You can listen to a sample of ‘The Aspern Papers‘ and download the audiobook from the Silksoundbooks website by following this link.
To listen to a sample and download Jeremy’s reading of ‘The Real Thing and Other Stories’, please follow this link.
I’d like to thank Francesca very much for talking to me, and I look forward to listening to more of Jeremy’s readings for Silksoundbooks.