Jeremy Northam reads The Aspern Papers

25 Aug

‘…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.

Jeremy Northam

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.

by henrysmummy2003

18 Responses to “Jeremy Northam reads The Aspern Papers”

  1. Joan aka HazelP September 1, 2010 at 6:58 pm #

    Listened to the sample….it was excellent…..so I went into the Silksounds site and bought the audio book!!!

  2. Gayle Cooley September 1, 2010 at 8:39 pm #

    That was absolutely delightful Gill! I had no idea that Jeremy had has so much input on the choices he reads for SilkSound.

    The insight offered by Francesca was a real treat, wonderful stuff!

  3. henrysmummy2003 September 1, 2010 at 8:44 pm #

    I’m glad you liked it. 🙂

  4. Janelle Dvorak September 1, 2010 at 9:17 pm #

    I’d recommend you start with James’ short fiction. His novels can be quite a handful. I was about to call him the “King of Convoluted Sentences”, and then I remembered James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. Too many claimants to that throne!

    • henrysmummy2003 September 1, 2010 at 9:36 pm #

      Thanks Janelle. 🙂
      That’s why it’s so amazing to hear Jeremy glide effortlessly through the sentences, he really is amazing. I think I only once heard him get very, very slightly lost in a sentence that probably went on for an hour or so! I’ve invested in a little pile of volumes of James’s short stories and I’ve listened to Jeremy’s other HJ audiobook for Silksound which is also wonderful. I’m a big RL Stevenson fan, and he and James were best buddies, so I’ve been meaning to get on with reading James for ages. I think I will start with the short stories as you suggest, and see how I go (and hope Jeremy will choose to record the longer and more difficult novels as audiobooks!!).

  5. Mary September 1, 2010 at 9:34 pm #

    Dear Gill, thanks for the recitation. Unfortunately, I can because of the English language the audio books by Jeremy Northam not all enjoy. But with Amazon germany is JN as a speaker very much praised. Who knows, maybe he’s just sitting on a new audiobook. We can surprise us let.

    • henrysmummy2003 September 1, 2010 at 9:38 pm #

      Thank you Mary. I believe that Silksound are hoping Jeremy will be able to record some more for them soon. I can’t wait! As for the language, the English in Henry James is difficult for English speakers too!

  6. LauraP September 1, 2010 at 11:06 pm #

    Great post, Gill!

    I find that Henry James is one of those writers who requires a great deal of concentration from his readers. It’s not always easy to set aside the block of time his works deserve. So I was delighted to hear that my favorite audiobook reader had recorded several James tales!

    What a great story about the inspiration for Aspern Papers! I had heard only that it was vaguely based on Byron and Clare Clairmont, but I had no idea of the extent of it. How cool!

    It’s terrific that you were able to speak Ms. Hunt about Jeremy’s involvement with SilkSoundbooks. It was certainly nice of her to give us such wonderful insight into his readings for them.

    As you know, I just started listening to AP myself. I highly recommend listening on headphones! As you mentioned, Jeremy’s tone is “confiding” and listening on headphones gives it quite an intimate feel — almost like having him whispering in your ear! 😉

    • henrysmummy2003 September 2, 2010 at 9:10 am #

      Ah yes Laura…whispering and at times, I’d almost say purring! Headphones for me all the way, definitely!
      I agree, finding a suitable block of time to do justice to a complex book just is not possible for many people. Me and AS Byatt often have that problem, and her books sit untouched for months with a bookmark halfway through the first chapter…or it could just be that, in my case, I’m too stupid and should read easier books!!
      Yes, Silksoundbooks seem to be a very nice bunch of people, and it was really very good of Francesca to talk to me, I’m very grateful. If you’d like to know more about how Silksoundbooks was founded, here’s a link: http://www.silksoundbooks.com/about-silksoundbooks.html

      • jules September 6, 2010 at 10:56 pm #

        Thanks, HM, a fascinating post – I knew nothing of the captain story.

        Also, I got a copy of Aspern Papers from the library and compared it to the audio version, and was surprised at how many changes there were even in the first few paragraphs (which is as far as I got with such a silly exercise – why bother to read!!), but your info about the two versions probably answer that question for me.

        I love these readings, and I’m sure it is the only way I would have ever got into Henry James!

        Lovely comments by Silksound editor, and lets keep our fingers crossed the company gets another book or two out of him…

        • henrysmummy2003 September 6, 2010 at 11:08 pm #

          Thanks Jules, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Yes, the copy I have of the book is the later text, and it is very different, even down to Miss Tita being Miss Tina. Evidently, her name was changed to make her seem smaller, but I prefer her original name, it suits the way Jeremy has her fluttering.
          Francesca tells me they hope to persuade Jeremy to read again for them soon, so fingers crossed! It’s lovely that, for Silksoundbooks, he is able to read the books that inspire and interest him personally, and I’m sure that we get a deeper interpretation of the text because of that. I wonder what he’ll read next…I’m holding out for some RLS!

  7. Amy Cockram June 9, 2011 at 8:50 pm #

    I’m a bit late in joining the comments in this thread, but I have only just got The Aspern Papers. I’m already a bit sad that I have about 40 minutes left, as I don’t really want it to end.
    This is another instance of The Intellectualizer striking again! I have never read any Henry James, but have meant to – I know some of his work superficially from TV and film adaptations, but have never discovered the original writing. Jeremy’s reading of Our Man in Havana made me want to read more Graham Greene, and this has made me want to read some Henry James – particularly as when in Venice we ate at the Pensione Wildner where, according to our guidebook, James wrote some of The Portrait of a Lady.
    I agree with Gill how well he does the female voice, which can be a pitfall for some male readers. Much as I love Christopher Lee’s voice, I never finished listening to his version of The Phantom of the Opera because his twee, arch chorus girls made me cringe too much.
    I also totally agree with Gill and Laura that this should be listened to with headphones. I eschewed our ipod dock in the kitchen for trailing headphone leads – which normally have me swearing when they get caught on drawer handles and wrenched out – to take full advantage of the intimacy of being taken into the narrator’s confidence. I had thought that my favourite audiobook read by Jeremy was Our Man in Havana – which gives him the chance to do a bravura performance of pathos, comedy and show off a variety of different accents – but, for me, the engaging intimacy of the reading might make this a joint favourite. When I next have a bad day and decide that I need a treat, I might get his other Henry James audiobook.

    • Gill Fraser Lee September 24, 2011 at 11:44 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Amy (and apologies for my tardiness in responding to it). Although I agree with you that Our Man in Havana is a wonderful audio performance, it’s this audiobook I find I return to most often. Perhaps I crave the intimacy of Jeremy’s confiding tone, I know I love James’s use of language, but I think it’s mostly that the story surprises me with another little insight, another slant of meaning is revealed, on each listening.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Jeremy Northam: Just Call Him the “Intellectualizer” « The Jer Blog, all about Jeremy Northam - September 11, 2010

    […] been waxing rhapsodic to me for a few weeks about Jeremy’s reading of Henry James’ work. Her recent post about it may have sent you dashing off to SilkSoundbooks for your own copy of Jeremy’s Aspern […]

  2. Jeremy Northam: Just Call Him the “Intellectualizer” « The Jer Blog, all about Jeremy Northam - September 11, 2010

    […] been waxing rhapsodic to me for a few weeks about Jeremy’s reading of Henry James’ work. Her recent post about it may have sent you dashing off to SilkSoundbooks for your own copy of Jeremy’s Aspern […]

  3. The Voice « The Jer Blog, all about Jeremy Northam - July 1, 2011

    […] I refer you to Gill’s excellent Jer Blog reviews of Down and Out in Paris and London, The Aspern Papers, Dark Matter and most recently Homage to Catalonia. Lane Woolwrap, 'Guy […]

  4. Happy 50th Birthday to Jeremy Northam! « The Jeremy Northam Blog - December 1, 2011

    […] Jeremy’s wonderful, intimate, witty reading of “The Aspern Papers,” by one of his own favorites, Henry James. I am completely in love with it. My absolute favorite […]

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