Henry James’s “The Aspern Papers” on Zoom – a dynamic and provocative hit!

In the Preface to the New York edition of The Aspern PapersHenry James wrote, “The historian, essentially, wants more documents than he can really use; the dramatist only wants more liberties than he can really take.” So the tension between author and the character he has created: the unnamed scholar craves original documents, violating the privacy of those around him; yet novelist James based his work perhaps a little too closely on a real event, as James did for The Aspern Papers. How much privacy are even the famous entitled to?

Those were some of the issues discussed during our hour-and-a-half Another Look discussion, which included audience questions, on Monday, August 24. Panelists included Tobias Wolff, Robert Pogue Harrison, Elena Danielson, and Cynthia Haven.

Our wide-ranging conversation considered privacy in the cyberworld, the role of letters in the Jamesian world, the ruthlessness of scholarly acquisitiveness, and much more.

An astonishing 457 people registered for our first-ever Zoom event, featuring James’s 1888 classic. Not everyone could make it, but we sure were glad to see so many of you join us! Altogether, you would have made for a very, very crowded room at Encina Hall’s Bechtel Conference Room, our usual venue – and we were grateful that the virtual world had room for you all.

You meant to come but didn’t? You attended, but you want a chance to see it again? Here’s your chance: go here. That’s right, we’re live. Said translator Diana Seneschal, writing from Hungary: “I watched it this afternoon. It was wonderful. I loved the discussion of privacy, hero-worship, letter-writing, telegraphs, archives, Venice vs. Florence, the narrator’s hypocrisy, his failure at the end, the ‘fourth wall,’ the question of why James didn’t include Aspern’s poems, and more.”

We also received a thoughtful email from literary scholar Elizabeth Conquest, a former Another Look panelist. She speaks with authority: she is currently editing the Selected Letters of her husband, the Stanford poet and historian Robert Conquest:

At which point, exactly, does a deceased author become public property? During their lives libel laws provide some protection to authors, but once dead unscrupulous editors can libel them and invent stories without penalty. Such editors also fail to ask permission from an author’s estate when they publish private letters. As a result many authors go to great lengths to protect themselves from critical vultures who, like the novella’s editor, often hover over the literary remains of the famous dead or dying, waiting for the moment to dive down to a repast that will feed their professional ambitions and fill their scholarly bellies. As she catches the editor rifling through her desk, Juliana’s exclamation “Ah you publishing scoundrel!” issues a magnificent plea for the private life, and a rebuke to the unconscionable demand of such editors: “Let us pry.”

But pry they do. In the penultimate stanza of his poem “At the Grave of Henry James”, W.H. Auden touches on what authors can expect after their deaths:

All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and for all writers living or dead;
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives. . .

It seems to me that The Aspern Papers reflects James’s own preoccupation with the posthumous power of letters in the revision of reputations. For the 1908 New York Edition of The Novels and Tales of Henry James, in addition to writing a new Preface to the novella, and pairing it with three other new companion tales (each a story of someone’s deception and the harm it causes), James made significant revisions to the original text, snipping out or inserting short phrases or sentences and replacing many words with ones more connotatively loaded. These make even more obvious than before that the story is not primarily about the ‘visitable past’ but about the narrator, his manipulations and morality (or lack thereof), and his loss. A year later James began to deal with the whole issue of what would happen to his private and professional life after he was dead and could no longer control the public’s study of it (or the publishing world’s access to it), re-enacting the narrative of The Aspern Papers by burning in his own backyard many of his own manuscripts along with letters from family and friends, while requesting in turn that his correspondents do him the favor of destroying his letters “to protect his privacy.”

Meanwhile, stay tuned for any future plans we may have. If you’re not on our mailing list already, please join on the link on the horizontal bar at the top of the page. We’ll keep you posted.

And again, here’s the link: https://bit.ly/2QEbt95

Join us on August 24 for a virtual discussion of Henry James’s “The Aspern Papers”!

The setting of “The Aspern Papers” is Venice. Francesco Guardi’s “The Grand Canal,” circa 1760

The future of Another Look is still uncertain, but we nevertheless have a late summer surprise for you: a special Zoom event!

Our August 24 event

Thanks to a first-ever collaboration with the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute (DCI), we will be hosting a special Zoom discussion of Henry James’s short 1888 classic, The Aspern Papers. The event will take place at 3-4:30 p.m. on Monday, August 24. (The earlier-than-usual hour is planned to welcome Another Look fans in other time zones.) The discussion will also be recorded and posted afterwards. Like all our events, it’s free and open to the public.

The panelists

Henry James in 1905

Tobias Wolff and Robert Harrison will lead the discussion. Acclaimed author Robert Harrison, professor of French and Italian, writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. Novelist Tobias Wolff, a Stanford professor emeritus of English, is the recipient of the National Medal of Arts.

On The Aspern Papers

The Aspern Papers was inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley’s correspondence with Claire Clairmont, the stepsister of his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein. (Shelley’s novel was featured in our January 2017 event.) Clairmont cherished the letters until her death.

In James’s The Aspern Papers, an elderly invalid who once was the beloved of a renowned American poet Jeffrey Aspern lives in seclusion with her spinster niece in a Venetian palazzo. The unnamed narrator goes through elaborate machinations to gain access to her private papers and literary relics from the long-ago romance.
There are many editions of The Aspern Papers available online and in print.

Your Zoom invitation

The event is free, as all our events are. However, we ask that you click here to reserve a spot at the event

CANCELLED: William Kennedy’s “Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game” on April 7!

This event has been CANCELLED for April 7, due to concerns about COVID-19 . Please check this website for further updates.

Please join us at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 7, at Encina Hall’s Bechtel Conference Center for the “Another Look” book club discussion of William Kennedy‘s Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, the Pulitzer prizewinning novelist’s 1978 novel about a pool hustler and poker player during the 1930s. Kennedy has been called the “Bard of Albany,” and this book belongs to Kennedy’s celebrated Albany sequence of novels.

The discussion will be lead by National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, with panelists Carol Edgarian, novelist and founding editor of Narrative Magazine; Alex Woloch, Stanford’s Richard W. Lyman Professor of the Humanities; and Vendela Vida, a novelist and an editor at The Believer magazine.

Many of you are aware that Stanford Environmental Health & Safety has cancelled or postponed some events because of the COVID-19 conditions. We’ll let you know should there be any changes to our plans.

Four panelists, a lively discussion, and a surprise guest for Hayes’s “My Face for the World to See”!

Our photographer (and loyal Another Look aficionado) David Schwartz preserves a terrific night on October 30 with four panelists for Alfred Hayes’s My Face for the World to See. We had another surprise guest that evening, the author’s daughter, Josephine Hayes Dean, flew out to join us for the evening. David took a photo of that, too. From left to right above: Another Look director Robert Harrison; the author’s daughter, Josephine Dean; novelist Terry Gamble; National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, and film critic David Thomson.

If you missed the stellar event, you can join us after-the-fact with the podcast here.

Panelists in discussion below:

Do the French take their literature seriously? The furor over “La Princesse de Clèves”!

Another Look turned its attention to an earlier century on May 1, with Madame de LaFayette’s landmark 1678 novella, The Princesse de Clèves. Another Look Director Robert Pogue Harrison led the panel, joined by Chloe Edmondson, a Stanford PhD candidate studying French literary and cultural history, and very special guest, Yale Prof. Pierre Saint-Amand, the author of The Pursuit of Laziness: An Idle Interpretation of the Enlightenment. Mostly the participants spoke off-the-cuff, but Edmondson’s remarks were an excellent introduction to this short and compelling work (and Another Look aficionado David Schwartz provided some photographic mementos of the event, as always):

“Many of you may be familiar with French classics like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, yet you may not have ever heard of Madame de Lafayette, not to mention the book she wrote in 1678. To the French though, it is as much of a national treasure and classic, as Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The book in fact had a huge resurgence of popularity in 2009 after President Sarkozy publicly disparaged the book.

He said, “Non”!

He was talking about the entrance exam for public sector workers and how it included questions about Lafayette’s work. He suggested it would be absurd to ask a metro ticket clerk what he or she thought about the Princesse de Clèves, that it was useless that candidates must have a knowledge of the Princesse de Clèves.  He added, too, that he “suffered greatly by the princess” in school.

These comments triggered a full-blown scandal, and the French people took to defending the work as a pillar of their national and cultural heritage, a work they felt should be read and appreciated by everyone, not mocked as irrelevant. University strikes that year gave rise to marathon public readings throughout the country of La Princesse de Clèves as a form of protest. Publishers saw sales of the book double within a year. Even a book fair in Paris that year sold, in mere hours, more than 2,000 pins that said “I read The Princess of Cleves” and “This year, the Princess will vote!”

Edmondson also retraced the history of the book for the audience:  “Born 18 March 1634 to a family of minor but wealthy nobility, Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, became a maid of honor to Queen Anne of Austria in 1651, which initiated her entrée into the world of high society. It is during this time that she first became a part of the literary world of 17th-century France, frequenting the salons of Madame de Rambouillet and Madame de Scudéry, as well as becoming friends with Madame de Sévigné.

But the people said, “Oui!”  Vive la France!

“She married François Motier, Comte de LaFayette in 1655, and with him had two sons. She lived with him in the countryside until her return to Paris in 1660, when she started her own literary salon, regularly receiving in her home some of the most important men of letters of her time, like the Duc de La Rochefoucauld who introduced her to the great playwright Racine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she starts to write as well.

“In 1678, La Princesse de Clèves was published anonymously, though it is quickly attributed to Lafayette. At the time of its publication, it was the source of literary scandal. It was a question of genre – people weren’t sure how to categorize what seemed to be a unique text, combining elements of two of the most popular genres at the time – the romance and the historical novella.

“Romances were generally set in a time and place distant from the author’s, with implausible heroic plots and fantastical events, whereas novellas – short novels – were generally set in recent history, with historical characters behaving according to social conventions. La Princesse de Clèves, set in the court of Henri II in the mid-16th century would seem to favor realism, but readers believed that the characters did not conform to the ways that people “really” would behave, because of what seemed to be exceptionally strange behavior of the heroine, such as the Princess’ confession to her husband of her feelings for another man.

“Today, one of the big scholarly debates surrounding the book also has to do with genre – namely whether or not it really did mark the birth of the modern novel. Regardless, I think we can appreciate that it holds qualities that will become characteristic of the types of books we consider novels, works that give readers access to the inner thoughts and emotions of the main characters over an extended period of time.

“Indeed, if we look at the history of the work’s reception, what no one seems to contest, even in the 17th century, is that it captured – to quote her contemporary critic Jean-Baptiste Valincour – the expression of “what happens in the depths of our hearts,” the “expression” of things that all have experienced.”


A lively discussion for Walter Tevis’s The Queen’s Gambit!

Walter Tevis is best known for his three novels that were turned into major films: The Hustler, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth. But on January 29, Stanford took another look at his overlooked masterpiece, The Queen’s Gambit. The lively discussion was headed by Another Look’s founding director, the eminent author Tobias Wolff. He was joined by Robert Pogue Harrison, a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, and former Stanford fellow Inga Pierson. Some considered it our best event ever!

Tevis was born in San Francisco and grew up in the Sunset District. While his parents relocated to Kentucky, he spent a year in the Stanford Children’s Convalescent Home (which later became Stanford’s Lucile Salter Packard Children’s Hospital). Hence, Another Look’s winter event will be a homecoming for the author, who died in 1984.

Photos below by Another Look aficionado David Schwartz.

Tonight! Another Look features Walter Tevis’s “The Queen’s Gambit”!

Local boy

Please join us for the Another Look book club discussion of Walter Tevis‘s Queen’s Gambit. The novel is about chess, and more particularly about Beth Harmon, a sullen and unremarkable orphan – until she plays her first game. By sixteen, she is playing chess at the U.S. Open Championship. The Queen’s Gambit follows the intense mental and existential pressures that a chess champion must endure in order to remain at the top of the game.

Tevis is best known for his three novels that were turned into major films: The Hustler, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Tevis was born in San Francisco and grew up in the Sunset District. While his parents relocated to Kentucky, he spent a year in the Stanford Children’s Convalescent Home (which later became Stanford’s Lucile Salter Packard Children’s Hospital). Hence, Another Look’s winter event will be a homecoming for the author, who died in 1984.

The event will take place at 7:30 p.m. TONIGHT, Tuesday, January 29, at the Bechtel Conference Center of Encina Hall. Panelists will include Stanford’s National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff; acclaimed author Robert Harrison, and former Stanford fellow Inga Pierson.