Monday, October 31, 2005

Die all you can

David Lodge’s novel Author, Author, based on the life of Henry James, seemed to fall into the shadow of Colm Toibin’s The Master, which made the Booker shortlist and seduced readers, including me, with its elegance and perception. I enjoyed it so much that I assumed Lodge’s could not be as good. This assumption was strengthened by an extract which made it seem more like a biography with imagined dialogue. But I’ve just read the whole thing and it is as good as Toibin's, if not better. Certainly it is different. Lodge isn't so pruriently speculative about James' sexuality, preferring to respect its obscurity as something rarer: asexuality. And there isn’t any Jamesian pastiche.

What the novels do have in common is a focus on James’ disasterous theatre career. It’s painful to read the long run-up to the opening night of Guy Domville, following James from sleepless bed to grubby Reform Club toilet as his nerves take over. He goes to see a Wilde play as his own is performed elsewhere. He is disgusted at its smugness and appalled at its easy popularity. Wilde had the success James craved. All the time, we know what’s going to happen. But the pain of the long run-up is really the pleasure of reading.

The best part of Author, Author is Lodge’s recreation of James’ friendship with George du Maurier. I hadn’t heard of him. He was an illustrator for Punch magazine. He also wrote an autobiographical novel in the cruel and sentimental manner: characters as puppets on a string. It was a mild success. Then he wrote another based on a story he offered to James but who declined it. When I read the title Trilby, I thought of the hat. The book was a huge success. It gave us the character of Svengali. It gave us the phrase ‘in the altogether’. And it gave us the hat.

It also gave James the willies. His longing for commercial success, for its implicit recognition and its financial security, was being ridiculed. Here was an unserious, part-time author having it all and more for a potboiler! Lodge seems to think the situation has been redeemed somewhat with James’ posthumous fame. But nothing he has written has entered the language like du Maurier’s Trilby. And anyway, he is famous because of nostalgic movie adaptations. I found it disconcerting that I know all the words and phrases from Trilby without having heard of it. Will this be the fate of Harry Potter and similar book fads? Their creations might enter national consciousness yet the books themselves, being artless confections, shall be irrelevant, like the advertised objects left in filing cabinets of which Marshall McLuhan spoke. What does this tell us about popular literature and the real interests of those who valorise it?

Du Maurier was overwhelmed by the boom that his novel detonated. He died young. James retreated from commerce and moved to Lamb House in Rye to write his masterworks of human consciousness. The definitive New York Edition of his work made him $211. How does one cash-in consciousness?

1 comment:

  1. My favorite comment about Henry James was the one that Clover Adams made to her hubby, Henry: "Most people bite off more than they can chew. Henry [James] chews more than he bites off."

    I think she's on to something.



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