A Review of: Author, Author and The Master

CENTRAL QUESTION: How did Henry James weather the treacherous years?

A Review of: Author, Author and The Master

Jeff Alexander
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Near the end of his new novel about Henry James, Author, Author, David Lodge imagines visiting the writer’s deathbed and assuring him of his celebrated place in the literary future:

How pleasing to tell him that after a few decades of relative obscurity he would become an established classic… that all of his major works and most of his minor ones would be constantly in print, scrupulously edited, annotated, and studied in schools, colleges and universities around the world.… And what fun to tell him that millions of people all over the world would encounter his stories in theatrical and cinematic and television adaptations…

Perhaps Lodge feels the need to reassure James because Author, Author focuses not on James’s early or late triumphs, but on a period of crisis in his life—“the treacherous years,” as James’s indispensable biographer Leon Edel called them—when, facing dwindling sales and confidence, the novelist attempted to conquer the lucrative and glamorous London stage in the early 1890s. During this time James abandoned novels and diverted his energies to the unfamiliar and frustrating enterprise of collaborative art. This vocational switch would prove disastrous, resulting in one of the most well-known scenes of humiliation in literary history (and the climactic moment of this novel) when James was booed during the curtain call at the ill-fated premiere of his play Guy Domville in 1895.

Like James’s own work, Author, Author is difficult to summarize. James’s biography does not provide sensational novelistic material. His life revolved around his writing desk, behind which he spent so much time that when we meet him in Author, Author he is suffering from a bad back, the gout, and a progressing case of what we now call carpal tunnel syndrome. The “action” of Author, Author, then, takes on Jamesian characteristics—interior, psychological, subtle—built around pedestrian events: James works on revisions of his plays, goes on walks with his friends, visits his ailing sister, Alice, entertains guests. Lodge makes these small moments engaging, giving James a humanity and warmth that can be harder to find in James’s own sinuous, formal, demanding prose. All the while the anxieties and preoccupations of the writer—aesthetics, creative inspiration, book sales, gossip, and reputation—are never far from the surface.

It is difficult to imagine a writer of James’s distinction as insecure, but the dwindling of his literary importance was real and it haunted James in the late 1880s, which saw the failure of his mammoth Princess Casamassima and waning enthusiasm for his stories and magazine pieces.The successes of The Portrait of a Lady and Daisy Miller were long behind him. In the novel, his anxiety is not relieved by his friendship with George du Maurier, the Anglo-French illustrator for the English satirical magazine Punch, whose second attempt at novel-writing, Trilby, becomes an international sensation in 1894, on the eve of James’s theatrical failure. Lodge is clearly fond of both James and du Maurier, and their relationship, the heart of the book, is treated with a great deal of charm and tender irony. James politely keeps his reservations about Trilby’s artistic merits and modish Continental decadence to himself, even as he sees it attain wild popularity in England and, inexplicably, in the prudish United States. The joke, of course, is that Trilby is now largely forgotten (though the “Trilby hat” and its villain, the sinister mesmerist Svengali, linger on in the English language), while every high-school student in America has read—or at least been assigned to read—James’s minor work, The Turn of the Screw.

James devotes himself to playwriting with the same intensity he’d applied to his novels and stories, and we glimpse the lonely writer at work. Middle-aged, a bachelor who has chosen art over conventional happiness, his mind turns to all that he’s renounced. Like Edel, Lodge sees James’s self-abnegation, and his obsessive interest in privacy, as keys to his character. These traits are dramatized through his relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolson, an American expatriate writer (and relative of James Fenimore Cooper) with whom James had a long and intimate friendship. How intimate is difficult to say exactly, since James bound her to a mutual promise to burn all their correspondence, which they largely succeeded in doing. When Woolson, suffering from depression, threw herself from a balcony in Venice in 1894, James traveled from England to help her family settle her affairs, and, it becomes clear, to make sure any existing letters from him were destroyed. In Lodge’s novel, James discovers a note for a story in her papers: “Imagine a man born without a heart. He is good, at least not cruel; not debauched, well-conducted, but he has no heart.” Is he the subject? Did he miss her cries for help and contribute to her death? Did an obsession with writing “dry up one’s heart”?

It is no accident that self-denial is the theme of Guy Domville, the last of the several plays James completed during this period, and into which he placed his hopes for reviving his relevance. In it the title character ultimately decides, with prim nobility, to forego marriage to a sympathetic character who loves him so that he may enter the priesthood.The play might have had a long run in Vatican City, but on the London stage of the late nineteenth century, then clamoring over the wit and shallow pleasure of Oscar Wilde’s comedies ( James, in fact, too nervous to see his own premiere, attended a showing of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband that night), was not ready for Domville. Domville so upset the audience in the cheap seats (James’s friends, members of London society, and a young critic named George Bernard Shaw praised the show) that when the play’s lead intoned its final lines, “I am the last of the Domvilles,” a man in the by-then raucous gallery was heard to shout: “It’s a bloody good thing y’are!” James, who had just rushed in from Wilde’s play to catch the curtain calls, was bewildered by a chorus of boos.

To Lodge’s list of recent Jamesiana could be added, along with his own book, Colm Tóibín’s lyrical novel The Master. It is remarkable enough that two novels would have James as their subject, let alone that they would be published in the same year, be set in roughly the same period, and contain overlapping scenes, including the premiere of Guy Domville and a comic and poignant moment in a Venetian lagoon. But since both novels are by accomplished and distinctive writers, each is a pleasure, and reading them back-to-back provides a telling contrast in tone and emphasis.

Tóibín’s James is more melancholy and tortured than Lodge’s, largely because The Master lacks the gentle presence of du Maurier and Lodge’s lighter comic touch. It also charts a different emotional trajectory for James, beginning, rather than ending, with the humiliation of Guy Domville, then following James through his subsequent depression and the slow revival of his work as a novelist, leading to the late burst of creativity that produced, in the space of seven years, What Maisie Knew, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl.

Tóibín, perhaps, goes further in exploring the workings of James’s mind, his desires and fears, and he is clearly more interested in the mystery of James’s sexuality, the nature of which remains an enduring guessing game for more prurient-minded littérateurs. While Lodge’s James comes across as largely asexual, Tóibín’s is a tortured, closeted homosexual, and Tóibín creates a convincing and touching portrait of James’s repression and its effect on his life and work.

Would the intensely private James have been comforted to learn, if Lodge’s fantasy deathbed visit were to come true, that in addition to his commercial and critical resuscitation, his life had been the subject of these two novels? One suspects not. “There is no privacy,” he once remarked, advising that artists are “well-advised to cover their tracks.” Fortunately, in this respect at least, James did ultimately prove to be a failure.

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