Yeats wrote that artists must choose between “perfection of the life or of the work.” But is it really a choice that they make, and does one form of perfection necessarily exclude the other? There is something unpleasant in the idea that gifted artists make a selfless sacrifice by doing what they do best. One of the most enjoyable aspects of David Lodge’s imaginative reconstruction of Henry James’s middle years, Author, Author, is that it gives the lie to the notion that great writers are martyrs of the ivory tower, people who never bother themselves with base thoughts about things like money or their next meal.
James would have gladly lowered his standards temporarily to line his pockets by writing crowd-pleasing plays for London’s West End. The fact is that, despite his tremendous talent, he didn’t have a feel for popular entertainment or a gift for drama. Author, Author tells the story of how he learned that painful lesson, of how he was humiliated on the opening night of his play Guy Domville and how he returned to what he could do well—which was lucky for us. James didn’t choose perfection in his work over worldly success; the choice was made for him.
Lodge has been for many years both an academic and a novelist. In this account of James’s life, he keeps one foot in each of his professions. There are passages in Author, Author that could have been transcribed from a biography. Whereas this means the book is in some ways less impressive as a feat of imaginative writing than Colm Toíbín’s The Master, which deals with the same period in James’s life, it brings Author, Author its own special combination of pleasures.
Lodge’s book creates a stronger sense of character than most biographies, while the distance he keeps between his narrative and the consciousness of its protagonist allows for the inclusion of a wealth of entertaining background information. Lodge can indulge the reader with a tour of the period. We get potted biographies of James’s friends and relatives; enjoy asides on the nascent tourist industry engendered by the railways; and are dazzled by a host of cameos from the world of literature and art, whose introduction is often unnecessary to the development of the story, but a treat for anyone interested in the writing of the time.
Compared to many of the dry literary biographies that proliferate around writers of James’s stature, Author, Author is a succulent treat. It spares us endless accumulated detail in favor of evocative and informative anecdotes. The most famous of those is the story about James dumping the clothes of his dead friend Constance Fenimore Woolson in the Venice Lagoon. He was tortured by the thought that this valued confidante had killed herself because he rejected her. Her dresses are pictured—here and in Toíbín’s book—resisting his attempts to drown them and rising from the depths like James’s irrepressible guilt.
That story may be apocryphal. Still, a fiction can illustrate truth better than a fact, and the picture it paints captures James’s pain and commitment to solitude better than might a host of factual details that cumulatively describe his emotional withdrawal. And if the story is untrue, then there is a nice irony in the thought that the fiction stems from A Private Life of Henry James, a biography by Lyndall Gordon, and that it has been commandeered by novelists.
A great deal of the fun in Author, Author is to be found in the way it denies James the evasions and decorum that he used to conceal both his characters and their creator. In James’s late novel The Ambassadors, the hero Strethers is employed by a rich family whose wealth stems from the production of some banal household article. Neither James nor his hero can bring himself to say exactly what that product is, though there are reasons to believe that it might be something used in the bathroom. Such evasiveness is part of the charm of James’s novels. More significantly, his stories are often built on their characters’ inability to say what is most on their minds. But these circumlocutions also express a genuine horror of the mundane, and of what Yeats called the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
Lodge, in a very deliberate contrast to the writing of his subject, invites us to contemplate the author without such demurrals. We see James in the bath, his round stomach “a little pink island.” Lodge is quite insistent on the existence of James’s bowels, which complain audibly and refuse to work. He also depicts a James who is as constrained as he is enabled by his facility with the English language. This is a man who tortures himself for the right form of words when composing a telegram, who stutters and is tongue-tied when embarrassed. It is the man who Edith Wharton described when she recollected how James was unable to make himself understood when asking a Londoner for directions. According to Wharton, after James had stopped this pedestrian and delivered a long, rambling request for help with many parentheses and subordinate clauses, Wharton lost patience and insisted he just ask for the King’s Road. “Ah -? The King’s Road? Just so!” said James. “Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King’s road exactly is?” To which the old man James had accosted replied, “Ye’re in it!”
To anyone who has struggled with the less successful products of James’s later career, or with his unbearable Prefaces to the New York Editions of his novels, Lodge’s portrait of the author as a man occasionally baffled by the complexity of his own language is entirely convincing. Lodge understands a writer’s often strained relationship to his medium. What qualifies an author for one literary form can exclude him from other areas of endeavor.
Of all the ugly facts of life insisted on by Lodge, the most important is money. In this regard, the book tells us a less rarefied story than that of an author struggling towards the “high style” of his later years: it gives us the tale of a man learning not to envy his friend’s good fortune. While James contorts himself as he tries to squeeze his capacious mind into the narrow confines of the stage, his friend, the illustrator George Du Maurier, pens a runaway bestseller. Ironically, that book, Trilby, now only survives as an object of academic interest. (Incidentally, it is the source for two words that have entered the language—Svengali and the trilby hat.) But in the year of its publication, Trilby sold more copies than had the entire works of Henry James. The friendship between the two men survived James’s jealousy, and their relationship is touchingly recreated here with a degree of delicacy equal to Lodge’s impressive erudition. To some readers, this moral success of James’s will seem a greater triumph than the recherché elegance of his late work.
Lodge came to prominence in the 1960s writing novels of a type that became fashionable when England was still trying to emerge from the postwar doldrums of the ‘50s. They featured modern provincial settings, a simple elegance of style and down-to-earth sentiments. Given the type of writer that he is, it was natural for Lodge to find that behind the Master’s story is the more fascinating one of the man. Lodge has taken a gamble in writing about a historical figure, but he has approached his subject in a way typical of his previous books. Like James, he must write as he can. Thankfully, the result is that Henry James is rendered as a breathing—and, yes, belching and farting—human being, a character of striking and thought-provoking solidity.