Swans Commentary » swans.com February 13, 2006  



David Lodge's Author, Author
Henry James in the Line of Fire


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



Lodge, David; Author, Author, Viking Books, October 2004 - ISBN 0-670-03349-9, 390 pages, $24.95 (hardcover)


(Swans - February 13, 2006)   The great irony in the life of Henry James is that a man who suppressed both his homosexual and heterosexual impulses, took refuge behind walls of privacy and propriety, disdained marriage and eschewed crowds, was able to experience and articulate all the subtleties and nuances that clustered beneath the panoply of Victorian society. James's ivory tower was his intellect and it remained largely unassailed for most of his life. His speech, like his writing, was a great web of constantly qualified subordinate clauses as looped, swirled, and shiny as bands of tinsel around a Christmas tree. Although well-traveled throughout Europe, this coddled son of a wealthy, intellectual New York family and unapologetic British expatriate was essentially a loner despite a hyperactive social life filled with patricians and illustrious fellow intellectuals. Given the number and variety of personal sensations he denied himself, it is something of a wonder that he was as penetrating about human psychology as he clearly was in some twenty-five pieces of matchless fiction.

Almost as imaginative as James himself is David Lodge, whose novel, Author, Author, subtly fictionalizes many of the known facts of James's life in order to give us a glimpse of the inner self which is excluded from much of his oeuvre, even in those autobiographical reminiscences where one would expect to find them.

I haven't read enough of Lodge's previous books to know whether the diction he employs in Author, Author is characteristic of the novelist or a deliberate attempt to reproduce the fastidious and restrained language we associate with James himself. Either way, its meticulous rhythms perfectly match the flights-of-fancy with which he shuttles his protagonist between London and Paris, Venice and Cheltenham, Florence and Rye.

What clearly emerges is that cultivated as he was in literature, James was a gormless tyro as far as theatre was concerned. After a deceptive success in Southport, a small provincial town near Mersyside, the play he adapted from his early novel The American received mixed-to-disparaging notices when it opened in London. James seems to have assumed that playwriting was simply a matter of assimilating the formulae which had worked for previous London successes; as if playwriting was a set of rules that could be learned by rote and then applied to whatever project was at hand. Although his provincial success wilted when the play came to London, the desire to increase his fortune by becoming a dramatist was well and truly implanted. Since his childhood he had been an inveterate theatergoer and, starting in the 1870s, right up to the turn of the century, he had written play reviews both for American and English publications, so playwriting seemed a logical gradation.

The pinnacle of Lodge's novel is a long, ingenious section of cross-cutting between James's first night of Guy Domville at the St. James theatre and the author's sneaking into Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband which had just begun its run at the Haymarket. James was too beset with opening-night nerves to go directly to his own première. The camera cuts between the delighted audience reaction to Wilde's epigrammatic wit and the turgid melodrama rapidly alienating the audience at Guy Domville. Finally, unable to bear the suspense, James leaves the Wilde play and wends his way back to his own theatre just in time for the curtain call. The cast appear sullen and non-communicative; the audience, obstreperous and restless, but the cries of author, author ring out and James is persuaded to step out of the wings for a curtain call only to become the victim of a vicious barrage of boos and catcalls which reduces him to smithereens.

Lodge's depiction of the fiasco, ostensibly instigated by rowdy gallery hecklers, is a heartrending image of just how humiliating public failure can be in the theatre. There is something like the air of a public execution about a play that an audience violently rejects, and it was utterly traumatic for James, a calamity he would remember to his dying day.

Gallery revolts happened a lot in British theatres in the l890s, when decorum was nothing like what it is today. Devastating as it must have been for an author who was expecting kudos and flowers, one gets a clearer picture of events from George Bernard Shaw who, in 1895, had just begun reviewing for The Saturday Review. "When," writes Shaw, "some unmannerly playgoer, untouched by either love or religion chooses to send a derisive howl from the gallery. . . . are we to sorrowfully admit, if you please, that Mr. James is no dramatist, on the general ground that 'the drama's laws the drama's patrons give.' Pray which of its patrons? -- the cultivated majority who, like myself and all the ablest of my colleagues applauded Mr. James on Saturday, or the handful of rowdies who brawled at him? It is the business of the dramatic critic to educate these dunces, not to echo them." In proceeding to evaluate the assets and liabilities of Guy Domville, George Bernard Shaw goes on to say:

First among the qualities, a rare charm of speech. Line after line comes with such a delicate turn and fall that I unhesitatingly challenge any of our popular dramatists to write a scene in verse with half the beauty of Mr. James's prose. I am not now speaking of the verbal fitness, which is a matter of careful workmanship merely. I am speaking of the delicate inflexions of feeling conveyed by the cadences of the line, inflexions and cadences which, after so long a course of the ordinary theatrical splashes and daubs of passion and emphasis, are as grateful to my ear as the music of Mozart's "Entführung Aus De Serail" would be after a year of "Ernani" and "Il Travatore."

Guy Domville, he concludes, "is a story, and not a mere situation hung out on a gallows of a plot. And it is a story of fine sentiment and delicate manners, with an entirely worthy and touching ending." But at the start of his review, Shaw quite aptly indicts the work for being irretrievably "old fashioned" which, unquestionably it was, and Shaw's own theatrical efforts soon to emerge, would dramatically illustrate just how jaded plays like James's had become.

The author, humiliated and embittered, forsook playwriting after that event, and his self-doubts, which had been gathering for some time, were brutally confirmed. To have gone on at all after such a rejection -- either as a writer or a human being -- was tantamount to rising from the dead. But it was 1895 and works like What Maisie Knew, Wings of the Dove, The Aspern Papers, and Turn Of The Screw had not yet been penned. There would be a splendid exoneration awaiting him but it would come only long after James was dead and buried.

A continuing subplot weaving through Author, Author is James's longstanding relationship with the cartoonist-cum-novelist George du Maurier. At its inception, James was the admired litterateur in the friendship with du Maurier constantly deferring to his intellectual superiority. But, encouraged by his friend, du Maurier turned to writing fiction and in 1894 churned out a gigantic best seller called Trilby that far outdistanced the works of Henry James, both in readership and profitability. It didn't sour the relationship between the two friends, but profoundly depressed the struggling James coming on the heels of his theatrical disaster with Guy Domville. This concurrence of triumph and defeat led the author into an agonizing reappraisal of his true standing as an artist: a failed playwright, an unread novelist, a man whose promise, though regularly tried, had never been fulfilled. Anyone who has ever pursued writing as a profession will empathize with the self-doubts that sunk the author during this, the lowest point of his life. If the reading public could go gaga over a lurid thriller about an artist's model (Trilby) transformed into a popular opera singer through the intercession of a malevolent Jewish hypnotist (Svengali), how could that same public also appreciate the subtle psychological explorations that he carefully chiseled into books like The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl? There was something almost perverse in the way that destiny crowned his good friend du Maurier with laurel wreaths while stripping James of every semblance of commercial success.

Loner that he was, there seems to have been one woman in Henry's life, yet his comfortable but guarded relationship with the authoress Constance Fenimore Woolson was never, as one what one might say, consummated. James seemed to be content with the intellectual stimulus provided by a gracious, mature, and undemanding female -- although there are several telltale signs that, had he positioned himself more intimately with her and she with him, a proper union of two kindred spirits might have emerged. But he was content with chat and she was too British and well-bred to make a first move. A relationship charged with subterranean emotions and squelched impulses that could have served as the basis for a typical Jamesian novella.

I believe only a writer with a novelist's sensibility like Lodge could have plumbed the depths of James's despair and articulated the inner turmoil that ground him down after his literary and theatrical defeats. Despite receiving a belated Order of Merit, when James died he was simply a literary curiosity to most people in England and America; an overly-refined, periodical serialist given to elaborate diction and circumlocutory sentence structure. ("Mr. Henry James," quipped Oscar Wilde, "writes fiction as if it were a painful duty.") But the secret of James's success as an artist is the same as that of his failure as a commercial novelist. He possessed a sensibility so rarefied and discriminating that it could not easily mesh with those of his fellow men. Had it been more commonplace, he would have enjoyed a greater measure of success during his lifetime, but the world would have been denied the luxury of that penetrating consciousness.

It doesn't necessarily follow that a reader feeling joined at the hip with a novel which he cannot put down signifies the onset of great literature, but I have to confess that Author, Author kept me mesmerized during the three rapt sessions during which, like a helpless alcoholic, I emptied it to the lees. But what is pertinent are the trains-of-thought a book starts up once the covers are closed and, in this case, dozens of railway cars filled with tantalizing cargo chugged out of the depot speeding towards far-flung destinations. When I finished the book, rather than wedge it onto a bookshelf, I felt as if I wanted to place it under glass.


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Lodge, David; Author, Author, Viking Books, October 2004 - ISBN 0-670-03349-9, 390 pages, $24.95 (hardcover)

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Published February 13, 2006