A review of

Author, Author

by David Lodge

and

The Master

by Colm Tóibín

Central question: How did Henry James weather the treacherous years?
LODGE: Format: 352 pages, hardcover; Size: 6” x 9”; Print run: 21,000; Price: $24.95; Publisher: Viking Books; Editor: Paul Slovak; Representative sentence: “He knew of course about the mechanics of procreative intercourse, and from illustrated works of erotica—Lord Houghton’s collection at his country house had been particularly informative—he was acquainted with the variations and perversions which human ingenuity and depravity had added.”

TOÍBÍN: Format: 352 pages, hardcover; Size: 9.32” x 6.62”; Price: $25.00; Publisher: Scribner; Representative sentence: “He had failed, he realized, to take the measure of the great flat foot of the public, and now he had to face the melancholy fact that nothing he did would ever be popular or generally appreciated.”

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.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

Jeff Alexander is the author, with Tom Bissell, of Speak, Commentary. He lives in Brooklyn.

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