Thursday, January 26, 2006
For much of the first third of Author, Author! I was a disgruntled fan of Henry James, restless and displeased with what Mr. Lodge had perpetrated using one of my heroes as main character. How could this petty, narrow-minded fusspot-- concerned mostly with his finances even as his sister was dying--bear the tremendously fine consciousness behind The Ambassadors? How could this abysmally selfish and self-centered ass be responsible for The Portrait of a Lady? I found the initial chapter, focusing on James's deathbed delirium, to be touching and finely wrought, but the following chapters were more akin to a Twayne's Authors Series encyclopedia entry: Henry did this, Henry thought this, Henry worried that, Henry wrote a story based on what Constance Fenimore Cooper or George Du Maurier said that day...
Inevitably internal comparisons arose with Colm Toibin's more substantial, more subtle The Master, and these comparisons were not to David Lodge's benefit. I was drawn more to Toibin's interpretation of James, as it mirrored my own. Lodge's James seemed more standard, more in keeping with the view of those un-initiated into the greatness of the Late Phase masterworks.
But as I progressed through Author, Author! I came to appreciate its structure, and Lodge's James changed significantly through the work, the way an actual character in a rich novel should. Where Toibin focused on James's final years and his reminiscences going backwards after the achievement of his highest art, Lodge presents James struggling after initial great success to find his aesthetic; of course James's theatrical misadventure takes center stage (ugh), and Lodge's portrayal of that spectacular failure is crushing. While less gifted friends like Constance Fenimore Cooper and Du Maurier have enormous successes with novels, James has a string of commercial duds, and finds himself unable to sell stories to The Atlantic. Lodge presents Henry as tortured and puzzled by the enormous hit Trilby, and his internal conflict between happiness at his dear friend's success and condemnation of the public taste which appreciates it is handled deftly by Lodge. Only after Alice's death, and Constance's suicide, and the ugly reception of Guy Domville can James develop his later mastery, his exquisite sensitivity, his refinements of form and structure.
Yes, I still think the Toibin novel more significant and refined, but Lodge's is a worthy counterpart. I enjoyed them both. I've yet to read more of either author, and hope to rectify that.