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October 08, 2004

Author, Author - David Lodge

Posted by David Womersley

Author, Author: A Novel
by David Lodge
Pp390. London: Secker & Warburg
Hardback, £16.99

Professor David Womersley will be providing regular book reviews for the Social Affairs Unit.

The most interesting moments in the careers of novelists are often moments in which they change direction. Towards the end of this humane and wise novel based around the events of the later literary career of Henry James, David Lodge imagines such a change of direction. James's bid for theatrical success and financial security has just ended in ignominy with the calamitous first night of Guy Domville, when the author was booed from the stage. As James began painfully to collect himself after this humiliation through introspection and reflection in what Lodge calls 'a slow convalescence of the spirit', pain and dejection gave birth to insight (p. 283):

Suppose one were to apply to prose narrative the method he had used in developing his ideas for plays, namely, the scenario – the detailed scene-by-scene summary of an imagined action? Then one would have a model, as it were, of the novel or tale in a virtual form; one could take the measure of its structure as a whole, assess its unity and symmetry, and make any necessary adjustments, before commencing the process of composition proper.

And then, he thought with gathering excitement, might not the dramatic principle itself, of presenting experience scenically – 'showing' rather than 'telling' the story, through the confrontation and interaction of the characters – might this not give prose fiction the kind of structural strength and elegance it so often lacked, while the narrative artist remained free to add the priceless resource, denied to the dramatist, of being able to reveal the secret workings of consciousness in all its dense and delicate detail?

The failure of Guy Domville becomes eventually the key which unlocks the method of James's late, and greatest, novels: The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl. For James, the theatrical experiment was in the end an education in the uses of adversity.

David Lodge's career has been marked by no such reverse as that which overtook James on the stage of St. James's Theatre in January 1895. Yet it too shows a change of direction, which Author, Author confirms and corroborates. Lodge's work as a novelist (and more than a novelist) is plentiful and various, it was with his satires of academic life that he achieved the wide readership and celebrity which James in his own lifetime failed to grasp. It was with Changing Places (1975) and Small World (1984) that the image of Lodge in the mind of the reading public received its sharpest and most durable form. Literary academia supplied him with abundant material for these good-natured, but also wickedly sharp, comedies of pretension and absurdity.

But with Nice Work (1988) Lodge began to bend a more sympathetic ear towards human sufferings and yearnings which had been given shorter shrift in the earlier fiction. This entailed not so much a change in method, such as, in the case of James, Lodge suggests arose from the failure of Guy Domville, but rather something akin to a change in key. The literary life, which had previously been the fertile seed-bed of satire and comedy, now brought forth more equivocal fruit with less exuberance. In Nice Work, Vic Wilcox's entanglement with the world of literature brings a genuine disruption into his life, and not an unambiguously happy one.

The central theme of Author, Author is the relation between suffering and literary art – both the sufferings to which art gives rise in those who pursue it, and the sufferings in others from which the pursuit of art distracts its followers. So a central, as well as profoundly moving, moment in this subtle novel comes at the end, in a piece of dialogue between two of James's servants, Minnie and his manservant, Burgess. Minnie is in love with Burgess, who has just been invalided back from the Western Front with a shrapnel wound which has permanently damaged his hearing. As it happens, Burgess does not return Minnie's love, but for the moment Minnie is not quite sure of this, and so with great bravery she resolves to state how she feels. Burgess gives her an opening when he remarks that in Flanders he was glad to be 'a bachelor, like Mr James', because as such he was spared the miseries of the 'lads with wives and sweethearts.' Minnie points out to him the consequences of his position (p. 372):

'But if everybody felt like you and him, the human race would come to an end,' says Minnie.

'Not much risk of that, I reckon,' says Burgess with a grin.

'I love you, Burgess,' says Minnie.

'This deafness of mine is a real curse,' he says. 'Apart from that, I consider myself a lucky man. I'd better do that knife again, Minnie, don’t you think?'

This is a beautiful and delicate moment in the novel, Jamesian in its scrupulous balance of sympathy and in the artistry which surrounds it. A balance of sympathy, because the novel's opening words have juxtaposed the situation of the dying Henry James and that in Flanders, where 'other men are dying more quickly, more painfully, more pitifully – young men, mostly, with their lives still before them, blank pages that will never be filled' (p. 3).

Burgess's deafness is a war-wound, and so it would be a harsh judgement which would overlook the significance of that circumstance in the plenitude of its sympathy with the courageous and hapless Minnie, who however in her own way here goes over the top and gets wounded as a result. And artistry, because this fragment of conversation between two servants gathers into itself a whole series of such deafnesses in the novel – James's deafness to the oblique overtures of his female friend and minor novelist, Constance Fenimore Woolson, who succumbs to depression and commits suicide by throwing herself from an upstairs room onto the cobblestones of Venice; the more terrible deafness perhaps of James to Burgess's account of the 'bloody shambles' which was the battle of Augers Ridge, to which the dying and perhaps gently delirious James responds with the standard valediction to a servant: 'Thank you, Burgess, that will be all' (p. 370).

The dreadful possibility the form of words of this reply holds in play – namely, that human pain and suffering is just a ministration to the novelist, as a servant might bring drink or food or perform some other necessary but menial office – is one which Lodge refuses both utterly to dismiss and wholeheartedly to reject. The Palace of Art is, as Lodge knows, ventilated by the sighs and watered by the tears, not just of those who build it, but also of those whom the builders neglect in the absorption of their task.

The bitter failures of James's career stand at the centre of this novel, but they are balanced by their double and opposite, the bitter success of James's friend, George du Maurier, whose meretricious novel Trilby becomes, as a dazed James is told by its publisher Clarence McIlvaine, possibly 'the best-selling novel ever' (p. 326). Instead of being elated by success, du Maurier was exhausted and dismayed by the conversion of his work into a phenomenon which, in the words of James himself (p. 337):

grew and grew till it became, at any rate for this particular victim, a fountain of gloom and a portent of woe; it darkened all his sky with a hugeness of vulgarity. It became a mere immensity of sound, the senseless hum of a million newspapers and the irresponsible chatter of ten millions of gossips. The pleasant sense of having done well was deprived of all sweetness, all privacy, all sanctity.
Whether you are driven down the path of failure or of success, the literary life, it seems, is a vale of tears.

To all of which, of course, the toughs who disrupted the first night of Guy Domville might respond with a raucous but not ridiculous cry of 'Come orf it!' The claims of everyday life are not something Lodge dismisses. They are acknowledged when Burgess tells James about Augers Ridge, or, in a lighter vein, when James orders 'an eponymous meal' from the uncomprehending waiter at the 'Cod and Lobster' inn, or in the twice-remembered reproach which Flaubert's mother directed at her son, namely that his mania for sentences had dried up his heart. The gap between life and art is one through which it can be fatal to fall, as Constance Fenimore Woolson shows. To attempt to cross and live beyond it is, in consequence, a perilous passage.

So what then is the allure of art? Lodge takes seriously the Jamesian view that the expansion of consciousness is a good in itself, and the novel ends with an account of James's essay entitled 'Is There Life After Death?', in which James imagines an after-life of vastly-enlarged consciousness: 'who shall say over what fields of experience, past and current, and what immensities of perception and yearning, it shall not spread its wings?' This truly is a consoling fiction – that death may be the cure for that deafness to others which truly is, as Burgess says, 'a curse'. But it is a fiction which Lodge's sensitive re-balancing of the claims of satire and sentiment in Author, Author makes it worthwhile to entertain.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford.

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