David Lodge

"Author, Author"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage AUG 26, 2006)

Henry liked to keep his friends in watertight compartments, sometimes singly, sometimes in groups, so that information about himself should not leak from one to another. Writing fiction, however artful, was inevitably to some degree an exposure of the author’s own self, his own soul, and the fewer facts about one’s private life that one’s friends and the general public had in their possession, by the light of which to make comparisons and inferences, the better.

The novel Author, Author is an ambitious departure from David Lodge’s normal tales of academia, but the novel works, and it works quite brilliantly. Lodge explores the psyche of his subject- Henry James --a quiet, introspective man who had many acquaintances but only a few close friends, and he rarely placed any true confidences into the laps of even those he counted part of his innermost circle. He had a horror of the exposure of his private life, and also many conflicting feelings about those he was closest to--fellow writer, Constance Fenimore Woolson and dear friend George Du Maurier.

The novel begins in December 1915--a few months before James’s death, and then goes back to the 1880s. This was an extremely difficult period for Henry James. To date, his books were not selling, and while James had the ambition to be the century’s equivalent of Dickens or George Eliot, he was beginning to realize that this would not be achieved. For those of us who love the work of Henry James, the novel’s often intimate exposure of this brilliant author’s deepest insecurities is at once painful and tragic. Today, James finally has the reputation he longed for and deserved--but which so cruelly eluded him during his lifetime.

Author, Author is a glittering presentation of the literary talent and culture of the times. David Lodge drops the names of the famous, and the infamous of the fin-de-siecle period lavishly throughout the text--George Bernard Shaw is seen as a hard-working theatre critic: “I am incorruptible. And besides I need the money”--rubbing shoulders with H.G Wells--who’s just sold his first short story. Also scattered on these pages are glimpses of Alma-Tadema, Lord Leighton, Christina Rossetti, Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad, Edith Wharton, Stephen Crane, Dreyfus and the notorious Oscar Wilde.

James has reached a point in his life when he has begun to accept his relative “failure” as a novelist. The Tragic Muse just sold for the embarrassingly small sum of seventy pounds, the publisher of The Bostonians and Princess Casamassima lost money on the venture, and James has just received a rejection slip for a submitted short story. James realizes that it’s “not that it was getting more difficult for novelists to become rich--quite the contrary--but they were the wrong ones.” Rider Haggard’s novel She enjoys vastly superior sales to anything written by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Stevenson’s sales look positively healthy when compared to the anemic numbers sold of anything written by Henry James. His books remain out-of-the-mainstream, and while a few literary critics recognize James’s talent, his books are not popular and do not sell. With pressing financial concerns--plus a need to assuage his damaged ego, James turns to the stage--hoping to write a best-selling play. Ironically, his closest friend George Du Maurier, a popular cartoonist for Punch Magazine is rapidly losing his sight, and turns to literature as a means to feed his boisterous, talented family. The novel methodically and with an amazing amount of detail follows Henry James through his attempts to capture fame as a playwright. Devoting years to his goal, James suffers several humiliating and frustrating experiences before adapting The American to the stage. At the same time, Du Maurier produces a mediocre book, Peter Ibbetson before he writes the phenomenally successful Trilby. Lodge explores the ironies of Du Maurier’s and James’s parallel career shifts, as Du Maurier notes: “we are both old troupers now … compelled to learns new tricks and perform them wherever an audience can be found.” To James, the success of Trilby remains a puzzle--the secret of which he cannot analyze to his satisfaction, and he suffers from pangs of envy at his friend’s success. It is as if in unlocking the key to Du Maurier’s success, James believes he can duplicate it.

The novel follows James’s dogged determination to produce a successful play, and the final result--Guy Domville while exploring the problems of maintaining objectivity about one’s own work, and James’s intense identification with his play’s aesthetic hero. James’s lack of objectivity is in contrast to the astute observations of actress Elizabeth Robins--a professional who is a “great admirer of Henry as a novelist and as a critic” but has serious reservations about “whether he really had the dramatic gift.” She realizes that his plays “lacked something she could best describe as a real passion for the theatre as a medium of artistic expression. He was fascinated by it, but at the same time he despised it, and brought only his second-best ideas to it.”

Obviously James’s private thoughts, if never articulated, remain pure speculation, but in Lodge’s capable hands, it is a speculation that works. Fans of Lodge’s works will definitely be surprised by his change of pace in this novel, and some fans will necessarily be disappointed--after all this novel does not resemble Lodge’s entertaining, humorous pokes at the lives of privileged, often insensitive academics. Author, Author is an intense read, and it is an excellent one. The novel is laced with traces of ideas that led to later novels--The Spoils of Poynton, The Awkward Age, Wings of a Dove, The Golden Bowl and What Maisie Knew. Ultimately, Lodge portrays James’s attempts to write a successful play as the catalyst for insecurities that begin the terrible trend to constantly revise. On another level, the novel is also a testament to the Du Mauriers--a talented but ultimately tragic brood. For James fans, Author, Author is a feast. Lodge manages to successfully enter the mind of his subject and presents a sympathetic portrait of this difficult, elusive subject.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 14 reviews

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About the Author:

david lodgeDavid Lodge was born in South London in 1935. He is a graduate and Honorary Fellow of University College London, obtaining a BA in 1955 and an MA in 1959. He went on to obtain a PhD at the University of Birmingham and taught English there from 1960 until 1987, when he retired to become a full-time writer.

He has won several awards including the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1980 for How Far Can You Go? and his novels Small World and Nice Work shortlisted for the Booker Price. Therapy won the 1996 Commonwealth Writers Prize. Several of his novels have been adapted into television series, including Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

He retains the title of Honorary Professor of Modern English Literature at the University and continues to live in Birmingham.

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