Questions and Topics for Discussion
Author, Author, David Lodge’s brilliant fictional portrait of Henry James, begins on James’s deathbed as the exhausted and disoriented author is about to be awarded Britain’s highest civilian honor, the Order of Merit. It is a moment of late triumph after a long career punctuated by many disappointments, the most devastating of which was James’s ill-fated attempt to “conquer” the English stage. That failure—and the competitiveness and desire for fame and money that led James to attempt it—becomes the central drama of Author, Author.
Reflecting on his books’ meager sales (the print run for The Aspern Papers was a mere 850 copies), James feels his ambition to be “the rightful successor” to Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot—writers who achieved both critical acclaim and wide popular audiences—slipping beyond his reach. He resolves to find success in the theater. “For all its vulgarity and aesthetic crudity, it was for an author the shortest road to fame and fortune—if, of course, one were successful. But why shouldn’t he succeed?” The novel offers an unflinching exploration of James’s failure and the reasons for it, and it is the sight of a great author shouted down by a vulgar audience that proves the most painful and poignant moment in the novel and, most likely, in James’s career. After submitting the beauty and subtlety of his writing to the practical demands of the stage, with its endless delays, maddening rounds of revisions, unreliable producers, and fickle audiences bred on farces and crude entertainments, James’s hopes for fame and fortune met with crushing disappointment. But he emerges from the fiasco chastened and determined both to overcome his envy of more successful writers, like his friend George du Maurier, and to rededicate himself to fiction.
Author, Author, however, is very much more than simply a re-creation of James’s failure in the theater. It gives us deeper sense of the man himself, the nature of his consciousness, the depth of his friendships and family life, and the passion and integrity of his creative process. James was famously protective of his private life, burning most of his letters and urging the American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, with whom he had a complicated and intimate relationship, to do the same. But David Lodge manages the remarkable feat of revealing James’s personal life without violating it and honoring the enduring success of James’s work while chronicling its failures during his lifetime.
ABOUT DAVID LODGE
David Lodge is the author of eleven novels and a novella, including Changing Places, Small World(shortlisted for the Booker Prize), Nice Work (also shortlisted for the Booker Prize), Paradise News, Therapy, and Thinks. . . . He is also the author of many works of literary criticism, including The Art of Fiction, The Practice of Writing, and Consciousness and the Novel: Connected Essays. He lives in Birmingham, England.
A CONVERSATION WITH DAVID LODGE
Henry James was clearly a writer who wanted to keep his personal life private. Did you feel any hesitation in writing a novel about him?
In spite of HJ’s efforts to frustrate would-be biographers by “destroying the evidence,” a great deal is known about his life. Most of his own letters to others have survived, and there are many memoirs of him. The main hesitation I felt was about making use of this enormous body of data without being overwhelmed by it. I always intended to write a sympathetic portrait of the writer, so I didn’t feel any qualms of conscience about posthumously invading his privacy by imagining what he thought and felt at various well-documented moments in his life.
Has James been a major influence on your own work?
I can think of several other writers who have had far greater influence, like James Joyce, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh, because I read them enthusiastically when I was young and impressionable. I didn’t really enjoy and appreciate James until I became an academic and started to teach him and write criticism about him. Then I developed an enormous admiration for his stylistic virtuosity and subtle handling of the “point of view” from which a story is told. Perhaps my interest in Anglo-American relations as subject matter for fiction was subliminally encouraged by his explorations of the international theme.
What are some of the problems inherent in writing a historical novel? How difficult is it to turn fact into fiction?
James himself disliked the historical novel as a form and maintained that a novelist could never recover the “old consciousness” of human beings in the past. But James’s age is not really very remote from ours. It is so well documented and so unchanged in many respects (most of the buildings that HJ lived in, for instance, are still standing, and some may be visited) that it is possible, after a certain amount of research, to re-create the world he knew with reasonable confidence. When I first thought of writing this novel I expected to invent a lot of events and characters, but as I got into it I decided that the known facts were quite interesting and dramatic enough, and the challenge was to do justice to them and organize them in a satisfying narrative structure.
How would you explain James’s failure to find a wide popular audience for his work during his lifetime?
Essentially he regarded the novel as a form of art, not of entertainment. In the late nineteenth century these two functions, which a writer like Dickens managed to combine, became incompatible. James was a pioneer of the modern, or “modernist,” novel-as-work-of-art, which is often obscure, ambiguous, light on plot, and heavy on symbolism and psychological analysis. The longer James went on writing, the more complex and innovative his work became, and the more difficult for ordinary readers—so they shunned him. What gained James a following after his death was the spread of higher education that trained people how to read and appreciate him and his successors in the same aesthetic tradition, like Joyce, Lawrence, Conrad, and Virginia Woolf.
Do you think James’s foray into the theater was a mistake?
Well, it was a mistake in practical, professional terms: He spent a huge amount of time writing plays most of which were never performed, made very little money from them, and was devastated by the humiliating failure of Guy Domville. However, there is a sense in which no experience is totally negative for a writer—however unpleasant, it can always be turned into something positive. The experience gave him insights into the emotions of disappointment, frustration, and failure; it also helped him develop the “scenic method” of his later fiction.
Do you feel closer to James, as a writer, now that you’ve written a novel about him? Has your relationship to his work changed because of the research you did for Author, Author?
I certainly feel I understand him much better as a human being as a result of steeping myself in the facts of his life, working out a calendar of key events in it, and trying to imagine how he felt and what he thought on various occasions. One of the things that attracted me to the subject was that I have had my own experience of starting to write for the theater (and also for TV and film) fairly late in my literary career and knew something about the seductions and the frustrations of this kind of work, so was able to empathize with James in this respect.
Could you elaborate on James’s declaration “Consciousness is my religion”? Why did James see consciousness as sacred? How did such a belief affect his writing?
Leon Edel in his great biography of Henry James refers to “the religion of consciousness,” putting the words inside quotation marks but without giving a specific source for them. I took the liberty of putting them into James’s mouth. “Consciousness” is certainly one of the key words of his criticism and ruminations about human nature. “Consciousness” to James was what “the soul” was in traditional theology: the ground of our being, the source of morality and identity, and the tenuous hope of a life after death.
How highly do you regard James’s plays?
I can’t say I have read any of them with a feeling that they ought to be performed or revived. They seem fatally trapped in a kind of dramaturgy that was already old-fashioned when James wrote them. The paradox is that his novels and tales have proved so well suited to dramatic adaptation and performance.
Do you think James made the right choice in remaining a bachelor all his life? Would his writing have suffered had he married?
My own judgment is that James’s sexuality was ambiguous to himself, and his libido rather low powered; that basically his sexual orientation was homosexual, but for moral and temperamental reasons he did not give it full physical expression and chose the life of a celibate bachelor. If these intuitions are correct, it would have been disastrous for him to marry.
How do you see Author, Author in relation to your other novels?
Generically, it’s a complete change of direction: a fact-based, historical novel about real people, ultimately elegiac in mood. All my other novels are fictional, or fictionalize certain experiences of my own life, and all deal with contemporary life, often comically or satirically. However, there is some continuity (there always is between an author’s books). Henry James is an invisible but important presence in my previous novel, Thinks. . . . The heroine Helen Reed is a novelist who wrote an unfinished thesis about Henry James and cites his work as a prime example of how literature gives a richer account of human consciousness than cognitive science. And I don’t actually think of my last few books as “comic novels.” They are serious novels that contain comedy—as is, I believe, Author, Author.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONSIn explaining why Henry James burned his letters, Theodora says: “He has an obsession about privacy. He hates the idea of people prying into his life after he is dead” (p. 363). How might James feel about the novel David Lodge has written about him?
What are the most surprising things one learns about James in the novel? Has reading Author, Author altered your perception of James or of his work? What links between life and work become clearer in Lodge’s portrait?
In his prefatory note, David Lodge writes that his novel “begins at the end of the story, or near the end, and then goes back to the beginning, and works its way to the middle, and then rejoins the end, which is where it begins.” Why has Lodge structured his book in this way? What is the emotional effect of beginning on James’s deathbed and then going back through his life to return to the deathbed at the end?
When James contemplates “conquering” the English stage, he imagines that “for all its vulgarity and aesthetic crudity, it was . . . the shortest road to fame and fortune—if, of course, one were successful. But why shouldn’t he succeed?” (p. 108). Why doesn’t he succeed? In what ways are his talents as a writer unsuited to the theater? In what ways are his motives for writing plays responsible for his failure? What does his experience in the theater teach him?
What do James’s friendships with Du Maurier and Fenimore reveal about his character, his emotional life, his competitiveness as a writer? What does he learn from these two people? Why does James resolve to make a “firm purpose of amendment” after Fenimore’s death? What effect does this new resolve have on the remainder of his life?
What does Author, Author reveal about James’s creative process? What connections between James’s life and work does the novel illuminate?
What portrait does the novel paint of the literary life in late-nineteenth-century London? What do the great popular successes of Wilde and Du Maurier, as well as James’s own failures, suggest about audiences of the time?
Why would James, a man who, as far as we know, was celibate his entire life and who scrupulously followed the rules of decorum and lived by a strict code of moral and aesthetic integrity, be so fearful of having his secrets revealed? Are his reasons primarily literary or personal?
After Fenimore’s death, James feels pangs of guilt when he finds a story idea in her notebook about “a man born without a heart. He is good, at least not cruel; not debauched, well-conducted; but he has no heart.” He recalls Flaubert’s mother’s chilling accusation: “Your mania for sentences has dried up your heart” (p. 211). Has James let his writing keep him from fully living? Has it “dried up his heart”? Should he have married Fenimore?
As James is drawing his final breaths, Lodge breaks into the narrative to ruminate on the failure of James’s work in his lifetime and its successes after his death. In the end, he writes, “You only contributed one word to the English language . . . but it’s one to be proud of: ÔJamesian'” (p. 376). What has the term “Jamesian” come to mean? What is the effect of Lodge’s addressing James directly in this passage? In what sense can Author, Author be seen as a work of tribute and affection to Henry James’s life and work?