352 pages. Viking Books, 2004 (US edition). $25
389 pages. Sacker and Warburg, 2004 (UK edition). £17
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This literary year has seen two major novels, by authors from England and Ireland, examining Henry James and parts of his later life. The first (Colm Toibin’s The Master, which I found to be little more than a literary fart), has, as of this writing, been shortlisted for the Booker prize.
The second, David Lodge’s Author, Author, deserves much greater attention, but since Lodge’s goal was to write a novel, not a pamphlet proving Henry James’ homosexuality, it has not gotten the same amount of exposure, and, alas, does not seem to be in the running for any major prizes. What a shame! Of the two books, Lodge’s is the better book in every aspect. Author, Author begins at the end, as Henry James is near his death, before heading backwards to examine part of the Master’s life. In Lodge’s hands, Henry becomes a real person, with real concerns, and through his friendship with George du Maurier (author of Trilby), his experience in the theater, and his return to fiction after five years of attempting to make a success of himself on the stage.
But this book is much more than a fictionalized account of part of Henry James’ life. Lodge is clearly a fan of Henry James’ work, and the book ends up as a homage to it, almost a love letter to James (in the platonic manner). Lodge creates a believable character in his novel, unlike Toibin whose James acts like a portemanteau on which the author has merely hung his ideas.
Only in the final pages, when Lodge slips out of the narrative and becomes a Thackerian observer, does one realize exactly why Lodge seems to have written this book. As the author talks about the Master, he praises him, summing up his life and legacy, and, at the end, points out that while Henry James did not perhaps achieve the fame and fortune that he had tried to amass during his lifetime, he certainly has in the decades since his death.
As an unconditional fan of Henry James, I was delighted by this book. The characterization is realistic, the story itself, though familiar, is depicted with subtlety, and, in the end, the entire point of the novel – to praise Henry James and thank him for his great work – is eminently satisfying. Perhaps those less familiar with, or not interested in, James will find this disturbing, but Lodge paints this story with such grace and sympathy that one cannot but shed a tear at the end when Henry James dies. “So it has come at last,” he said, “the distinguished thing.”