David Lodge Escapes from Jamesean Irony

David Lodge must be sleeping better, eating with gusto, laughing louder at Jim Crace’s jokes, and generally looking, say, five years younger and ten pounds (is that a stone?) lighter these days. Why? He has escaped the worst fate for a writer known to modern literary kind, in a most extraordinary way. He was trapped in a real-life Henry James story and found his way out by writing a thoroughly entertaining and quite wicked novel, A Man of Parts, about James’s friend-turned-nemesis, H.G. Wells.

Poor Lodge’s days under the spell of the Master began when he decided to write his 2004 novel, Author, Author, the story of Henry James’s epic failure as a playwright, which coincided with the grand success of James’ friend George Du Maurier’s novel, Trilby. Though Lodge had never written a historical novel before, he felt “only the discourse of prose fiction would allow me to render the effect of the success of Trilby on James’s supersensitive consciousness, and even a cursory reading around the subject revealed a richness of detail and ramification of effects that would require the expansiveness of the novel form to encompass them.” This and other justifications would come after Lodge’s own epic failure with Author, Author in a incisive, insightful essay called, “The Year of Henry James;, or, Timing is All: The Story of a Novel” (contained in The Year of Henry James, 2006).

The short version of Lodge’s Year is that Author is trounced in sales, reviews, and ultimately prizes by two other books on Henry James, Colm Tóibín’s The Master and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (both of which are superior novels). Tóibín especially is much better at recreating what James’s inner life might have been like, while Lodge’s James never quite makes it off the page. He is wry but not real; intelligent but devoid of the complex emotional life James must have had.

Nevertheless with all three men simultaneously hawking their works Lodge cannot help but feel he has been a victim of James’s curse to “frustrate the postmortem exploiter as much as possible.” Lodge writes:

No, I do not feel I have been cursed, but rather that by daring to write imaginatively about Henry James I entered a zone of narrative irony such as he himself loved to create especially in his wonderful stories (which are among my favorite works of fiction) about writers and the literary profession: ‘The Lesson of the Master,’ ‘The Death of the Lion,’ ‘The Figure in the Carpet,’ ‘The Middle Years,’ ‘The Next Time,’ and several others. I became — [we] all became — characters in a Jamesean plot.

So how does Lodge write his way out of this plot? He returns to original form and leaves the historical novel with 2008’s academic satire Deaf Sentence. Academic satire is Lodge’s forté: perhaps the greatest moment in Lodge is the depiction in Changing Places of a game called Humiliation where his pompous professors go around a dinner party and admit to the most famous book they have never read (the winner who cops to Hamlet is summarily fired). Yet Lodge obviously now has a jones for biographical fiction, for he has tried again, this time with H.G. Wells, a much more fleshy, passionate, and engaging character than the famously celibate James.

A Man of Parts is the book about Henry James Lodge could not quite write the first time around. James is all over Man: unsurprising, as the two authors were contemporaries, neighbors in the English countryside, and for most of their careers, friends (or at least on friendly terms). Because their friendship was conducted mostly in correspondence Lodge has excellent material to draw on throughout the book, especially in James’s alternately too lavish and backhanded praise of Wells’s books. As James wrote Wells after reading The Time Machine, “I re-write you, much, as I read — which is the highest tribute my damned impertinence can pay an author.” Lodge comments that it “pleased Wells to have this intimate connection with the most distinguished, if not the most popular, exponent of the novel as a form in the English language.” Wells, from a working-class background, was a striver, and his “intimate connection” to James in Parts was a source of pride, a mark of his having penetrated the most literary of circles in England.

Yet as Wells became more of a scandalous figure in those circles for a series of affairs with much younger women, including journalist Rebecca West, James’s revulsion with Wells’s attitude toward sex as a recreational sport irrevocably strained the friendship between the men. Lodge cleverly uses James as a sparring subject between Wells and the young Miss West, who condemned his Portrait of a Lady, arguing that the heroine might have thought her choice of a husband, “would be a very cold fish in bed.” Wells and West are not just discussing literature for long: their affair results in her getting pregnant. Wells’s wife, a preternaturally patient woman, understands, but his friends are less forgiving (this was the second time a mistress had his child).

Most condemning, in Wells’ mind, was James’s piece about “The Younger Generation” of novelists in the TLS in which Wells and Arnold Bennet came in for “severe reprimand. They were held up as the most successful of contemporary English novelists, but by the same token the worst, because they set the others such a bad example — sacrificing beauty of form, intensity of effect, all of the qualities that made the novel an art, to ‘value by saturation.’” Of Wells in particular James wrote,

The more he knows and knows, or at any rate learns and learns — the more, in other words, he establishes his saturation — the greater is our impression of his holding it good enough for us such as we are, that he shall but turn out his mind and its contents upon us by any free familiar gesture as from a high window forever open (Mr Wells having as many windows as an agent who has bought up the lot of the most eligible retail for a great procession).

This touched Wells where he lived — his class-consciousness, his tendency toward high living and passion for self-education, his commercial success. The days of overly polite letters were over. Wells was not going to be part of any Jamesean plots.

Lodge builds up to this wonderfully, and Wells’s revenge was the infamous Boon, Wells’s fantasy about a dead author who followed all of the Edwardian rules on the surface yet had a seething, steamy inner life, revealed only when his posthumous memoirs were published. Wells fought back hard and a little dirty. This time, the Master, mentioned by name and parodied mercilessly, was the target:

Bare verbs he rarely tolerates. He splits his infinitives and fills them up with adverbial stuffing. He presses the passing colloquialism into his service. His vast paragraphs sweat and struggle. And all for tales of nothingness…It is leviathan retrieving pebbles. It is a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, upon picking up a pea which has got into a corner of his den. Most things, it insists, are beyond it, but it can, at any rate, modestly, and with an artistic singleness of mind, pick up that pea.

Wells debated whether to publish Boon at all. When he did, it made him an outcast among his peers. James died within months of its publication, adding injury to Wells’s insult. There was no time for James to acknowledge Wells’s apology. This time, the pea was left in the corner, and the hippopotamus just stood in the center of the room, staring at it.

Thus Boon wasn’t the best solution to the Henry James problem. It was a sledgehammer used where a mallet would have sufficed. Lodge has solved his much more elegantly. By writing about James in the life of Wells, he has freed himself from the yoke of Jamesean irony he was under after Author. The James he portrays in A Man of Parts is an actual character, while the protagonist of Author was an idea made of prose.