“Not that it was getting more difficult for novelists to become rich–quite the contrary–but they were the wrong ones.”
The novel Author, Author is an ambitious departure from David Lodge’s humourous tales of academia, but the novel works, and it works quite brilliantly. The novel begins in December 1915–a few months before Henry James’s death, and then goes back to the 1880s. This was an extremely difficult period for Henry James. 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.
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. 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. His closest friend George Du Maurier, a popular cartoonist for Punch Magazine is rapidly losing his sight, and ironically, 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 while doggedly pursuing his aim. Du Maurier eventually writes the phenomenally successful Trilby. 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.
Author, Author explores the problems of maintaining objectivity about one’s own work, and James’s often-intense identification with the themes he explored. James’s lack of objectivity is in contrast to the astute observations of actress Elizabeth Robins–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. 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.