The spate of novels about Henry James seems odd even to Michiel Heyns, who wrote one of them. But to reclaim a principle of mastery, novelists seem willing to violate a lifeby Michiel Heyns / September 26, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
My agent forwards me another polite letter of rejection: “I am so sorry but timing is all – and there has just been a spate of fiction based on the life of Henry James published here. I don’t know how these coincidences happen… something in the atmosphere? So regretfully I must say no.”
The spate of fiction referred to by this editor, I don’t need reminding, is Felony by Emma Tennant (Jonathan Cape), The Master by Colm Tóibín (Picador), and now Author, Author by David Lodge (Secker & Warburg). My own novel, The Typewriter’s Tale, thus has to make its way, after three years in the making, into an “atmosphere” already saturated with fictions about James.
David Lodge (in an afterword) comments on this plethora, without explaining it: “I leave it to students of the zeitgeist to ponder the significance of these coincidences.” As a victim of the zeitgeist, I am left pondering why James is such an irresistible subject for fictionalisation.
John Updike, in his New Yorker review of The Master, finds a clue in what he describes as “postmodernism’s rampant eclecticism.” The blending of fact with fiction that all these novels contrive certainly sits easily with a scepticism about ultimate truths. But isn’t postmodernism yesterday’s news? And, anyway, there are more luridly eventful lives than that of Henry James to choose from: a man who had, in the received opinion, no consummated sexual relationships, who lived an exemplary life, and who avoided scandal at all costs does not seem a promising fictional subject.
Part of the answer may be implicit in David Lodge’s comment in the Bookseller that James was “a writers’ writer.” In his own lifetime, James allowed, not to say encouraged, disciples like Hugh Walpole to call him “Master,” and his friend Edith Wharton, whose novels far outsold his, habitually addressed him as cher maître.
Less beguiled by his magisterial presence, we after-comers nevertheless venerate James for the uncompromising subtlety and technical refinement of his writing. He was the first English novelist to insist on fiction-writing as an exacting art, the technique of which was available to scrutiny and analysis. The prefaces he wrote for the collected New York edition of his fiction from 1905 onwards have been published separately as The Art of the Novel, and are generally seen as the first serious novel-criticism in English. Towards the end of his book, Lodge imagines being able to travel back in time to James’s deathbed to report to him his future fame: “‘You only contributed one word to the English language,’ I would tell HJ, ‘but it’s one to be proud of: Jamesian.'” Jamesian: the word suggests a certain superfine sensibility, expressed in a technical mastery as subtle as it is expressive. To admirers of James, like Lodge, it is indeed a word to be proud of; to the many people who find James’s novels impossibly over-elaborate, the word tends to be pronounced with an ironic little grimace.