Some authors have daunting reputations. That statement includes Henry James. Years ago I tried The Portrait of the Lady. I failed to finish either book or film. I hadn’t felt like approaching James since. But then Melville House Publishing produce a dinky little edition of The Lesson of the Master and I am tempted. Even so, I need easing into this and so, during the many drives too and from Edinburgh this summer, I let David Lodge prepare the ground by listening to an unabridged audio of Author! Author!
As Henry James lies dying in his London flat, his life is told in a series of flashbacks. It’s a story that portraits James as a decent, honourable fellow, albeit afraid of human attachment. It downplays the contemporary preoccupation with his sexuality. It concentrates on James’s failed attempt to become as renowned a playwright as he was author. It charts his friendship and professional rivalry with Gerald Du Maurier and also explains why James was so verbose and preoccupied with those difficult lengthy sentences that made Portrait with a Lady so difficult and tedious!
I remember the furore in the year of publication when Toibin’s The Master was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and Lodge’s offering was not. Now I can’t speak for The Master, but I don’t think that Author! Author! should be designated as fiction. It’s faction, and that isn’t eligible for the Booker, is it? Not that that is any sleight on Lodge’s work – it is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of writing (or listening in my case) which has achieved the objective I set for it. It has turned me Henry Jamesward and swiftly into the pages of The Lesson of the Master. More of which later.
More than that, it has become the starting point in a whole new trail of discovery given that its pages are occupied by the literary luminaries of a bygone age – Edith Wharton, Guy de Maupassant, Gerald Du Maurier, Henry James (!). And let’s not forget David Lodge himself, whose other works I will now actively seek out. A look at the following mindmap shows how the cast of Author! Author! is set to serve as a springboard to my reading for the next few months.