Poetry Madness

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The New Republic Online
Thursday, October 21st, 2004


Author, Author

by David Lodge

The Spoils

A review by James Wood

"The Big Bow-wow strain" was Walter Scott's rather self-deprecating phrase for his own historical fiction. Remarkably enough, the historical novel since Scott has continued barking. No longer the confident mastiff of the nineteenth century, it now risks a toy-like irrelevance. As historical change speeds up and the present presses down ever more insistently, a retrospect of a hundred years -- a mere bagatelle to Scott or Balzac or Manzoni -- now seems an unbridgeable abyss. The difficulty in penetrating the past has less to do with inanimate objects than with animate subjects. Henry James, who was decidedly averse to historical fiction, complained of this shortcoming in a celebrated letter to Sarah Orne Jewett. The really hard task, he claimed, was "the invention, the representation of the old CONSCIOUSNESS, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent."

Poor Henry James, then, to have found himself, this year, shocked into just such fraudulent life in two historical novels about aspects of his career. The two novelists, Colm Tóibín and David Lodge, might reply that 1890 is not alienatingly distant from 2004, so that James's request, in the same letter, for the novel to treat the "palpable present-intimate," is not necessarily violated: couldn't 1890 be thought of as the portal of a long twentieth century that we are still inhabiting? Fair enough, except that the consciousness these two novelists are trying to capture is not any old historical consciousness, but one of the most discriminating minds of its age. A novelist writing fiction about Henry James is like an analyst analyzing Freud: the great ancestor has bequeathed you everything you need to establish your own originality, but then by definition you cannot be original, for he has willed you the very terms of your analysis of him. You have inherited too much money from him for anything but your own expensive ruination.

Tóibín and Lodge are very different writers. Both have read James's letter to Jewett, but only Tóibín writes as if he has. Tóibín is novelistically interested in consciousness -- that is, less in Henry James's actual consciousness than in the mind of the character that he has invented as "Henry James." Lodge is only conceptually interested in consciousness, and hews faithfully not to the reality of his invented character but to the historicity of the real James. Tóibín's willingness to take his novel seriously as a novel fruitfully detaches it from its historical referent; but Lodge's unwillingness to do so manacles it to mere record. Many passages in his book read like patched biography, and when an extract from the new novel was recently published in The Guardian, a quick-witted subeditor, taking it to be biography, returned it to the public domain: "Henry" (Lodge's possessive, preferred designation for his character) was made into "James" throughout the piece, and the newspaper subsequently apologized for tampering.

One obvious difficulty involved in writing a novel about Henry James is that unlike, say, Stendhal or Dostoevsky or Fielding, his immaculate style will have a way of embarrassing your fallen one. Tóibín evaded this shadow because his prose has a clean-limbed, gracious, and properly unhistorical aspect: it was not James, nor was meant to be. Lodge does not mean to be James either, but his prose, never more than serviceable, is clothed in clichés and cast-offs, a style so banal as to shake one's confidence in the author's right to novelize the Master. Author, Author begins dismayingly:

London, December 1915. In the master bedroom (never was the estate agent's epithet more appropriate) of Flat 21, Carlyle Mansions, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, the distinguished author is dying -- slowly but surely. In Flanders, less than two hundred miles away, other men are dying more quickly, more painfully, more pitifully -- young men, mostly, with their lives still before them, blank pages that will never be filled.

The reader has barely survived the essentially academic (and surely anachronistic?) pun on "master bedroom" before the trashy "slowly but surely" kills all hope. (It is a phrase on a level with "cheap and cheerful" or "naughty but nice.") And then come the young soldiers "with their lives still before them," a phrase that would not be out of place in a blockbuster. David Lodge, often a fine critic, knows the importance of beginnings in novels; he has written about the first paragraph of The Wings of the Dove. Can he not see that he has lost the discriminating reader before his novel has gotten under way?

Alas, the style continues as it means to go on. We encounter Henry James, dictating to his secretary in Lamb House, pacing up and down the Garden Room: "he racked his brains for le mot juste." (It is cruel that a sentence about le mot juste should be violated by precisely its opposite -- the cliché "he racked his brains.") George Du Maurier, we learn, had "a mop of soft wavy hair." Ah, a mop! Constance Fenimore Woolson only once "put a foot wrong" in her correspondence with James. Later she will heap praise on The Portrait of a Lady, and smooth "his slightly ruffled authorial wings." Edward Compton, one of the actor-managers with whom James does business, is "as bald as an egg." William James, traveling to England for the opening night of Henry's play, is described thus: "He came trailing clouds of glory himself, for his monumental Principles of Psychology, which had finally appeared the year before, was gathering plaudits from all over the world." (Clouds of glory and plaudits in one sentence; be thankful that the word "kudos" is not also there.) James is seen as plunging into "the unfamiliar and murky waters of the theatre," only later to have drunk "the heady wine of theatrical success." He "dashes off" a letter. James's manservant "stroked his moustache thoughtfully." Certain themes in James's work are "more grist to Fenimore's mill." And so on.

Of course, these slack, easy, inherited phrases are in themselves disappointing, bespeaking a writer for whom style is any old garment, grabbed without reflection from a closet of despair. But they have a particular gravity, they commit a special sin, when wrapped around a writer so massively attentive to cliché and formulaic idiom. It is true that James, because he was so inveterate and abundant a metaphor-mongerer, sometimes dipped into the common kitty, and delivered himself of the occasional poetic formula. (He even uses "I rack my brains" in one letter.) Lodge may well have taken "slightly ruffled authorial wings" directly from James, who was fond of such imagery.

But what is more usual is the way in which James takes the template of a standard-issue metaphor and builds a slightly different edifice on top of it. Take, for instance, the familiar image of diving into waters, whether to bring up a pearl or a fish, or just to plunge (recall Lodge's "plunge into the unfamiliar and murky waters of theatre"). James liked this imagery, and all the larger imagery of immersion and saturation (it is what excites queer theorists): "I have as yet scarce dipped into the great Basin at all ... I am interested, up to my eyes" is how he described his fascinated return to America in 1904. But he is rarely content to let metaphor alone; the great novels are root-systems of extended and overlapping metaphor -- the very opposite of Lodge's shallow-rooted and thus dead metaphors.

James makes delicious variations on a watery theme. Consider only two examples. In 1890, he complains thus of William Dean Howells: "His abundance and facility are my constant wonder and envy -- or rather not perhaps, envy, inasmuch as he has purchased them by throwing the whole question of form, style and composition overboard into the deep sea -- from which, on my side, I am perpetually trying to fish them up." This has James's characteristic wit. Three years later he wrote of Flaubert: "His life was that of a pearl-diver, breathless in the thick element while he groped for the priceless word, and condemned to plunge again and again." This has James's characteristic poetry, at once metaphorical and musical: "the thick element" balanced, acoustically, by "the priceless word," while "priceless" rhymes with the earlier "breathless." And there are very few writers of prose who use adjective and noun as well as James: in The Portrait of a Lady, the light at Gardencourt falls on the dining-room paintings, which are seen as "vague squares of rich colour." How precise, paradoxically, is that "vague"! There are thousands of such instances in this greatest of all stylists in fiction.

It is not only that Lodge's prose must be judged by James's. The larger difficulty is that it is not always clear from whose point of view Lodge is writing. "Point of view," of course, was an obsession for James, because he had come to the conclusion, rightly, that there is no such thing in fiction as "omniscient narration." Narration always proceeds from a particular source; there is no God-like impersonality. And there are, in brief, three sources: first, the author, or authorial voice; second, a kind of generalized chorus voice, which we might think of as the voice of the community or the neighborhood; third, one of the characters in the novel, from whose point of view we may be seeing things. Narration about a character almost always begins to fall into that character's way of seeing and saying things: this is called "free indirect style."

Tolstoy is fond of omniscient narration, but he frequently chooses to see, say, a ball or a dinner or a war from behind the eyes of a particular character. Austen, often taken to be a mistress of omniscient narration, more often writes as if inhabiting a character or a community. The famous opening of Pride and Prejudice, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife" appears to be the purest example of omniscient narration -- a universal truth, given out by the author. But the next sentence ironizes this apparent truth: "However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters." So the universal truth actually turns out to be the belief system of "a neighborhood" of "surrounding families" and perhaps not so universal after all. Is the famous opening, then, an example of omniscient narration or really an example of a community's free indirect style?

James became the greatest innovator, in the novel, of free indirect style. He began to experiment with limiting most of his narration to what could be seen or expressed by the character who was moving through. What Maisie Knew and The Ambassadors are the greatest examples of this. It was a moral question, and not merely a technical one, for James. Hewing close to a character's vision, and using the kind of words she might use herself, allowed him to immerse himself more sympathetically in a character than English novelists, in his view, had yet done. At the same time, free indirect style is a mode of irony, because the author is at once inside and outside that character -- inside, because he is inflecting some of his language with his character's, and outside, because he is not inflecting all of his language in this manner. We can see what the character sees, and we can see what the character cannot see, at the same time: this is the power that What Maisie Knew delivers. The little girl, Maisie, can barely understand a kind of adult corruption that is palpable to the reader. James forces us to inhabit her innocence while amply displaying the corruption that surrounds her.

"Most gratifying of all was the presence of William, who had crossed the Atlantic, typically at short notice, primarily to see his ailing sister, but also to share his brother's big night. He came trailing clouds of glory himself, for his monumental Principles of Psychology, which had finally appeared the year before, was gathering plaudits from all over the world." Lodge's sentences here have the rhythm of free indirect style: there is a kind of first-night excitement, almost a breathlessness, so that we might imagine Henry James saying these words, either to himself, or to a friend in a letter after the event ("most gratifying was William's presence; he came at short notice, so typical of his dear self!"). We might call this a biographer's free indirect style, in which the biographer, wanting to share the excitements and the disappointments of his subject, inflects his narrative toward him. ("He was left shut up with this mystery -- for ever!" writes Leon Edel of James, in his version of biographer's free indirect style.) The obvious difficulty is that the ugliness of Lodge's second sentence -- "gathering plaudits" -- does not sound like something Henry James would say. The first sentence takes us closer -- if only in a biographical way -- to him, while the second sentence brutally removes us.

And remember that Lodge is supposed to be writing a novel, not a biography, so that the second sentence jars doubly: it sounds like any second-rate chronicler of the facts. This indeed is the truth about Lodge's clichés. They are not egregious; they are just the workmanlike formulas of the mediocre biographer. (She "smoothed his slightly ruffled authorial wings.") And when Lodge splices in sentences such as this one about Edmund Gosse, how can we see a novelist as their author rather than a biographer? "Edmund Gosse, versatile man of letters, poet, critic, essayist, translator, recently retired Librarian to the House of Lords, who has known Henry James for thirty-five years, calls as arranged, a little after ten the next morning." Point of view immediately rears up at us. But from whose point of view is this written? James presumably knows Gosse's c.v.

Historical fiction -- and film -- always abounds, of course, in this kind of redundant self-reminding ("You know Al Alvarez, of course? The poet and critic. And pipe-smoker. And friend of Sylvia Plath"), in which characters -- or the narration itself, as in Lodge -- end up sounding like the mathematician mentioned by Plato, who when he counts is always encountering as if for the first time numbers he already knows very well. Fact and detail thus lose the freedom that they enjoy in non-historical fiction, becoming something closer to travel writing than to the fictive. In fiction, ideally, facts become necessary because they are made necessary by the free form of the story; in historical fiction, facts are already necessary before they enter the form, and they neither modify or are modified by that form. It is the difference between a journey and a map.

Every so often, Lodge permits himself the use of a "probably" or a "perhaps." When Henry James walks to Hampstead to see George Du Maurier, Lodge writes: "Henry, having breakfasted well, and perhaps paused on his way for some light refreshment...." He wants, I think, to admit a novelist's hesitation here, as if to allow Henry the freedom to sometimes stop for a snack and sometimes refrain from stopping. (Henry Green liked to do something similar.) Alas, in this kind of novel, the "perhaps" sounds less like a novelist's deliberate uncertainty than a biographer's ignorance covering itself.

Twenty pages later, Lodge is writing about how France seemed sexually coarse to Henry. England seems sexually buttoned-up, but on the whole Henry prefers the latter: "In the end it was probably the insistent pressure of sexual activity and sexual obsession in French literary life that had driven him from Paris and determined him to make his home in England." This, by the way, does not seem at all likely -- James is made tiresomely prudish in Lodge's portrait, and never literary enough, when his motives for living in England were in the end firmly literary; but what is interesting is that little winking word "probably." What is it doing there? Is James thinking to himself at this moment, and weighing up probabilities? ("Yes, it was probably the sex that drove me out.") Or, more likely, is Lodge admitting that, as a biographer, he has entered a speculation? The latter, surely. A novelist would know such a thing about his character; a biographer cannot. Lodge's novel is always being contaminated in this way by its confusion of genres. Ironically, the great master of point of view has been written up by Lodge in a "novel" in which point of view is always a vulgar problem.

David Lodge at least has a good story; his novelist's instincts are still sharp. He has taken the most dramatic episode -- figuratively and literarily -- of James's life, one expertly treated by Leon Edel in his biography. It concerns James's doomed attempts to become a successful playwright, climaxing in the disastrous opening night of his play Guy Domville, in January 1895, in which the distinguished author was booed by crowds of cockneys. James called it the worst night of his life, but he quickly turned to the writing of The Spoils of Poynton, convinced that he had learned important formal and technical lessons from his long apprenticeship as a playwright.

Lodge's James is more obsessed with fame and success than the evidence will bear. But the Guy Domville episode allows Lodge to make his novel a treatment of the question of modern "high" authorship. James, it is true, became resigned to being a coterie author, a writer's writer (that stretched telescope), one who was for Conrad a great model and master but who was for the great Mudie-masses utterly impenetrable, or at best the faint memory of an old popular success like Daisy Miller. Lodge heightens, to considerable dramatic effect, the tension of this fate, by pressing on two of James's friendships: with Constance Fenimore Woolson, who may have been in love with James, and with George Du Maurier, the amiable cartoonist of Punch.

Constance Fenimore Woolson, though now forgotten, was a successful writer in her time, and considerably more popular with readers than was James. Lodge reminds us that The Portrait of a Lady sold eight thousand copies to the forty thousand of one of Woolson's works. The Du Maurier story is even more acute. Though he was not obviously literary, Du Maurier was attractive to James, who regularly walked up from Chelsea to Du Maurier's Hampstead house for Sunday lunch en famille and an afternoon stroll. The two men shared ideas, and had in common their fluency in French. (James's French was diabolically good; he once amazed his friend Paul Bourget by turning, impromptu, a Kipling poem in cockney slang into its French equivalent.) One day, Du Maurier confided to James that he had in mind the writing of a novel about a young female servant girl with a wonderful voice who is mesmerized and made to sing perfectly by a Jewish magus, a Svengali. James recorded the donnée in his notebook for March 25, 1889, and toyed, as he did with many of the stories he heard, with making something out of it. But Du Maurier got there first: the book was Trilby, now barely read but an enormous best-seller that gave two words, Trilby and Svengali, to the language.

These are powerful ironies, and Lodge makes as much of them as he can. But they can only draw their final power, as novelistic ironies, from the reality of the character who suffers them. Without that, they are only cultural or literary or biographical ironies. Buried fathoms deep by Lodge's essentially biographical narrative, smothered in fact, it is hard for Henry James to emerge as a character who might belong to this novel rather than that biography. And when something obviously important happens to him, it occurs offstage: "They did not meet for another two years, during which Henry made two trips to America, and suffered the double blow of losing both his parents, his mother dying at the beginning of 1882, and his father in December of the same year. Meanwhile Constance roved restlessly around Italy...." For an actual novelistic character there could be no such thing as off-stage; or rather, if there were, it would become significant to us. (Why, we would ask ourselves, is this character apparently so unmoved by his parents' deaths? Why is it being written up in this way?) Only in the curious optic of biography -- of compacted biography, in fact -- in which some facts are briskly decided upon as more important than others, in which detail is regularly divided into foreground and background, can the death of one's parents be a mere flick of the narrative's whip, as here.

Most importantly, apart from Lodge's inability to animate his hero, his portrait seems insufficient or tonally "off" in almost every respect. Lodge banishes sexual curiosity and desire from his subject, rendering him prudish, quivering, and virginal, quite an achievement for a novelist whose very sentences seethe with erotic menace. Maupassant, representing French frankness, visits London and says to James: "I want a woman ... just an ordinary woman, as long as she has a pretty face and a nice arse." James merely blushes. But the queer theorists, though bad literary readers, are shrewd psychological ones: James's metaphors of immersion and saturation do indeed carry an erotic intensity. It is one thing to decide that James never had a sexual encounter, and quite another to decide that he never imagined one, as Lodge seems to think.

But then Lodge's James is a curiously fussy and overstuffed creature, a kind of combination of Mr. Pooter and Pooh. One can almost see him, like Milne's bear, doing his Stoutness Exercises of a morning. A key may be found in Lodge's description of James's essays: "his elegant, cosmopolitan essays appeared in the most prestigious reviews." (Again, the newsmagazine diction.) Yes, indeed, James's essays are elegant and cosmopolitan, but they are also passionate, unremittingly intense, deeply intelligent, and repetitively involved with the questions of form, language, and morality that consumed James's life. Lodge's James is closer to a Flaubertian aesthete than to the Romantic moralist -- part flaneur, part Puritan -- that James so supremely became.

Lodge is fond of the Flaubertian idea that monkish aestheticism may be opposed to life; that the writer will have to choose between the perfection of the life and the perfection of the work. After Constance Fenimore Woolson commits suicide, Lodge's James reflects anguishedly about these matters, fearful that he is too little moved by Constance's death, and recalling Madame Flaubert's reproach to her son: "Your mania for sentences has dried up your heart":

Even then ... he had felt a little internal qualm of apprehension that they might one day be leveled at himself, for he shared Flaubert's mania for sentences.... Did such an obsession dry up one's heart? Was that the inevitable price one had to pay for artistic achievement? He sometimes feared that it was.... But at least he [Flaubert] had known passion. While he himself had always been ... well-conducted. It was as if Fenimore had left a message for him to find after her death, saying in effect: you have not fully lived.

I do not believe a word of this. James, while deeply respectful of Flaubert's example, returned again and again, in his essays, to its lack: a lack of real moral scrutiny. Quite the opposite of a mot juste hunter, James saw that aestheticism was the abiding problem in Flaubert's work, that it leached vital interest and intensity from Sentimental Education. Flaubert's cynicism has no counterpart in James's eternal curiosity. He upbraids Flaubert for his dread of the bourgeois: "That worthy citizen ought never to have kept a poet from dreaming." In fact, James was clearly horrified by Flaubert's religious writhing for the mot juste. James had a mania for sentences, all right; but he had a mania for those sentences to refer -- which is why, in the late books, the question of what the sentences refer to is so important.

There is no free-floating aestheticism in James. In his essay on Flaubert from 1893, he writes that there are "moments when his restless passion for form strikes us as leaving the subject out of account altogether." The subject: this was always James's quarry. Flaubert inspired a kind of dread. Flaubert was the pearl-diver who was breathless in his thick element, while James, ideally, was fishing treasure out of that same thick element. "The question of 'art' for him," writes James about Flaubert, "was so furiously the question of form, and the question of form was so intensely the question of rhythm, that from the beginning to the end of his correspondence we scarcely ever encounter a mention of any beauty but verbal beauty." So speaks the James who loved Italian and French art, who visited artists' studios in London, who loved Paris and London and Rome and New York.

Yes, New York. Reading the correspondence, and the late travel book The American Scene (for all its complicated engagement and recoil), one is struck by James's sheer capacity for experience. Lodge's quaking and slightly absurd figure, swaddled with servants and preciously pacing up and down for the mot juste in Lamb House, is a caricature belied again and again by the evidence. Lodge's James, when he buys a typewriter, reflects that it is one of the few benefits of American civilization to the world. But James was a deeper and more subtly sensitive recorder than this. He wrote in 1883, from New York, that "I never return to this wonderful city without being entertained and impressed afresh.... It is altogether an extraordinary growing, swarming, glittering, pushing, chattering, good-natured, cosmopolitan place, and perhaps in some ways the best imitation of Paris that can be found (yet with a great originality of its own)." Twenty years later, he wrote again from New York, to report on this "living and breathing and feeling and moving great monster.... It is all very interesting and almost uncannily delightful and sympathetic."

This was the James who told Edith Wharton, "Don't conclude! ... Live it all through, every inch of it." Not the pale withdrawer of Lodge's fantasy, but the writer who counseled Grace Norton, in one of his most moving letters: "Don't melt too much into the universe, but be as solid and dense and fixed as you can. We all live together, and those of us who love and know, live so most." Live so most: James's mania for sentences was finally a mania for living, for experience. But Lodge's plump ghost, with his Flaubertian inability to "feel," reflects on Du Maurier's death that "it was shocking ... how sooner or later we accustomed ourselves to the deaths of others, even dearly loved friends, even parents and siblings. Spouses and children might be a different matter -- he couldn't be sure, never having had or lost one himself.... One should remember the dead, yes, but also let them, slowly, gently, go."

How little faith Lodge the novelist has in James the novelist: this great imaginer apparently unable to imagine what it is like to lose a child, never having had one himself! Then poor George Eliot and poor Proust and poor Jane Austen and poor Flaubert and poor Virginia Woolf and poor Chekhov and poor Christina Stead (the author of The Man Who Loved Children, the greatest modern novel about children), who, we can confidently assume, could not imagine children or their deaths, never themselves having had or lost them. Compare this shriveled James with the enlarged and enlarging James of blessed record, the man who, far from accustoming himself to the death of his siblings, in 1905 confided this memory to his notebook:

Isn't the highest deepest note of the whole thing the never-to-be-lost memory of that evening hour at Mount Auburn -- at the Cambridge Cemetery when I took my way alone -- after much waiting for the favouring hour -- to that unspeakable group of graves. It was late, in November; the trees all bare, the dusk to fall early, the air all still (at Cambridge, in general, so still), with the western sky more and more turning to that terrible, deadly, pure polar pink that shows behind American winter woods. But I can't go over this -- I can only, oh, so gently, so tenderly, brush it and breathe upon it -- breathe upon it and brush it. It was the moment; it was the hour, it was the blessed flood of emotion that broke out at the touch of one's sudden vision and carried me away.... Everything was there, everything came; the recognition, stillness, the strangeness, the pity and the sanctity and the terror, the breath-catching passion and the divine relief of tears. William's inspired transcript, on the exquisite little Florentine urn of Alice's ashes, William's divine gift to us, and to her, of the Dantean lines ... took me so at the throat by its penetrating rightness, that it was as if one sank down on one's knees in a kind of anguish of gratitude before something for which one had waited with a long, deep ache. But why do I write of the all unutterable and the all abysmal? Why does my pen not drop from my hand on approaching the infinite pity and tragedy of all the past? It does, poor helpless pen, with what it meets of the ineffable, what it meets of the cold Medusa-face of life, of all the life lived, on every side. Basta, basta!

All the life lived, on every side. Let it be James's eternal epitaph, and this novel's merely brief one.

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