A biographical novel about Henry James, focusing on the period in the 1890's when he attempted to find success as a playwright.
This is quite a slow-moving book: the first section, which is set in the house where James is on his death-bed, was a bit of a slog and I wasn't looking forward to working through the rest of the book. But although the tempo never really increased, the writing was so good that you were drawn into the world that James inhabited a hundred years ago.
The main theme of the book was the lack of success of HJ's work during his own lifetime. It was declining book sales that led him to try and write for the stage, but despite much effort and time, he was spectacularly unsuccessful there, and returned to writing novels for the rest of his life, never living to see the time when his work would be appreciated. What came across in the book was how prolific a writer he was: he seemed always to be making notes about ideas for stories, and churning out articles, reviews and novels, to say nothing of the plays.
Around the time that HJ was working on his plays, his friend George Du Maurier, an illustrator for Punch, wrote a novel which did moderately well. He followed this up with another, "Trilby", which was a spectacular success, and became a worldwide best-seller as well as a play which performed to packed houses on both sides of the Atlantic. This success was bitter-sweet to James, who while pleased on his friend's behalf, was bewildered as to how such a manifestly low-brow novel could do so well, while his own efforts sank without trace. The irony is not lost on us: I'd not realised that there was such a novel as "Trilby", nor that it gave its name to the hat.
This isn't very much like Lodge's other novels. In most of those, Lodge seems to me to treat his characters in rather a patronising way, but that doesn't seem to happen here: he genuinely likes James. And the structure is very conventional: he doesn't muck about with the narrative to make a point. The most striking thing to me was the standard of writing: it was beautifully written, giving the impression that each sentence and phrase had been planned and re-written until it was just right. Actually, perhaps this was a Lodge-ish thing to do - at one stage one of the characters in the book says "If only people spoke in such perfectly formed sentences in real life".
I knew barely anything of Henry James before reading this book, and so it was interesting to read it and wonder what would happen. Paradoxically, the fact that it was based on real life meant that I had no idea how things would turn out, whereas if it had been a purely fictional work then I think I might have been inclined to second-guess the author, and expect certain things to happen because they would have been right for the plot.
The first time I put the tape on after completing this book, I experienced a pang of disappointment as I remembered that I'd finished it. It's gone back to the library, but a copy is on order from Amazon: I liked it so much that I wouldn't want to be without a copy.
Really good, worth reading, will read again.
...And I did read it again, eight years later. And again I really enjoyed it, and felt sorry for James. I've ordered The Master from the library because I want to read more about him.
One thing I noted this time through was when Lodge said words to the effect "Du Maurier introduced the words Svengali and Trilby into the language. James can only claim one word, but it's a good one - Jamesian."
Completed : 19-Sep-2006 (audiobook)
Completed : 16-Oct-2014 (audiobook)