Tragedy or Comedy?

In the fall of 2003, on delivering the manuscript for his own fictionalized portrait of Henry James, the English novelist David Lodge learned that the writer Colm Tóibín would beat him to the punch. It turned out to be just the first unattended banana peel in a real-life literary farce.

The minor tragedy of the moment might have matured into dinner party comic gold given a few months (or years); instead Lodge wrote an entire book about it, which I, incidentally, have no plans to read. (Yes, dear reader, there has to be a limit.)

The book that inspired him to do so, however, the casually titled Author, Author, is eminently readable and – apart from a few too many pages in its middle section devoted to just one, admittedly significant, night – makes for a droll contrast with Tóibín’s more serious approach in The Master. Some critics have faulted Lodge for indulging in too many biographical asides and cameo appearances – Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, Edith Wharton, and so on – but by way of these so-called digressions, Lodge achieves a double portrait, illustrating both how James saw his world and how his world might have seen James.

Lodge’s larger story revolves around James’s ultimately futile efforts to establish himself in the theater and the author’s friendship with George du Maurier, the Punch illustrator and author of the unexpected blockbuster Trilby, the Twilight of its day. Du Maurier is now probably best known as the grandfather of Daphne du Maurier.

Critics have clearly found it challenging to review the one work without resorting to comparisons, as though Lodge’s and Tóibín’s books must do battle with each other and only one can triumph. Alan Hollinghurst, contributing such a review to The Guardian, is either the best man for the job or an ironic choice, perhaps both, given that his own 2004 novel The Line of Beauty also features James, though in a supporting role.

Here’s a thought: Read them both. First Lodge and then Tóibín, in order to make the more logical leap from James’s world into the murky depths of his consciousness.

In the following excerpt from Author, Author, James learns more than he wants to know in conversation with Du Maurier’s publisher Clarence McIlvaine:

‘But Trilby was the best seller’
‘I detest that barbarous Americanism!’ he said emphatically.
‘ “Best seller”? What’s the matter with it?’
‘It confuses quality with quantity in a single word,’ he said, ‘and it’s a solecism – I mean, the way it’s used. I understand that the American newspapers now publish something called “best-seller lists”, numbered from one to ten.’
‘That’s right – The Bookman started it, and it caught on. It’s a darned good idea.’
‘But how can there be more than one best seller? “Best” means ” better than all the others”.’
McIlvaine thought about this for a moment. ‘You’re quite right, of course, James – in principle. But as regards “Trilby”. . . it really *is* our best seller. I mean, we’ve never sold so many copies of a single book before in the company’s history. And since Harper is one of the biggest general publishers in the world, and if you forget about pirate publishing in the old days, for which nobody knows the figures anyway. . . it’s quite possible that Trilby is the best-selling novel ever.’
‘Good God!’ Henry said.
‘A solemn thought, isn’t it? Can I get you another sherry?’
‘No thank you,’ he said. ‘I need some air.’

Update, 1/17: I didn’t realize when I first wrote this post that Colm Toibin published his own essays on Henry James as a book in 2010, though he appears to have been more haunted by James himself than the so-called rivalry with Lodge.

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