Living as Little as Possible

Terry Eagleton

  • Author, Author: A Novel by David Lodge
    Secker, 389 pp, £16.99, September 2004, ISBN 0 436 20527 0

Since the Modernist revolution, writing has been seen as an intensely private activity, a view which might have come as something of a surprise to Chaucer or Pope. For liberals such as Henry James and David Lodge, it represents a venture into individual consciousness of unique worth – so valuable, in fact, that in this new novel Lodge suspects it may be the summum bonum. ‘Consciousness’ – the very term has an inescapably reifying ring to it – is the transcendent truth of the modern liberal age. The novelist is its high priest, and the novel is its scripture. The image of the solitary author brooding over his or her fine perceptions is now the conventional view of literary authorship, however absurdly ahistorical it may be.

But there is an obvious paradox here. For there is no literature without an audience, and authors have precious little control over their readers’ interpretations. Writing is supposed to be for its own sake, so that any purpose beyond itself would compromise its integrity; yet if it needs a readership to be itself, how can it be autonomous? And who judges such autonomy, if not a reader? How can literature be at once self-communion and communication? Henry James, the subject of Author, Author, was perhaps the first major novelist in England to confront this dilemma head-on, living as he did at a transitional point between Victorian writers, for whom it was still possible to be both highbrow and wildly popular, and Modernist ones, most of whom turned their backs disdainfully on the general public. Only a few wily birds, such as James’s confrère Joseph Conrad, managed to gratify both markets, stitching Schopenhauerian speculations and Boy’s Own adventures into the same covers. James’s fiction raises questions of the rift between private and public worlds; and one version of this, relatively new in his day, was the growing abyss between ‘high’ and popular culture.

Yet the rift is not insuperable, as David Lodge’s own serious yet bestselling fiction attests. In this novel, a magnificently successful writer pays homage to a far greater one who sometimes sold no more than twenty copies of a book, and in doing so enacts his own ritual of reparation. Author, Author snatches victory from James’s own defeat, bringing his thankless labours to a long-delayed fruition. For James himself, triumph and defeat were always sides of the same coin; but Lodge makes a chronological point out of this, too, showing us how the passage of time has redeemed le cher maître. In doing so, perhaps, he assuages some of his own guilt at being so much more renowned than the maestro was in his day. He might also be voicing in a public form some of his own private anxieties, as an elderly writer rather closer to questions of death, reputation and immortality than was the author of Small World (1984).

A novelist’s audience, unlike a playwright’s, is mostly invisible, so that the urge to glimpse your consumers in the flesh can be strong. The writer who yearns for real rather than metaphorical applause can turn to the theatre, as Henry James did for the disastrous few years that form the time-span of this novel. Working in the theatre, as Lodge himself has done, seems one way in which writers can stay true to their craft while doing something more public and collective. For James, there was also that halfway house between public and private spheres known as the country-house party, a domestic affair largely populated by those who owned and governed the country.

The theatre will certainly give you a graphic image of the punters, but only at the risk of travesty and embarrassment. The climax of this novel, suitably enough for a protagonist whose writing is fascinated by failure and non-events, is James’s utter humiliation at the hands of a booing audience as the curtain fell on the opening night of his play Guy Domville. My own experience of such travesty was a lot less mortifying, but equally instructive. When a play I wrote some years ago about Oscar Wilde transferred from a tour of Ireland to a London theatre, I overheard a well-bred English woman in the interval asking her companion: ‘Was Wilde really Irish, or is Eagleton making that up?’ A lot of tedious spadework there, as a character in P.G. Wodehouse remarks when his interlocutor seems not to grasp the meaning of the word ‘pig’. This incident apart, the only other similarity between Henry James and myself is that we both had grandfathers from County Cavan in Ireland – though James’s grandfather became one of the two or three richest men in the United States, while mine, unaccountably, did not.

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