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.

James, as Lodge brilliantly shows, was the most jealously private of men, whose determination to excel on stage was perversely at odds with his deepest instincts. In his rash impulse to leap from private study to public stage, he behaved for a while like a don trying desperately to break into television. This was out of tune with his beliefs as well as his instincts, since liberalism of James’s kind generally elevates the private over the public, which it sees as having only a second-hand sort of reality. Lodge himself, for example, has never seemed to understand the point of the political, other than as handy material for satire. Rather like the Schlegel sisters’ lethal meddling with the lives of their social inferiors in E.M. Forster’s Howards End, James’s catastrophic blundering into the West End can be seen as a cautionary tale of what can happen when private, privileged people make a foray into the vulgar, public world.

As English literary liberals, James and Lodge share an amused, spectatorial, dégagé delight in observing the antics of the public world, while staying safely under cover themselves. James, however, was that most admirable and authentic of liberals, one who is open-minded enough to be aware of the privileged basis of his own open-mindedness. The only good liberal is an agonised one. Private freedom thrives on public squalor, which must be thrust illiberally out of sight if such freedom is not to be paralysed by it. You need a great deal of wealth (and James’s rich characters are often fabulously rich) in order to be able to forget about money altogether and turn your thoughts to higher things. The supreme disinterestedness of art is possible only because of the predatory material interests that allow art to thrive.

There is a blind spot at the heart of culture, without which it would cease to exist in the form that it does. Civilisation and barbarism are twinned at birth, and James, while certainly not wishing to sacrifice an iota of civility on that account, is as keenly conscious of the coupling as Thomas Mann or Virginia Woolf. ‘When he walked out of the refuge of his study,’ his secretary Theodora Bosanquet, who crops up as a character in this novel, remarked, ‘he saw a place of torment, where creatures of prey perpetually thrust their claws into the quivering flesh of doomed, defenceless children of light.’

So much, then, for fine living and croquet on the lawn. James sees that there is an inhumanity at the root of art, for all its ardent affirmation of the human. It is a characteristically Modernist insight. In his fiction, there is usually some unspeakable horror just out of sight, some nameless nastiness an inch off-frame, some traumatising truth which can be shown but not stated. In fact, evasion is the very stuff of the late James’s notoriously cobwebby prose style, with its coy circumlocutions and ostentatious reservations, its elaborate enactment of the English inability to say anything straight. It is a style that shies prudishly away from anything as vulgar as a bald proposition. As such, it is among other things an American expatriate’s defiant riposte to his native country’s shoot-from-the-shoulder prose. In Author, Author, James remarks of the weather that ‘one might almost say that it’s warm,’ and, when dining at an inn called the Cod and Lobster, orders, to the waiter’s bafflement, ‘an eponymous meal’.

The late Jamesian style is, among other things, an attempt to mediate the delicacies of private experience into the public domain without, as it were, spilling a drop. Its tortuousness hints at some yawning gap between the two realms. Yet the novels do take the measure of whatever they have to suppress in order to flourish, which is what makes James’s liberalism tragic in a way that Lodge’s is not. James is all about loss, lack, absence, deprivation and self-abnegation, all of which are harbingers of the ultimate non-being of death, and which resound like stifled cries of anguish through his buoyant, close-packed prose. Lodge, by contrast, is the kind of liberal who is all too little anguished, too sedately assured that suburban reasonableness and realist aesthetics (laced with the odd dash of Modernism or theory) will be enough to see us through.

James’s flourishing today, as Lodge shows, is built on loss and failure in his own lifetime. It is mildly shocking to be reminded of just how neglected he was, and of the wretched, paralytic, semi-suicidal state to which this reduced him. Author, Author is the record of a life of quiet desperation, and this is one of the unspoken horrors beneath James’s supple, supremely civilised prose. Another was the need to pass up on life if he was to do justice to it in art. Perfection of the artistic work, as Yeats insisted, meant imperfection of the life. James, as Lodge sees, wants a supremely realist fiction, one which catches the flow and recoil of experience with exquisitely nuanced fidelity. His work heralds the Modernist shift from a realism of the object to one of the subject – from realism as fidelity to the way things are, to realism as phenomenological richness.

The paradox of such an art is that you need to live as fully as possible to gather the materials for it, but also to abstain with monkish austerity from living in order to wrestle them into artistic shape. Writers do not often lead dramatic lives, which is the reason (quite apart from the mild air of narcissism involved) novels about writers have to work hard for their narrative excitements. Most literary biographies are stuffed with real-life events which would not be worth recording had they not happened to people who interest us already for quite different reasons. Henry James, drifting in his stately, aimless way from Venice to Florence to Rome on a modest private income, lived rather less than most. Indeed, living as little as possible, in order to nurture that substitute form of living known as art, was one of his most sedulously cultivated aims.

Things do happen to him in Author, Author, not least the suicide of Constance Fenimore Woolson, the grand-niece of Fenimore Cooper, who was fruitlessly in love with him, and the abject failure of his play. But we do not get to know Constance well enough to feel her death at all keenly; James’s drama is the least interesting part of his work; and worse things have happened than West End flops. The First World War, for example, which is the adroitly interwoven historical context for this story.

The James of this narrative is thus not only a distinguished figure, but a faintly ludicrous one, too. He is a prudish virgin pathetically hungry for public acclaim, who spends much of his time running away from a lovelorn woman like some middle-aged male Pamela, and who is deeply fearful of life in general and sexuality in particular. Some critics claim to have unearthed allusions to anal fisting in his prefaces, a claim about as plausible as discovering references to Britney Spears in Boccaccio. Lodge’s eminently respectable James, by contrast, is sternly disapproving of ‘Uranians’, despite one or two discreet hints of repressed homosexuality. He is the kind of man who dresses for dinner even when he dines alone, and is still generating great chains of scrupulously well-formed syntax on his deathbed.

Rather like David Lodge’s novels, he is ‘well-conducted’ but somewhat lacking in the more dishevelled emotions. It is hard to imagine Lodge’s low-keyed, supremely well-groomed prose waxing passionate over very much, which is no doubt one reason the droll distancings of comedy are his favourite device. Like James the man, Lodge’s writing is rather too well-mannered for its own good, lacking the imaginative recklessness which (as the novel sees) distinguishes James’s late work. Lodge tends to write fairly directly out of his own experience, which is a domesticated version of what James meant by realism. Like a middle-of-the-road feminist journal quoted in this book, his motto could be ‘Forward, but not too fast’. One suspects that he shares something of his protagonist’s very English distaste for the non-English extravagance and hyperbole of Oscar Wilde. This is ironic, since both Wilde and James were sexually heterodox immigrants who set out to become plus anglais que les anglais. Yet Lodge is far less cerebral than his protagonist, despite being an ex-academic, and despite the excessively literary odour of this novel. James suspects that what Flaubert’s mother once said of him – ‘Your mania for sentences has dried up your heart’ – is true of himself, too, whereas Author, Author’s handling of its hero’s death is moving. It is clear that Lodge loves his hero, as well as seeing what a prig he could be.

Since that hero is remarkable for his ‘innate lack of concupiscence’, Author, Author is a David Lodge novel shorn of sex, a rare phenomenon. It is also un-Lodgelike in not being a comedy, though it has some humorous local touches: James ‘had never quite been able to see the point of Switzerland’, while his secretary is a Scot ‘for whom the epithet "dour” seemed inappropriate, as suggesting too lively and excitable a temperament’. An excessive preoccupation with sex seems to be one of the few aspects of a Roman Catholic upbringing that Lodge has retained. Only professional pornographers can match the Catholic obsession with it. He has also retained a strain of Catholic scholasticism, in the form of his interest (now perhaps defunct) in literary theory. Catholics, unlike ranting Evangelicals and fuzzily open-ended Anglicans, are taught to respect stringent analysis and systematic thought, which may be one source of Lodge’s earlier flirtations with structuralism. Irish scholasticism and proto-structuralism also converge in the obsessive classifications of Joyce and Beckett.

Traditionally, however, Catholics have not been taught greatly to revere the individual, any more than structuralism did, so that Lodge’s Jamesian devotion to individual consciousness is no doubt in part a reaction to his religious background. Against the public institution of the Church, he pits the inwardness of so-called private experience. ‘So-called’, because his earlier novel Thinks . . . (2001), as well as his volume of essays Consciousness and the Novel (2002), work with a questionably Cartesian notion of consciousness, which Lodge thinks of in pre-Wittgensteinian style as essentially hidden. You can, of course, hide what you are thinking or feeling, just as you can hide a five-pound note; but it is odd to think of this as any more definitive of consciousness than it is of a five-pound note. And learning to hide your feelings is a very public affair.

Lodge used to be that rare animal, a liberal Catholic – rare, since liberals tend to hold that too much belief is bad for you, whereas Catholics tend to surfeit on the stuff. Later in life, he classified himself as a ‘Catholic agnostic’, which is a little like declaring that you do not believe in goblins, but that if you did you would go for the kind with pot bellies and fluffy beards. Even as a Catholic, however, Lodge was never really a religious novelist, in the manner of François Mauriac or Graham Greene. In stereotypically Catholic fashion, he has never shown much sense of religion as personal experience, which is one reason he can counterpose ‘experience’ so sharply to Catholicism.

You would not turn to his fiction for enlightenment about sin, redemption, evil or repentance, as you might to Golding or Dostoevsky. He has always appeared more interested in the sociology of the Church than the theology. But ironically, his belief in this excessively public institution appears to have been largely a private affair, which scarcely made a difference to his secular, conventionally liberal-humanist view of the world. This, too, is a stereotypically Catholic dissociation, since Catholicism, rather like the work of art as seen by Formalism or structuralism, sometimes seems like a self-enclosed system of doctrine with little relation to actual existence.

Priesthood bulks large in Author, Author, but in the guise of the secular priesthood of art, which is so marked a motif in the Fin de Siècle. James is a kind of spiritual self-castrator who is nevertheless seduced by public fame. Throughout the novel, he struggles to overcome his envy of his friend George Du Maurier, the author of Trilby, a bestseller (James detested this ‘American barbarism’ of a term) after which not only a man’s hat but a town in Florida were named. However, just as religious sacrifice promises spiritual rewards, so James’s priestly renunciation will issue in that prodigal abundance of life which we call art. Throughout his fiction, it is hard to know whether renunciation is defeat or secret triumph, a saintly submission to others or a wicked way of pulling a fast one on them.

Author, Author, like a fair amount of literary art produced late in life, reflects on the resonant themes of life, death, art, fame and immortality. Yet much of it reads more like potted literary history than the later Shakespeare or Ibsen. As Lodge embarks on yet another quick summary of a minor work by James, or plunges into one more oddly inconsequential account of a biography of a long-forgotten writer by someone we have never heard of, one begins to ask oneself whether all this isn’t a little more information than one needs.

It is hard to know where reportage ends and fiction begins: not in the sense that it matters which bits really happened and which Lodge is inventing, but in the sense that a novel is not supposed to be a real-life story, even when it trades in real-life events. The difference is that the word ‘novel’ is a signal for us to read the record of a specific set of events in a way which assigns them some more general truth or significance. As far as this goes, it does not matter much whether the events are true or not.

This was a problem when the novel emerged in 18th-century England, since if readers believed that the narrated incidents were imaginary, it might blunt their force; whereas if they believed that the narrated events were real, they might fail to generalise them to some broader vision of life, and so fail to pluck a moral from them. Author, Author comes vividly alive when it dramatises its materials: James’s humiliation by the booing theatre crowd is handled with such skill that the suspense is positively excruciating. But the book includes too many overdetailed, nuts-and-bolts accounts of literary dealings. It blurs the line between fiction and biography to the point where it is not easy to see what these biographical materials mean – and it is characteristic of a novel that we can ask this question, as we cannot ask it in the same way of an actual life.