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Take a bow, Mr Lodge,
This review is from: Author! Author! (Paperback)
First things first. This is a novel. I've read a few by now and I can recognize one when I see one. They include an earlier one by the same author (Changing Places?). That was excellent, this is better.
I confess that I never read beyond the first page of Portrait of a Lady by James as I found the style impenetrable, but that was 30 years ago, around the same time as Changing Places as it happens. Apart from that all I knew was that his place was secure in the Canon and an amusing anecdote from Al Alvarez's "The Writer's Voice". After reading Lodge's book I'd at least consider giving him another try, but I don't promise anything.
This book is centred around a period of some years in the middle of James' life, centring on his relationship with George Du Maurier, an American writer he called Fennimore and others from the literary scene. It is several things in one: a social history of the final years of the Victorian era, a source of interesting gossip about some of the contemporary literary figures (including, fleetingly, Shaw and the author of Kipps, HG Wells), a kind of literary tutorial (see below), and above all of course it is an account of James' comings and goings, and his artistic successes and disappointments, over the same period. As the author's note at the end of the book confirms, Lodge read widely about his subject and with few exceptions keeps very close to the known facts.
I actually read this book in its French translation which must have been a good one as it was easy to "see through" to the original, as it were. (There's an amusing scene where a street entertainer is serenading the crowd waiting to get into the premiere of James' play, and I'd confidently predict that the song was called "Where did you get that 'at".) Lodge's convincing description of the people in the queue for the cheap seats is typical of the book.
But in the end it is essentially the ordinary life of an ordinary (albeit gifted) man and this is, in fact, its biggest strength. At regular intervals throughout, Lodge returns to the contrast between serious and popular literature and explores in passing what James was trying to achieve in his work (he goes into more explicit detail in the final, moving pages). It seems that James was trying to capture the essence of human life, or its meaning, through close observation and the skilful presentation of the motivations of his characters. When you get to the end of Lodge's novel it dawns on you that this is exactly what Lodge has done using as his material the life of James and the supporting cast with their only-too-human quirks and frailties. Being no expert, I identify with the enthusiastic amateurs in the stalls, but here he is clearly addressing the Big Question that novels address: what is it all about? As well as another one: what is the point of art or literature? And he does it in the manner of his subject: gently, modestly, sympathetically, slyly, subtly, as well as in an entertaining way. So, it is a novel but (I'm sure James would agree, having dedicated his life to them) it is also a fine example of what is commonly known as a 'serious novel'.