Henry James

David Lodge has a new novel out, Author, Author. It’s about Henry James, and about writing – especially about writing. I thought Lodge’s two latest novels were really verging on bad, but this one sounds brilliant. The people on Saturday Review last week (all but one, who was tepid) competed with each other in superlatives. ‘I just, loved it,’ they kept exclaiming.

I find James quite an interesting character, and always have. His letters fascinate me. I have a lovely volume of letters beween him and his also fascinating brother William. But I find Harry even more interesting, I suppose because he’s more obsessive and peculiar – less ‘normal’ than William. Though neither of them was what you’d call average. At any rate, it’s suddenly apparent that a lot of people find Harry interesting, although predictably and boringly enough that’s sometimes because of his sexual orientation rather than because of the intellectual life – the writing and the thinking about writing. But not Lodge’s, apparently.

Mark Lawson did a long interview with Lodge on Front Row yesterday. It’s good stuff. And Jonathan Derbyshire did one for Time Out last week and has posted the transcript on his blog. Lodge has written about consciousness before, and the new novel could be seen as the third in a sort of trilogy about consciousness. But this one is also a historical novel, which complicates things:

Somewhere in ‘Consciousness and the Novel’, in fact, I quote [James] saying that the historical novel is an impossibility, because the novelist cannot think himself back into the consciousnesses of people in, say, the Middle Ages. That was a very interesting indication of how he thought the quick of fiction was in the interior consciousness of the characters, and that however many facts you might accumulate, you could never actually know what it was like to experience the world in those distant periods.

It’s a suggestive thought – because of course what it suggests is ‘yes but you can’t actually know what it’s like to experience anyone else’s consciousness, no matter how contemporary. You can get hints, an idea, an approximation – maybe – provided your sources aren’t lying to you, or lying to themselves and hence to you, or inarticulate, or confused, or…’ – well you see the problem. It’s all guess-work and extrapolation. Though I suppose what James meant is that we have far less material with which to make those guesses and extrapolations; we have fewer hints and ideas and approximations.

I think our sensibility and our consciousness is not so totally different from that of the late Victorians. So it’s not impossible to reconstruct their view of the world. And we have an enormous amount of data about how people actually felt and thought. We know an immense amount about James himself too. So we know a lot more than a Victorian novelist could know about medieval history. So there’s no real contradiction in trying to write a novel about Henry James.

The letters help, and there are a lot of them. James did have a point – there aren’t a great many letters of the kind he and William wrote, from the 14th century. The Paxtons wrote different kinds of letters and besides they were later.

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