The Year of Henry James
Harvill Secker, 332pp, £18.99 ISBN
Writers are good at self-abuse and schadenfreude. Last year the poet Robin Robertson assembled an anthology called Mortification, in which literary figures recounted embarrassing moments. Being writers, they reshaped these recollections into scenes from which they emerged as brave or witty, while vying for the smallest audiences or the worst reviews. Writ-ing is therapy, and self-deprecation an art form. David Lodge, who not long ago wrote a novel called Therapy, has now produced an extended essay in the genre. In the opening section of The Year of Henry James, he attempts to exorcise the distressing experience of discovering, too late, that both he and Colm Tóibín had written a Henry James novel, scheduled for publication in the same year, and in contention for the same Booker Prize. It is a painstaking and pain-ful chronological record, noting many ironies and unlikely coincidences. Lodge is a fine comic novelist of manners, and this story has its funny moments, but it also has a darker, sadder side.
The most authentic Lodge episode finds our hero, shortly after the problematic reception of Author, Author, bravely trying to enjoy himself with his wife, Mary, in a luxury hotel in Tunbridge Wells. In the morning he is booked to speak down the line on the Today programme to Tóibín and John Humphrys, and he dutifully leaves the hotel for Radio Kent at 7.30. It is pouring with rain, and although he locates the building he cannot force an entry. Nobody responds to his banging on the steel door. There is no bell, no entryphone, and he has no mobile phone with him. He is, in the nick of time, admitted by a hunched figure clutching a takeaway coffee, who seems surprised to see him. Discomposed, Lodge finds his well-prepared jokes are no match for "Colm's mellifluous brogue". This is what happens to those who pay their dues to the age of publicity.
Henry James didn't have to endure many experiences like that. Henry James was plump and well protected. Lodge's novel claims that Henry (and we must call him Henry, not James, for reasons which Lodge explains) often ate three coddled eggs for breakfast. His mother coddled him, and when he grew up he was coddled by domestic servants, who cooked for him, laid out his clothes for him and drew his bath for him. (Some of his servants got out of hand, a sub-plot that is developed in yet another entertaining Henry James novel - Wendy Lesser's The Pagoda in the Garden, published in 2005.) These ministrations did not save him from the public catastrophe of the first night of his play Guy Domville, or from subsequent periods of profound depression, but at least he learned to suffer these in privacy, behind a high wall, away from the camera and the mockery of the press and the inquisition of John Humphrys.
The subtext of all the essays in this book is the zeitgeist - not the zeitgeist that makes four or five novelists cluster round the same subject at the same time, but the zeitgeist of marketing, now symbolised by the Booker. This prize has driven Lodge and many dodgier characters in this cautionary tale to the verge of madness. They all take it far too seriously. (Lodge says he felt rejected not to be on the longlist: that is sad.) He is a strange mixture (as are we all) of sophistication and naivety. On the one hand, he seems to know a great deal about marketing strategies and book launches and showcasing and festivals and literary editors; on the other hand, he makes the basic mistake of granting an "exclusive" interview to one national paper and simultaneously selling an extract from his work to another. He confesses all this with an air of bewilderment. He is too good for this hard world, and yet he cannot distance himself from it. It infects him. It infects us all.
In his essay on Granta's Best of Young American Novelists (1996, revised 2006), Lodge identifies "one of the most striking features of recent cultural history, the collaboration - some would call it an unholy alliance - of big business, the mass media, and high art, to their mutual material advantage". He does not reveal whether he himself regards it as unholy, and one cannot tell how lightly or seriously he uses that strong word. What is clear is that this alliance has caused much suffering, and some writers have chosen to pin their pain on to the Booker.
The Booker makes us all behave in a silly fashion. The Toronto Harbourfront festival in the year of Henry James was attended by Alan Hollinghurst and Colm Tóibín, the former having just won the prize and the latter therefore having "lost" it. They appeared together in public with good humour. But over hotel breakfast one morning I found myself, to my horror, interrogating Hollinghurst on the route of the 52 bus, instead of congratulating him, as I had intended, on The Line of Beauty. The 52 bus is pertinent to his novel, as to my life, but it wasn't what I wanted to talk to him about. The zeitgeist had reached Toronto and driven me mad.
Margaret Drabble's new novel, "The Sea Lady", will be published by Fig Tree in August