THE YEAR OF HENRY JAMES: The Story of a Novel

David Lodge
Penguin Global ($18)

by Jerome Klinkowitz

It would be easy to dismiss David Lodge’s new book as the whinings of a prickly Englishman about how his novel Author, Author (2004) failed to make the 22-title longlist for Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize. He’d been on the five-volume shortlist twice before, in 1984 with Small World and four years later with Nice Work, and had feasted on the benefits, including popular reissues of all his novels in the U.K. and U.S., graced with appealing covers by cartoonist Paul Cox and lavish introductions by the author himself. The Man Booker contest had lifted Lodge’s fiction from his publisher’s midlist to bestsellerdom, without any compromises of artistic merit. Author, Author, an especially inventive experiment in the relatively new field of historical metafiction, was meant to test the creative limits of the author’s hard-won fame. And then, by a flabbergasting series of accidents and coincidences, Lodge’s race for the prize ran afoul.

So it’s natural to moan about how things went badly. David Lodge surely does make a fuss about it, albeit in a tempered, measured way. Indeed, there’s great comedy in the man’s mastery of suppressed rage, quelled in a way that invites the reader’s cynical sympathy—after all, as a critic Lodge is an expert on the work of Evelyn Waugh. But there’s also plenty of room for serious thoughts about the nature of contemporary fiction, from how it’s marketed all the way back to how it’s conceived. “The Year of Henry James: The Story of a Novel” is a novella-length narrative that shares space with eight shorter essays on literary self-consciousness; the eponymously titled volume as a whole qualifies as one of David Lodge’s more important books, where even the whinings make serious points.

The story of the novel is simple: Author, Author was meant to stand as an imaginative investigation of Henry James’s futile attempts to become a broadly popular author, and how his failures at this (including a disastrous foray into the theater) humbled him in the face of his close friend George du Maurier’s dumb-luck success with Trilby, one of the best-selling novels of all time. In working out the narrative, Lodge made as great or greater progress in writing a biographical novel as did E. L. Doctorow, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, and so many others who in recent years have embraced the form. The form is metafictive not simply because of authorial self-consciousness but because of the reader’s awareness of what’s real and what’s made up. As a successor to the more blatantly innovative fiction of the 1960s and 1970s, historical metafiction has reinterpreted realism for our times, taking advantage of all the benefits of anti-illusionistic writing while hanging on to shared history as well. Lodge’s title essay goes a long way toward explaining just how this process works and deserves study as a critical document.

No matter that it’s anecdotal. The anecdotes are alternately infuriating and hilarious—and, like Evelyn Waugh, the author relishes their telling. Given that storytelling is the subject here, why shouldn’t Lodge tell some good ones? Their value is that they’re indicative of how an interesting new form of fiction is being made. And then unmade, in his case, by certain idiocies of the publishing world. But that’s how one learns things: by taking them apart, at times uncovering the assumptions that had been disguised as truths. That it all fell apart (in terms of reception) suggests how it may all stay together the next time around.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009