Last week's issue of Time Out London carried an interview I did with David Lodge, whose novel Author, Author is out this week. The piece is not available online. In its place, I'm posting here the transcript of my conversation with Lodge, on which the published article was based. I'm assuming that I'm not breaching anyone's copyright in doing so.
JD: I’m interested to know how you think Author, Author relates to your critical exploration of the problem of consciousness; and whether it would be plausible to see this and Thinks, as well as your critical writings, as forming a single, continuous exploration of that problem.
DL: There’s certainly a connection between Thinks, Consciousness and the Novel and this one. I guess Henry James is the thread that is common to them all. Henry James came into Thinks in, as it were, a non-physical way: the heroine is an expert on him and often invokes him in discussions of the literary treatment of consciousness in the novel. That was something I developed and investigated further critically when I wrote the title essay, ‘Consciousness and the Novel’. And I guess that it was one of the reasons that I thought of writing this novel about Henry James – which, in other respects, is a complete change of direction in my work; it’s a completely new genre for me, a sort of fact-based novel – I’d never done that before. I actually first conceived the idea of a novel about James and Du Maurier while I was researching Thinks, and that took quite a long time. So I actually got the idea for Author, Author back in 1995, I think. But I didn’t start working on it until 2000, because I didn’t want to put aside Thinks. So they are interlinked in that way.
I guess in a larger sense some of my scholarly work on fiction and the nineteenth century novel was useful to me in writing this book. James was actually an author special study paper in modern literature that I did as an undergraduate. At that time, though, I wasn’t really a Jamesian; although I admired the work, I remember I avoided answering questions on him. When I started teaching at Birmingham one of the first things I had to do was write a lecture about The Ambassadors, and I got very enthusiastic. From then onwards I frequently taught James. So he became a staple writer for me. Lately, I got interested in adapting the classics personally. And I was struck by the popularity of James as an author for adaptation. I also began to write for the theatre abd became very interested in James’s experience as a novelist who, fairly late in life, tried to be playwright – which is in a way what I did. All those things fed into Author, Author really. It’s an irony that James was never successful as a playwright, but that his stories after his death were very popular for adaptation into plays and screenplays. That was an irony that interested and that I tried to weave into the book. It is a book which takes threads from both my previous novels and from my critical interest in the novel.
JD: You said that although it’s thematically continuous with those interests, it’s also a departure in terms of genre. I noticed in Colm Toibin’s The Master that he has James describing the historical novel as “tainted by a fatal cheapness”. Is this a historical novel? And what do you understand the “historical novel” to be exactly?
DL: I was aware of the irony of writing such a novel about James. Somewhere in ‘Consciousness and the Novel’, in fact, I quote him 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. I think James slightly exaggerated and it was a way, as most novelists’ pronouncements tend to be, of justifying his own practice. After all, we do have the literature of the past as a key to how people thought. I think also that James was thinking of the sort of Walter Scott tradition of historical fiction. He was thinking of novels which attempted to go a good way back in time, and 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.
JD: I’m interested to know how think this historical turn in your fiction affected the texture of your prose. You've talked in the past about your interest in voice and polyphony.
DL: I did originally think about a slightly more experimental treatment of the subject, in which there’d be many more authorial interventions – that sort of thing. A sort of constant jerking backwards and forwards between the past and our present perspective. I quickly gave that up because it seemed to me since the story I wanted to tell was about two men who were friends and unexpectedly became rivals there was considerable power in knowing that this was a true story. I had to make a choice: was it going to be from the point of view of both Du Maurier and James, or would it be focalised through James? I decided on the latter course, because otherwise the novel would have become too long and rather tedious, batting back and forth. So it is essentially James’s story. In the main story, therefore, polyphony, if you like, is only represented in dialogue. That story is written in a kind of Jamesian method of third-person discourse vocalised through James, so that the language is not a pastiche of James but …
JD: I wanted to ask you about that: I wonder whether that’s one of the dangers you were conscious of – making James sound too Jamesian?
DL: I didn’t want to fall into parodying James’s written style. I didn’t attempt to do an exact imitation of James, but there are certain characteristics of his style which lend the story a kind of authenticity. For example, he was very strong on adverbs. And we know from contemporaries’ reports that he spoke in a rather contorted way, struggling to edit his own remarks. So I imitated that.
The main story is told through James’s point of view, therefore, in a voice that tries to imitate his sensibility. The frame story is more polyphonic, it’s switching from one character to another, one character’s language and perspective to another; and there are some authorial interventions too.
JD: Indeed, there are still remnants of the more formally experimental approach nevertheless aren’t there? Particularly the italicised passage towards the end and the authorial intervention there. What’s the status of those passages?
DL: One of the inspirations for the novel was my sense of the irony of James’s posthumous success. I always wanted to get that in, but there was a problem: how could you get that into a sort of historical novel? So the frame story gave me the license to introduce myself in a somewhat whimsical way. There is an authorial note at the beginning, which is in italics and ends with a row of dots. And the idea is that when the italics come in again at the end, with the frame story, that’s a continuation of the author’s voice. It was a bit of a risk, but I’m not unhappy with it.
JD: And there’s that chapter in part III, where you multiply perspectives.
DL: That’s right, that’s another case where a strictly Jamesian aesthetic didn’t seem to give me the freedom to do what I wanted. I read Leon Edel’s account of the first night a long time ago, and was very struck by it – the extraordinary fact that you had all these famous writers, some of them not yet famous, there. I always wanted to get that into the book, not only from James’s traumatised point of view, but also through the eyes of other people who were there. Again, it was a case of just finding a sort of form of words, an indication that I was changing the convention. The idea was that James actually did discover all this in the end, indirectly, through reports from friends, reading memoirs of the occasion etc. There’s some poetic license there, but a great deal of what I describe is documented in books, memoirs. The idea is that James became later aware that he was only one point of view here, that there was another story in brackets, as it were, going on, of which he was ignorant. James is often taken to be the practitioner of a very austere kind of fictional method, which restricts the presentation of experience either to one character or, if to more than one, then according to some quite rigid scheme. He does wonderful things with that and there’s a lot to be said for that kind of form. But in this case I wanted a way out of it.
JD: I wonder if you could say a bit more about your decision to make an episode of failure the centrepiece of the novel, the debacle of Guy Domville.
DL: I got the idea for the novel when I read Trilby, rather late in life actually, in in fact 1995. I read in the introduction that Du Maurier had offered the story of Trilby to James and James had said, no, why don’t you write it? And then, secondly, and this astonished me, Trilby was said to be the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century. Putting this together seemed to be an extraordinary irony and the idea of the novel grew out of that. I found, and it was very much to my purpose, that the terrible humiliation of Guy Domville happened at more or less the same time as Du Maurier’s extraordinary success with Trilby. It made Du Maurier famous and rich in the way that James had always longed for. Though, in fact, it didn’t bring Du Maurier any happiness and seemed to accelerate his death soon afterwards. It was a very rich mixture and the central climactic action of the novel would be James’s humiliation after the first night of Guy Domville. It worked to show the development of the friendship between those two and, at the same time, to try and show James struggling to get plays put on and being frustrated all the time. I don’t think you can appreciate the full impact of the Guy Domville debacle unless you realise how much time and effort he put into this campaign to become a playwright. And it was something I empathised with, because any novelist who’s venture into either the theature or film and TV has usually had very frustrating experiences.
JD: Are you speaking from personal experience?
DL: Oh absolutely! Though I’ve never been booed. But certainly there’ve been lots of disappointments about things that haven’t been produced or performed.
JD: And there’s a sense, as well, in which the novel is a kind of highly sophisticated fan letter. You’re addressing his shade and the novel is a sort of gift intended to mitigate the disappointment not just of Guy Domville, but also of the reception for the late novels and for the New York Edition.
DL: Yes, though I wouldn’t say James is the novelist I most revere and admire. I’d say that’s James Joyce actually. But I do admire him a great deal. Anyway, he’s a very different novelist from me. Technically, he is extraordinarily brilliant, and stylistically he’s wonderful. I’m re-reading for another purpose at the moment Graham Greene’s essays, and James is the novelist he most often quotes and cites and discusses – which is not something you’d immediately predict or suppose.
JD: Yes, there is a sense in which James the novelist’s novelist. And it is a minor historical irony that several other novelists have chosen to write about James at the same time as you. How do you feel about that? Were you aware that these things were in the pipeline?
DL: Well, I was aware of Emma Tennant’s novel Felony. I was, in fact, rather disturbed when that came out. I was about 20,000 words into my novel and I read a review of it. I got from the review a sense that it really wasn’t very much like mine and but I decided I wouldn’t read it or read any more reviews of it, so I wouldn’t get distracted. I didn’t know Colm Toibin was working on a novel about James until about three or four weeks after I’d delivered mine. And I was frankly rather gobsmacked, and I decided, again, although I’m intensely curious to read it and Emma Tennant’s novel, not read that until I’ve published mine. It is a very extraordinary coincidence and it’s equally extraordinary that neither of is, as far as I know, was aware of the other’s, and it’s surprising that we didn’t hear on the grapevine earlier. But I’m very pleased I didn’t know, as I’d have been very distracted and disturbed I think. So my book was completed and revised without my knowing anything about these other books. Though I believe Toibin had been working on it for a very long time – as I had. So I’m looking forward to being able to read these books in tranquillity.