Monday, April 17, 2017

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“AUTHOR, AUTHOR” by David Lodge (first published in 2004); “CORA CRANE” by Paul Ferris (first published in 2004)

Recently (issue of 1 April 2017 to be precise), I wrote for the New Zealand Listener a review of a rather sentimental novel by Polly Clark called Larchfield, which introduces the young W. H. Auden as a main character. I said in my review that I always feel a little queasy when canonical authors are introduced into fiction this way. In most cases, novelists who do this seem to be reaching for easy and ready-made cultural respectability. But, I have to add at once, there have been novels about real novelists and other writers that have worked reasonably well. About 13 years ago, I found myself, as a newspaper book-reviewer, being deluged with novels about real authors. Here are the reviews I wrote of two of them in the year 2004-2005.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *
First, and certainly the better, David Lodge’s novel about HenryJames, Author, Author. By coincidence, Lodge, well known as both a literary critic and a novelist, wrote his novel in the same year that Colm Toibin, the gay Irish novelist, was also writing a very different novel about Henry James called The Master. Reviewers had great fun comparing Toibin’s (more solemn) novel with Lodge’s (more genial) one.
Anyway, unaltered from its appearance in the old Dominion-Post (17 October 2004), Here is my review of David Lodge’s Author, Author.

In Author, Author, David Lodge presents a proposition about sex that is so shocking, daring and contrary to current received morality that it is likely to outrage quite a few readers. Lodge suggests (and I did warn you this was pretty shocking) that some people can live productive, significant and worthwhile lives without engaging in sexual activity at all. Astounding as it may seem in this day and age, he implies that there may be something to be said for celibacy.
Author, Author is Lodge’s novel about Henry James. Thanks in large part to his authoritative biographer Leon Edel, James is now seen by many as the paradigm of repressed homosexuality. Clearly James lived and died a virgin, but that hasn’t stopped Queer Theorists from combing through his convoluted prose for signs of covert sexual activity. Lodge’s James is a different creature. The James of this novel does indeed admit to himself that he is probably a “Uranist” by inclination (the term “homosexual” was only just beginning to be used in his day). But the thought of actual sexual contact with anyone horrifies him. On the one occasion a man propositions him, he flees in terror. His one meeting with Oscar Wilde convinces him that Wilde is a flashy cad and bounder. In fact, Uranist or not, says this novel, James’ most significant emotional relationship was probably with the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, who may have committed suicide because James did not reciprocate her passion for him. Only later, implies Lodge, did James come to realise how much she meant to him, thus inspiring him to write his sad short story The Beast in the Jungle.
Actually James’ sexuality is not centre-stage for most of this novel, even if it is likely to cause much comment…. More central for Lodge is the tale of how James, the literary perfectionist and high-brow, tried and failed to turn himself into a bestseller. Framed by scenes at James’ deathbed in 1916, the novel focuses on James’ friendship with the vulgarian bestselling George Du Maurier (author of Trilby) and James’ disastrous attempts to write a popular West End play. The failure of his Guy Domville – which also features in Toibin’s The Master – was a great humiliation.
Though thoroughly enjoying every page of Author, Author, I did find myself asking anxiously whether it is really a novel, or simply dramatized literary biography. In extensive author’s notes at the beginning and end of its leisurely 400 pages, Lodge assures us that all major characters are real, as are all quotations from letters, plays and so forth. Characters’ thoughts and much dialogue, however, are inevitably Lodge’s invention.
I approve of his admiring, affectionate portrait of the novelist plugging away despite adversity and depression. I enjoyed playing the game of recognising which of James’ novels and stories are being referred to, in embryonic form, in those scenes where James gets sudden inspiration.  But in some sense the game is up about six pages from the end when Lodge tells us, in his own voice, exactly what he thinks of James and his achievement.
I’m sure James would have loved the affirmation Author, Author gives him. But his fastidious soul might have been outraged by the literary form.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *
Now for a novel which is sort of about the novelist, journalist and short-story writer Stephen Crane, although he is not the main character. Once again, the man who wrote the novel, Paul Ferris, is novelist and literary critic and biographer, just as David Lodge his. Ferris’s biography of his fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas sits on my shelf next to other attempts to biographise the drunken bard and his wife. Again unaltered from its newspaper appearance (Sunday Star-Times, 10 October 2004), here is my review of Paul Ferris’s Cora Crane:

It seems to be part of the postmodern condition that novelists write novels about other novelists. The world is now awash with works of fiction about Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Katherine Mansfield, Ernest Hemingway and so forth.
In Cora Crane, Paul Ferris, a novelist and seasoned literary biographer, tries something a little different. This isn’t a novel about a novelist, but a novel about a novelist’s spouse.
Cora Stewart was the common law wife of the young American Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage.
They couldn’t marry because her husband, raffish twit of an English army officer, refused to give her a divorce even though he had deserted her.
Cora and Stephen met in the American brothel of which she was the madam and he a bashful customer.
This was the 1890s so, when they settled in England to start a new life together, they pretended to be respectably married.
But Stephen was as much in love with being a war correspondent as he was in love with Cora. He left her stranded and without an income, while he set off to cover the Spanish-American War in Cuba.
Ferris’ novel concerns Cora’s time alone in London, waiting for Stephen to come back while fearing that he never will, and trying to scrape together a living among the literary set. Some authors are kind to her, especially the discerning Polish genius Joseph Conrad who respects Stephen as a rising talent. But high society and the law are suspicious of Cora’s background and her former profession. Much of the novel concerns detective inspector Fred Hooper, more than a little of a P. C. Plod, who sniffs around after Cora imagining that she is trying to set up a white slavery ring.
It is hard to know how much of this story is true. Unlike, for example, David Lodge in his recent novel about Henry James, Paul Ferris gives us no detailed author’s notes. There is only the one-sentence statement “Some of this story is true.”
Perhaps the literal truth doesn’t matter. More important is the clash between Cora and late-Victorian social rules. Ferris scores well in the untidy atmosphere of unhygienic old London, with its conmen, child-traders, odd religious sects and incongruous tea parties.
Less successful is the depiction of the luckless Hooper. The vigorous suppressor of vice, who proves to be neurotic and sexually repressed, is a teensy bit of a cliché.
The novel’s biggest asset is its convincing portrait of the female protagonist’s mind and preoccupations.
It still worries me that I don’t know how much is fiction, though.

FOOTNOTE: It turns out that I was right to worry in the above review about the historical veracity of Cora Crane. Subsequent research tells me that the character of detective Hooper is pure fiction and some reviewers, more au fait with the Cranes than I am, pounced on the novel’s fabrications.

No comments:

Post a Comment