Staging Henry James: Representing the Author in Colm Tóibín’s The Master and David Lodge’s Author, Author! A Novel
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Staging Henry James:
Representing the Author in Colm Tóibín’s The Master and David Lodge’s Author, Author! A Novel

Any presentation of the artist in triumph must be flat in proportion as it really sticks to its subject—it can only smuggle in relief and variety. For, to put the matter in an image, all we then—in his triumph—see of the charm-compeller is the back he turns to us as he bends over his work. . . . The better part of him is locked too much away from us. . . .

—Henry James, Preface to The Tragic Muse

“A treacherous shit.” This is the epithet bequeathed by the dying Henry James upon George Alexander in David Lodge’s Author, Author. The fictional James’s generally confused state has given those attending upon his deathbed cause to believe that he is not fully appreciative of the honor bestowed upon him in the form of the OBE. However, the telegram of congratulations from Alexander provokes a startling and uncharacteristic expletive from James that testifies both to his bedrock of coherence and to the persistence of his feelings about what Alexander did to deserve such a response (AA 33). For it was Alexander, of course, who responded, twenty years previously, to the (cat)calls of “Author! Author!” by drawing the very private James onto the stage after the first London performance of Guy Domville and to the extraordinary scene of humiliation that was to follow. “A treacherous shit”: the phrase is in one sense merely one of many comic moments in Lodge’s witty novel, but it also speaks of the wrenching pathos that counterpoints the humor at nearly every turn. Moreover, it is an epithet that haunts Lodge himself in Author, Author, as well as Colm Tóibín in [End Page 181] The Master, both of whom tread a knife edge between hagiography and humiliation in their treatment of Henry James.

Tóibín and Lodge both describe the same period in James’s life and both have written accounts of the production and reception of their novels: Tóibín in a keynote address to the International Henry James Society conference in Venice in 2005 (published in the Henry James Review) and Lodge in his 2006 The Year of Henry James or, Timing is All: The Story of a Novel. Their novels and subsequent reflections occupy the vortex of a flurry of novels that, in one way or another, reference James.1 Tempting as it is to accept Lodge’s invitation to “students of the Zeitgeist to ponder the significance of these coincidences” (AA 389), in this essay I prefer to examine just one of these coincidences, not so much as a reflection of “the Zeitgeist” but rather in terms of how it reflects and offers new perspectives on the very Jamesian problem of writing creatively about creativity. I am especially interested in how this problem is played out at the level of content and in narrative technique. To this end, towards the conclusion of this essay, I consider how Catherine Belsey’s rereading of the Lacanian “magic circle” in her recent study, Culture and the Real, affords us a discursive paradigm within which questions about writers writing about writing might be productively articulated. Belsey’s concern is with how works of art perform a cultural function in that they give deflected but pleasurable expression to the unsignifiable conditions that constitute the Lacanian real. While Belsey certainly doesn’t refer to the biographical novel in her argument, I regard the new emphasis she gives to Lacan’s propositions as strongly persuasive when read alongside Lodge’s and Tóibín’s texts.

The first performance of Guy Domville at the St James’s Theatre and its attendant débâcle are central to both novels (AA 230–65; MA 11–19). Perhaps this is not such a remarkable “coincidence,” after all: it is a watershed episode in James’s career that has all the elements of crisis and drama that a novelist might wish for. But the event also resonates, in strikingly similar ways, within the deep narrative of these novels, the metaphorical force of their...