Friday, September 21, 2007

A day without murder; reviews of Chekhov and David Lodge's Author, Author

To quote from my own writing on crimespace,

Crime fiction is such a pleasure, the psychology of this sometimes troubles me (but I know I can quit whenever I want to).

So today I prove that I really can quit whenever I want to. Today is a day for other types of fiction.

First, a quick hit: I began reading Chekhov's collected short stories* the other night and was immediately hooked by Chameleon. Chekhov only needed three pages to create and define an entire world, using a dog bite as the device. Utterly brilliant, highly recommended. (My kids, age 12 and 14, didn't get it when I read it to them- let's blame it on the presentation).

*Anton Chekhov's Short Stories, the critical edition, W. W. Norton, 1979, NY.

Two significant books from favorite authors of mine are Author, Author by David Lodge and To The Hermitage (TTH) by Malcolm Bradbury. They both treat their subjects in detail, though TTH is a bit heavier going at times. TTH seems to dwarf Author, Author, though it is only 117 pages longer, with a count of 498 (and somewhat denser type). These reviews are more than my usual impressionistic overviews (or less, let me know!) in that I have referred to the texts to check facts. Note: TTH will be reserved for a later post given the length of the text below.

Author, Author is the fictionalized story of Henry James, who looks back from his deathbed (d. January 2, 1916) on the last 30 years of his life as a prolific writer. David Lodge takes little liberty with history and we learn a great deal about the relationships between James and his friends. Seem like a sleeper? Not on your life. There are many thoroughly captivating aspects to the book, not the least of which is the story of how James struggled to be a success and never quite made it. While geniuses who were never appreciated during their lifetime are nothing new, it was a shock to me that James was considered almost a failure by his own family, who looked to Henry's brother, William, for their shining star.

We learn from Author, Author about the financial struggles that James endured, about his playwriting (which was unknown to me- I must have gone to the wrong schools), and about his friendships. The financial difficulties should not be downplayed- one of the greatest writers in the history of the English language sold few volumes of most books and was forced constantly to think up new, attempted, money-making ventures. James was very aware of how his reputation had not ascended relative to others', in discord with the quality of his work. This should be a lesson to us all (fill in your own portentous thought here).

In an episode that made him proud of his best friend yet caused him secret pain, Henry James was even overshadowed by that friend, Gerald Du Maurier, a cartoonist for Punch and rather an accidental novelist of significantly and admittedly lesser talent, who happened to write the immensely popular novel for which the term "bestseller" was coined. Du Maurier's book, Trilby, was so successful on both sides of the Atlantic that it became a stage show and introduced new words to common usage in addition to "bestseller", namely "Svengali" (the character created by Du Maurier) and "trilby" itself (a type of hat that really came from the stage show, where it was worn by central character Trilby O'Farrell, the tone-deaf model who became a wonderful singer under the spell of the hypnotist, Svengali). Trilby may no longer be in common use, but I certainly knew it was a hat, and, at least up to my generation, Svengali was a well-known character and character type, even if his origins were obscure to many. Du Maurier was somewhat sheepish about his success, at least with his friend James. Unfortunately, we see good evidence that the celebrity accompanying Trilby ruined Du Maurier's health and led to his premature demise.

The stereotypically-prejudiced description of the Jewish hypnotist, Svengali, as an evil opportunist should not go unmentioned.

There is much to learn in Author, Author about the other friendships of Henry James, and about his persona, which was restrained and constrained by the behavior of gentlemen, at least as James perceived it should be. He was of course American, but this may have been hard to believe given his adoption of upper-class English habits.

Part of the additional fascination that Author, Author held for me came from the links to the familiar and all the way up to my own lifetime: namely George's granddaughter, novelist Daphne Du Maurier (see Rebecca, The Birds, Don't Look Now, and more, both the books and films: Daphne Du Maurier), and also to the tragic story of George's four doomed grandsons who were adopted by J. M. Barrie and who inspired his play, Peter Pan (see: J. M. Barrie).
© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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