Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Colm Toìbin, David Lodge, Henry James: It's How You Tell the Story

Funny where your reading can lead you. I started out this summer reading novels by Émile Zola as I tried to understand mid-19th century Paris for a book in part about Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the architect of the great tranformation of that city. But I realized soon that I already had seen part of the world in novels written by American novelist Henry James, so I dipped back into them. Then this week I discovered that two recent novels about Henry James by writers I admire were available in the library,and last night I sat down with them.

The books are The Master by Coim Toìbin and Author! Author! by David Lodge. Both writers—two of my favourites--turned to James for inspiration, featuring, apparently, the same sad episode in his life, the dreadful failure of his play Guy Domville in January, 1899.

Verdict? Well, the jury is still out because I have not read very far in either of them. Partly that is due to my annoyance with the way Toibin begins his book with the same, heavy, complicated sentences that James favoured. Why, I thought as I put the book on the beside table, should I read imitation James when there are a half dozen original James novels waiting downstairs for me to re-read?

The Lodge books starts out more briskly, with James’ man servant thinking about his recent military service in World War I while the great writer lies dying. It doesn’t appear to be imitation anything, and, as I have grown increasingly impatient with the rich and famous in my old age, I found the treatment of ordinary people far more interesting than Toibin’s torturous presentation of James’s agony over his theatrical failure.

But these are both just the beginnings of the books. I may change my mind. What is certain is that this pair of novels underscore the truth in the adage that it’s not the story, it’s how you tell it that’s important.

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