David Lodge may not have invented the "campus novel," but he would surely be named the Novelist Laureate of the Academic Lampoon if ever there were such a title. In fact, his thirteen novels, among them The British Museum Is Falling Down, Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses, Small World: An Academic Romance, How Far Can You Go?, and Nice Work, have earned the University of Birmingham's Emeritus Professor of Modern English Literature the Commander of the Order of the British Empire and the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres as well as the Whitbread prize in 1980 and a place on the Booker Prize shortlist in 1984 and again in 1988. Charged with shrewd observations about academia, his erudite fiction is peopled with such memorable characters as beleaguered graduate student Adam Appleby, a married, Catholic father of three who finds solace in books because "literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children," and Morris Zapp, an Austen scholar who hopes to make all scholarship other than his own obsolete. His settings include places like Plotinus (modeled after Berkeley, California) and Birmingham, Englandinspired Rummidge, "an imaginary city, with imaginary universities and imaginary factories, inhabited by imaginary people." Lodge artfully explores serious subjectsãCatholicism in a secular society, the decline of England's manufacturing industry, the transatlantic exchange between the British and Americansówithout ever dampening his humor or weighing down his storytelling verve.
In his new novel, Author, Author (forthcoming from Viking in October), Lodge takes readers to Lamb House, the East Sussex residence of Henry James. A straightforward biographical novel about a celibate, late-Victorian American expatriate would seem a major departure for the satirically inclined Lodge, who typically imbues his characters with especially active libidos. But James's personal history brims with the kind of poignant irony that fuels Lodge's earlier works. The result is a masterfully complex portrait of a man torn between creative integrity and commerce, and one who agonizes over jealousy and ambition, never able to resolve his sexual identity or quench his thirst for popularity in his lifetime.
David Lodge spoke with Bookforum in early July by phone from his Birmingham home about his decision to make his first foray into biographical fiction and indulge his long-held fascination with James. The experience provided an uncomfortable surprise: No sooner did Lodge complete Author, Author than he learned that two other novels about James were slated for publication in 2004, by acclaimed writers Colm Toíbín and Alan Hollinghurst. With candor and his signature droll wit, Lodge describes the fiercely competitive world of books at the turn of two different centuries. óKERA BOLONIK
Bookforum: In The British Museum Is Falling Down, you send up Henry James, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway, among others. And in Small World, the second in a trilogy of satirical novels about the Ivory Tower, you spoof academic conferences, portraying them as comical hotbeds full of unrelentingly ambitious hotheads. Author, Author is your first biographical novel. What inspired you to venture into new territory? And why Henry James?
David Lodge: As a novelist and critic I've always been interested in James, but in the '90s I began to write for television, film, and theater. Many of the screenplay projects never actually came to anything, though I did have some things made on television and wrote two plays that were produced with limited success. That put me in the mood to empathize with James's attempt as a playwright. I was also interested in the irony that a lot of his stories have been very successfully adapted for the stage, television, and film since his death. But this book was really triggered in the mid-'90s, when I read George Du Maurier's novel Trilby for the first time. A television company was thinking of adapting it and asked my agent if I would be interested. I didn't think it could be dramatized for a modern audience, but I was intrigued by it. Then I read in the introduction that Du Maurier had offered the story to his friend, James, who declined to adapt it for the stage and suggested Du Maurier adapt it himself.
BF: That would've been hard for James to bear. He was secretly jealous of his friend's success.
DL: Yes. Trilby was thought to be the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century. Du Maurier never expected that kind of success and didn't really seem to enjoy it. He was not a well man, and success seemed to hasten his death. Anyway, I'd never written a novel of this kind before, and perhaps when you get to a certain age, the idea of attempting something different is rather appealing. Many novelists start off by writing rather autobiographical novels, and the more mature they get, the likelier they are to research a subject taken from some area of life that they haven't ever encountered before. There is also a kind of trend, though I wasn't aware of it at the time, for writing fiction about real people.
BF: Yes, Michael Cunningham's The Hours featured Virginia Woolf, and Kate Moses recently imagined the life of Sylvia Plath.
DL: Just this year, there's a novel out about Katharine Mansfield. And I don't need to tell you that there are two or three books out about Henry James. That's an extra peculiar twist.
BF: Why do you think James is in vogue right now?
DL: I have no idea. I'm immensely curious to read Colm Toíbín's The Master and Emma Tennant's Felony, which takes off from The Aspern Papers, but I decided that it would be better if I didn't read them until my book is published so that I can talk about mine without making comparisons. That's for other people to discuss. There's also Alan Hollinghurst's Line of Beauty, about a man who is writing a book about James. I haven't read that either. I met a publisher recently who said he'd had another book submitted to him about James's secretary, presumably Theodora Bosanquet, so it goes on. I am puzzled, not that novelists have been attracted to James as a subject, but because it has taken so long. The story has been there to be told ever since Leon Edel published Henry James, a Life  and James's letters. James is an obvious subject because he's so interesting. But I can't really offer any other explanations. All of usóToíbín, Hollinghurst, Tennant, and Iówere working in complete ignorance of one another. I'm very glad I didn't know. I'd have been extremely disturbed.
BF: Perhaps it's because of James's tremendous impact on the modern novel.
DL: He is a writer's writer, and I think we're all very literary novelists. The fact that James is Anglo-American means that he's of interest to a large English-speaking community. His sexuality was ambivalent, so he could be regarded as a repressed or closeted homosexual, which makes him interesting to gay writers. There are many reasons, but it's still somewhat mystifying that all of these books, some of whichómine and Toíbín's, certainlyóhave been in gestation for a very long while, should come out at more or less the same time.
BF: Are you worried about it?
DL: I think in the long run it won't make any difference. Toíbín and I are different writers, so we'll have a different take on the subject. I've been told he has nothing in his novel about Du Maurier, which is a very large part of mine, and I have nothing in mine about some characters James met in Ireland that figure quite largely in his. I know roughly what the scope of his book is, and the debacle surrounding the public failure of his play Guy Domville is central to both. All literary novels compete with each other for attention, but they don't usually compete head-to-head like this. You expect your novel to be unique, and if you make up a story, it almost certainly will be. Toíbín's book came out first, so it was more of a novelty than mine will be. I can't disguise the fact that I feel a little bit threatened in a professional way by this circumstance.
BF: In your book The Practice of Writing , you address the perils of mixing fact with invention. When fiction partly corresponds to historical fact, you say even the most sophisticated readers will assume it does so in every respect. Did this thought affect your writing of Author, Author?
DL: Historical fiction is a completely different ballgame. Anybody who writes a novel about a real person, based on real facts, has a choice about how free they're going to be with the facts and how much they're going to add of their own invention. Roughly speaking, the less we know about a person, the freer the writer is to invent. James is a relatively modern figure, a great deal is known about him, and a great deal of records remain, so you would lose the credence of a lot of your audience if you made Henry James behave in a way that was absolutely contradictory to what we know about him. Unless you were writing a deliberately absurdist workóobviously, that wasn't what I was trying to do.
BF: How much invention was involved?
DL: When I began thinking about the novel, I assumed I would invent a number of minor characters and would invent quite a lot, but when I started writing I changed my mind. Just as a good poem has a regularity of meter and rhyme, so a good novel has some sort of self-imposed pattern in the way it treats reality. I observed the facts as I knew them and kept to the dates. I went looking for times when interesting things converged. To me, it was very satisfying that James's great disappointment and humiliation over his play Guy Domville coincided with the huge successómore or less within the same yearóof Trilby, and also with the tragic death of his dear friend Constance Fenimore Woolson. A novelist could invent that, but a biographical novelist has to be lucky. All the named characters are real people with the exception of the man who teaches James how to ride a bicycle. He was a real person, but his name is unknown. Long before I started writing Author, Author, I took part in an "Immortality Auction" for a charity, where bidders paid money for the right to have their name used in a writer's next novel, and I got increasingly worried about honoring my contract. A friend who read my novel suggested the auction winner lend his name to the anonymous bicycle teacher.
BF: Your empathy for James's failure as a playwright is one inspiration for Author, Author. When you were writing for stage and screen, did the specter of Guy Domville haunt you?
DL: Gore Vidal said the terrible fate that awaits all novelists who try to write for the theater without understanding how to do it is to write a Guy Domville. It has become an exemplary case. There are plenty of failed plays, but that one was so spectacular: To actually be booed publicly on the stage! And given the nature of James's character, you cannot imagine anything more humiliating. He was writing plays according to an old-fashioned dramatic formula he had observed in the Comédie Française when he was younger, but writing them in the era of Ibsen and Wilde. As I implied through the thoughts of his actress/ producer friend Elizabeth Robins, although he was fascinated by the theater, he kind of despised it at the same time. She compares him to an elderly uncle trying to play with the children. But he could write extremely good dialogue, and his early stories are very funny and can be dramatized very well. James Ivory's film adaptation of The Europeans is a very good comedy of manners. James himself never managed to do that when he sat down to write a play. It's strange.
BF: Too self-conscious?
DL: Perhaps. Certainly Guy Domville seems a disastrous choice of subject. An eighteenth-century Catholic gentlemanóit brought out only the most literary and least dramatic side of James's writing. He did try adapting Daisy Miller, but it was never produced. I'm sure it would have been much more successful.
BF: I was struck by your depiction of James as being conscious of the way he treats his sexuality on the page, garnering insight from the French novels he reads, and handling it with an English reserve. Do you think his novels are charged with sexual code or gay subtext, as some academics have argued?
DL: I don't think he was always conscious of the sexuality in his writing. He wrote some notoriously sexually charged passages which he cannot really have intended to be as erotically suggestive as we see them because he was a rather proper person. In those days, that kind of writing wouldn't have been acceptable. Some queer theorists have found a lot of what they claim to be homosexual or anal imagery, which, I'm sure, is completely unconscious, if it is there.
BF: James bristles in the presence of Wilde and other openly gay men. Obviously he felt threatened by them.
DL: Yes, he did. He enjoyed the company of women but didn't have any sexual desire for them, and he didn't allow himself to have sexual desire for other young men while he was youngóthat's my inference from the way he behaves. In later life, he had crushes on a couple of young men. He'd be very affectionate with them, write them letters which we find now rather warm, almost like love letters. But I think we have to allow for different codes of behavior and manners and for James's metaphorical language. He had a relationship with a Norwegian-American sculptor, Hendrik Andersen, which was about as close as he came to falling in love with another man. Edel says we just don't know whether there was anything physical. He doubts it, and I doubt it, too.
BF: Were you daunted by the prospect of writing about this? Celibacy isn't your characters' usual sexual preference.
DL: In a way, that was a very refreshing change for me. I write quite a bit about the sexual lives of my characters, and very much from a heterosexual perspective. James's reticence, his repression, and his fastidiousnessóthis was a psychic area to put at the center of a book. But if you are totally enclosed in James's world, it becomes a bit claustrophobic, so it was important to me that Du Maurier is in the story because he's a much more ordinary, heterosexual man. James liked the Du Mauriers because they connected him with a more ordinary kind of family life, and in my novel his sexual life counterbalances James's celibacy.
BF: He could live vicariously through Du Maurier.
DL: Right. Only when I was workingon the novel did I realize why James was attracted to the character of Guy Domville, a man who gave up sexuality for his vocation. He found it inspiring and identified with it because it was a version of his life in a way. James renounced marriage, children, and family life in the interest of his art. Of course, the other motive was that he was scared of commitment and sexually ambivalent.
BF: So, he wasn't, like many of his protagonists, incapable of love.
DL: Oh, no. And for somebody who was not married and didn't, as far as we know, ever have a sexual relationship, he was brilliant at describing the games unhappily married people play, as in Portrait of a Lady, or the terrible betrayal of adultery and the misery it causes in The Golden Bowl. No married novelist could have done it better.
BF: James wrote during the Victorian era, but many consider him a modernist. Wasn't modernism one of your specialties when you were teaching?
DL: I considered the English novel my main field, so as a scholar and critic I was always very interested in the transition from the classic realist novel of the nineteenth century to the modernist novel. James, of course, was absolutely crucial in that transition.
BF: Do you think he's a modernist?
DL: He's not a full-blown modernist like Joyce, Conrad, Lawrence, and Woolf. James was trying to render human consciousness with more fidelity and exactness than had been done before, which is what the great modernist novels do. But whereas Joyce and Woolf tended to dissolve the grammar to render the flow of consciousness, or Lawrence dissolved the sense of reality altogether and wrote in a symbolic and poetic incantatory style, James kept to the well-formed sentence. But he made that sentence extremely complex and used metaphor and simile in a very elaborate way, and that links him to Symbolism. He was prepared to cut down the amount of narrative and give a lot of space to reaction, to introspective analysis and so onóand all that is characteristic of the modernist novel. There's a high sense of artistic vocation that French novelists like Flaubert developed. James is almost the first English voice to be saying that the novel should aim at beauty as well as truth, and that's so much the underlying aesthetic of the modernist novel of Joyce, Woolf, and Conrad. The modernist novel was experimental and did not usually sell in vast quantities. James always hankered after being commercially successful, so to that extent, he was still influenced by the Victorian models. But he did pursue his artistic ideals rather than compromise them, and he suffered in consequence. So, he is exactly a transitional novelist.
BF: What are your favorite James novels?
DL: The Ambassadors, because of its humor as well as the wonderful psychological analyses. I regret that James lost a bit of his sense of humor as he got older. Of the novellas, The Turn of the Screw, The Awkward Age, What Maisie Knew, The Aspern Papers, Daisy Miller, and all the short stories about writers. If I were trying to encourage people to read James, I would suggest short works and the early works first. The late work is really very demandingóif you don't concentrate, you lose track of the paragraph and you have to go back to the beginning and start again. I don't think James realized how demanding it was.
BF: Do you think you'll delve into biographical fiction again?
DL: Yes. I found it most enjoyable and less anxious-making than writing a novel of a totally fictional kind. It's not easy, but you don't feel quite the same responsibility to guarantee that the story is credible or interesting. When writing a totally fictional novel, I think you fear losing faith in it yourself. If it's a real story, you know this man lived and had these experiences, and the question is, Can you do justice to these facts?