The author's curse
David Lodge spent three years writing and researching a biographical novel about Henry James. Then he learned that at least four other writers had been at work on similar projects. Soon he found himself caught up in a web of irony and coincidence worthy of a Jamesian plot
If anyone deserves to win this year's Man Booker Prize, it's Henry James. During 2004, he has been the originator of no fewer than three outstanding novels.
Thus began Peter Kemp's review of my novel, Author, Author, in the Sunday Times of August 29 2004, a few days before its official publication date. The other two novels to which he referred were Colm Tóibín's The Master, published in March of that year, and Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, published in April. Henry James is the central character of both The Master and Author, Author. The central character of The Line of Beauty, which is set in the 1980s, is a young man who is writing a postgraduate thesis on Henry James, and Hollinghurst's novel was seen by several critics as a stylistic homage to him.
Kemp did not mention another novel about Henry James, which had been published in November 2002 and was reissued as a paperback in the spring of 2004, Emma Tennant's Felony, which spliced together an account of James's relationship with the American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson and a speculative retelling of the source story of his novella, The Aspern Papers. Nor did Kemp mention - probably he was not aware of its existence - yet another novel about James, by the South African writer Michiel Heyns, which was being offered to London publishers in 2004. Entitled The Typewriter's Tale, and narrated from the point of view of James's secretary, it concerned James's involvement, in the years 1907-10, in a love affair between two of his closest friends, the novelist Edith Wharton and Morton Fullerton, bisexual journalist and man of letters. We know all this about a book that is still unpublished because Michiel Heyns wrote an eloquent and poignant article in Prospect magazine in September 2004 about coming last in the procession of James-inspired novelists. These were its opening words: "My agent forwards to me another polite letter of rejection: 'I am so sorry but timing is all - and there has been a spate of fiction based on the life of Henry James published here. I don't know how such coincidences happen ... something in the atmosphere? So regretfully I must say no.'"