David Lodge: Artist in the goldfish bowl

David Lodge has summoned the ghost of Henry James to show what happens when a great writer chases fame. He talks to Boyd Tonkin about a tale for our times
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The Independent Culture

The Master would approve of the location but, surely, not of the attire. Clad in his natty summer shorts, David Lodge discusses his new novel about Henry James in an elegantly spare London pied-à-terre, perched above the bustle of the West End. Just a rotten tomato's throw away lie the same theatres where, in the 1890s, James tried and humiliatingly failed to re-route his career, from mandarin novelist to celebrity playwright. In Author, Author (Secker & Warburg, £16.99), Lodge - for decades the most popular of our serious novelists, or maybe the most serious of our popular novelists - deploys all his seductive storytelling craft to explore not merely the life and art of James himself, but the fate of any proud writer in an age of hype and spin.

"It's one of the curious things about art in the modern world," says Lodge, still the crisp and waffle-free teacher, although he left his professorship at Birmingham to write full-time as far back as 1987. "It can bring you great material rewards, and celebrity, as well as artistic satisfaction. And it's part of the glamour of the arts. You ask, 'How do I crack this, to make money and contribute to culture?' I think that James felt that, too."

James, like many of his creative heirs, craved mass-market fame but shunned its side-effects. "He wanted to benefit from the showbiz side of drama, but shrank from the kind of exposure that it inevitably involved," says Lodge. Among his pet hates was the new black art of the author interview, lately cooked up by American-led mass publishing and gossip-hungry journalism. "Interviewers, invaders, intruders," as James groaned in an incisive memorial essay on his dear friend George du Maurier, which Lodge quotes.

Lodge has skewered the press interview in the novella and play Home Truths - about a tape-and-tell hackette's encounter with a mangy literary lion. So, as we talk, his neat West End eyrie morphs into a the kind of self-reflexive hall of mirrors that would thrill his academic protagonists. "It's a strange paradox," Lodge muses, sketching the chasm between campus orthodoxy and market-led fiction: "At the same time that academic criticism is insisting on the impersonality of literature and the death of the author, in terms of the culture's response to writing it's all personality. Writers are drawn almost irresistibly into conspiring with this mood by - well, by events like this one."

Back in the Naughty but Nosy Nineties, "the power of publicity was beginning to have a great effect on the arts" - most famously, in the pyrotechnic blaze of the era's first superstar: Oscar Wilde. In early 1895, James's refined but earnest moral drama Guy Domville was hooted off the stage of the St James's Theatre to make way for - The Importance of Being Earnest. Within six months, Wilde languished in jail while James planned a retreat from the social spotlight into the semi-seclusion that led to his late harvest of masterpieces, from The Ambassadors to The Wings of the Dove. He left the goldfish bowl to write The Golden Bowl.

In Author, Author, the exquisite American also sees his artist-illustrator friend Du Maurier score a vast hit with his corny novel, Trilby. This tale of a fey model and singer in Bohemian Paris who falls under the sway of the evil mastermind, Svengali, became the bestselling novel of the 19th century. James watches aghast as author and novel fuel a new brand of media hysteria. "Novels are business and they are art," says Lodge, for whom this moment in 1894 set the mood for a century of hype, "and they have always been both. I always say that you've got to be an artist when you write a novel, and a businessman when you publish it - but it's quite difficult to keep that separation."

On the face of it, there seems little kinship - in personality or aesthetics - between Lodge and James, between the unaffected and well-rooted meritocrat, raised a south Londoner but at home in the Birmingham suburbs, and the fastidious, privileged American expat who once dined out in London high society 107 times in a single season. "To tell you the truth," Lodge says, "I didn't really like James all that much as an undergraduate." Yet his study and practice of the novel soon revealed James as a pioneer of inward voyaging, in the depiction of ever-shifting states of consciousness.

Equally, Lodge has endured his fair share of Jamesian "highs and lows" while adapting work for television, film and stage. Author, Author beautifully conjures the pathos, farce and misery of the lone writer tangling with the dragons of showbiz. "I've been through all that," admits Lodge, more with a chuckle than a sigh. "It was useful to me, and it allowed me to empathise with James's feelings, his disappointments and temptations."

Nice Work worked nicely on TV, but a serial of Martin Chuzzlewit resulted in a bust-up with the director. Two plays by Lodge ran in Birmingham but never quite made the West End, "despite options from five different managements". Screenplays for his 1990s novels Therapy and Paradise News have "run into the sand". Lodge remains eager to please: "You trust people when you shouldn't. You bend over backwards. You rewrite and rewrite. I did seven drafts of the script for Therapy and only got paid for two."

Dulwich-born in 1935, Lodge flourished as a student at University College London and then as a university teacher in Birmingham. He soon enjoyed growing renown as a sceptical critic and seriously funny novelist who permed a suburban Catholic background with the follies and frenzies of post-Sixties life and art. Many of his books look far beyond the gates of the academy. Yet, on the basis of carnal-cerebral romps such as Small World and Changing Places, Lodge is still widely pigeonholed as a campus comedian who plays narrative tricks on the sort of randy but crisis-ridden don who yokes classroom theory with bedroom practice.

In Birmingham, he also forged a lasting partnership with the late Malcolm Bradbury - a close colleague, and a lifelong friend. Together, as satirists and sages, the "Lodgebury" pair made up a wickedly sharp, double-pronged goad - not least for the traditional Oxbridge literati. Lodge married his wife Mary, a teacher, in 1959; they have three adult children, a scientist, a solicitor and a much-cherished son with Down syndrome.

It all sounds an ocean's breadth away from James the celibate salon-trotter. For Lodge, "he was, by our standards, a repressed homosexual," although his novel very deftly treats questions of sex by the lights of his subject's epoch, not of ours, "but he was a rather repressed person, anyway." Lodge agrees with the biographer Leon Edel, who "thinks that James never had a physical sexual relationship with anybody... What's remarkable is his ability to portray the politics of marriage, for instance, with ever having been married. The Portrait of a Lady, The Golden Bowl: they're amazing."

Author, Author paints a picture of an urbane mid-career writer, not taking part in the erotic arena, but watching closely from the stands. Throughout, Lodge sticks to established facts in a virtuoso blend of the truth of biography and the authenticity of fiction. He says that, "I was trying to get the kind of structure that the novelist usually invents - full of metaphors and ironies and contradictions - but to do it with the facts. Everything that is causal, that articulates the plot, is historical. What I've invented is more decorative and elaborative."

The book tries to imagine James's homoerotic emotions far less than Colm Toibin's The Master, which covers some of the same ground. Lodge was "pretty devastated" when he heard about the Irish writer's book after finishing his own. He has not read it yet, but will soon, while pondering the flutter in the Zeitgeist that blew in his biographical novel, others by Toibin and Emma Tennant, and Jamesian works by Toby Litt and Alan Hollinghurst. "When the emotions associated with publishing a new book have settled down, I might well consider this phenomenon as a critic, because it's fascinating."

James, of course, has also secured a posthumous celebrity as the pen behind so many high-gloss costume dramas from Hollywood, Merchant-Ivory and the BBC. The writer who went through the "horridest" night of his life as the toughs in the gods booed him off stage at the St James's now sends the likes of Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich and Uma Thurman into A-list dressing-rooms. Would he have relished this glitzy afterlife? The vulnerable artist in Author, Author would, you suspect, have blushed with glee to the crown of his bald pate.

All the same, we might still find that Mr James, unlike Mr Lodge, was not giving interviews. Thanks in part to the pull of the PR machine, the latter argues that: "There's no doubt that more people read literary fiction than they did 50 years ago." Lodge himself felt the "pleasant surprise" of mid-career commercial success, yet says that he "never consciously compromised" on theme or technique. So has today's literary business at last healed the rift between art and fame that drove James into his ill-starred spell in the West End? "You could say we have," answers his latest Svengali, dryly, more critic than celeb, "or that literature has made a Faustian compact with the media."

Biography: David Lodge

David Lodge was born in south London in 1935. He studied English at University College London. He wrote a postgraduate thesis on the Catholic novel and taught at Birmingham University from 1960 until he retired early from the professorship in modern English literature in 1987. His critical works range from The Novelist at the Crossroads (1971) and Working with Structuralism (1981) to Consciousness and the Novel (2002). The Picturegoers (1960) began his career as a novelist, which includes Changing Places (1975), How Far Can You Go? (1980), Small World (1984), Nice Work (1988), Paradise News (1991), Therapy (1995) and Thinks... (2001). Lodge's new novel, Author, Author, is published by Secker & Warburg. He was awarded the CBE in 1998.