The Year of Henry James by David Lodge

Don't look now, but here's another Henry James book
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The Independent Culture

'It is always disconcerting to encounter a description of yourself unexpectedly in someone else's book - like catching sight of yourself on a CCTV monitor." So writes David Lodge on pages 42 to 43 of his new work. Having reached page 66, your reviewer could - to revert to Lodge-style for a moment - testify to the accuracy of this observation. The setting is a party given for A S Byatt by her publishers on the night before the announcement of the 2003 Man Booker shortlist. Yours truly, in town to attend the judges' meeting, is represented by Lodge as "morose" and, when asked how things are going, to have replied, "I'm sick of the Booker."

Never mind the personal appearances by a whole heap of other writers, The Year of Henry James is an odd book altogether. The second two-thirds of its 300-or-so pages is one of the regular round-ups of recent book reviews and prefaces that Lodge ushers into hard covers every five years or so: thoughtful and instructive essays on such topics as George Eliot and Scenes From Clerical Life, Graham Greene's influences and Granta's 1996 selection of the "Best of Young American Novelists". The first third, on the other hand is an anguished account of the conception, writing and unveiling of Author, Author, Lodge's last novel, published in the autumn of 2004.

The author's misfortune, in the course of this undertaking, has since gone down as one of the contemporary book world's great cautionary tales. No sooner had he burnished up the typescript of Author, Author, his "bio-novel" on the life of Henry James, had it applauded by his agent, accepted for publication by his publisher and rapturously acclaimed by the kind people in America, than the grapevine threw up the calamitous news that a rival scrivener - Colm Toíbín - was all set to publish a novel on more or less the same subject six months before Lodge's own darling work could be hustled into the shops. There followed a paranoiac half year or more in which Lodge, readying his own book for the press, had to shield his eyes from the reception of Toíbín's novel (excellent, as chance would have it) while remaining conscious of that fact that, by the time he arrived at the feast, most of the plates would be on their way back to the kitchen.

All this is engagingly and sometime a bit obsessively set down. The latter characteristic is entirely forgivable, given the extraordinary collective homing instinct which sent so many writers simultaneously off in pursuit of Lodge's subject in the early 2000s. Even before the Toíbín bombshell, our man had been badly discomfited by the news that Emma Tennant had introduced James into one of her novels. Lodge finds out about this in a newspaper review, read in the course of a train journey: "Seated in a crowded railway carriage, I could not express my shock or relieve my feelings by an exclamation or expletive."

If a single question dominates the proceedings it is this: who exactly is the book written for? Part two - scholarly, sedulous, informed - might seem to presuppose a fairly intimate knowledge of modern (and bygone) literature amongst its readers. Part one, alternatively, seems to be aimed at a constituency much less au fait with the mechanics of writing. "Waiting for a publisher's verdict on a new book is always a somewhat tense experience," Lodge writes luminously at one point. Elsewhere, he remarks that "Writing a novel could be accurately described as a process of continual problem-solving or decision-making."

In the end, though, The Year of Henry James defies these procedural longueurs to emerge as an absolutely invaluable document of the modern literary life. Its trick - common to nearly all memoirs by writers - is to convey, without sentiment or vainglory, the utter isolation of the novelist, at any rate in professional terms, from the world he inhabits. Agent, publisher or admirer may offer the occasional pat on the shoulder, but the consequences when anything goes wrong are yours alone to deal with. Though it is not a work of fiction, Lodge's variation on this melancholy theme fits neatly into that long tradition of novels about the means of literary production - a thronged and dismal canvas which includes everything from Gissing's New Grub Street and Orwell's Keep The Aspidistra Flying to Powell's Books Do Furnish A Room and Nigel Williams' My Life Closed Twice. It should be read by anyone who mistakenly supposes the business of writing to be a glamorous profession, or imagines those jolly lunches at the Ivy and the hobnobbing with Ian, Martin and co to be more than the faintest mitigating gloss.