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A novel approach

Philip Hensher examines the relatively new genre of classic writers themselves becoming the subject of fiction

15 January 2011

12:00 AM

15 January 2011

12:00 AM

An interesting phenomenon of recent years is the novel about a real-life novelist. Of course, writers have often included fictitious members of their trade within their work — one thinks immediately of Thackeray’s Pendennis, Anthony Powell’s Nick Jenkins and Waugh’s Pinfold. Often, too, novelists have contrived extended tributes to favoured masters — Fielding features prominently in Kingsley Amis’s I Like It Here — without intruding into their social world.

But, until recently, the novel which openly entered into biographical territory, writing a romance about the private lives of classical novelists or other artists, was rarely taken very seriously. Carl Bechhofer Roberts’s This Side Idolatry on the life of Dickens is long forgotten. Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, about Michelangelo, and the works of specialists like Pierre La Mure (on Toulouse-Lautrec, Debussy and the Mendelssohns) seemed to be heading in the same direction.

Nevertheless, in recent years serious writers appear to be turning their hands to this small genre. Probably most of us became aware of it when at least three novelists in 2004 simultaneously decided to write a novel about the same episode in Henry James’s life, with varying degrees of success. Subsequently, the line drawn between rigour and fantasy, the one belonging to the biography, the other to fiction, became blurred. Approaches to a classic author come in unusual forms these days, whether in Sarah Bakewell’s innovative sort-of-biography How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, Azar Nafisi’s sociological study-cum-memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran or Kate Taylor’s interesting novel Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen. I look forward, too, to David Miller’s debut novel Today this spring, about the death of Joseph Conrad; there are many good stories about Conrad, and it is surprising that novelists are only now getting round to him.

I am not really the person to complain about any of this, having begun my own career with an extremely silly novel about the legacy of the Viennese composer Alban Berg. But it is striking how the aesthetic experience, faithfully rendered, is becoming for many novelists a perfectly acceptable substitute for reported life. In one of the most brilliant fictional projects of recent years, Adam Mars-Jones’s trilogy which began with Pilcrow and continues this month with the exceptional Cedilla, a withdrawn and immured narrator comments at great length on the reflections of experience which preoccupy him in his sickroom. How experience reaches us, and the means by which it is transmitted and recorded, are subjects which seem to fascinate a number of serious novelists now.

The American writer Jay Parini is, like Pierre La Mure, making a bit of a career out of imaginative reconstructions of the lives of novelists. A previous book, The Last Station, depicted what must have tempted any number of novelists as a subject: the final years of Tolstoy, focusing on his wife Sonya. His latest book is a fictionalised biography of Herman Melville, about whom most of us will know much less. Parini has written biographies in the past, and for me the hand of conspicuous research deadens a novel where it would have enlivened a biography. The interesting cultural titbit can be brought out by a biographer without damage, but in a work of fiction the reader will always wonder whether the characters know any of this:

He followed the rush of Pall Mall into the vast urban pocket of Trafalgar Square, where he paused to admire the National Gallery, completed only a year before.

In the case of Melville, the peculiar disadvantage is that the novelist knows to an almost suffocating degree when a tiny episode is going to lead to a thumping great classic, and the sensation of being nudged in the ribs grows a little painful:

One could already hear the rattle of death in his throat, could smell his decomposition. Jackson had refused all work for the past week, saying quite simply to his superiors ‘I prefer not to.’

The trouble with this enterprise is that The Passages of Herman Melville is really a much more conventional work of fiction than Bartleby the Scrivener, or anything else Melville wrote, and Parini a much less ambitious novelist. It is an entertaining enough read, but a writer like Parini who is happy to describe a character as having eyes ‘like chips of blue ice’ is clearly delivering a reheated and tamed account of the most savage and unpredictable of imaginations. (The whaling episodes are preposterously inadequate.) The failure is not just a case of the occasional anachronism, like poor Mrs Melville being made to describe the visiting Dickens as looking like ‘a teenager’ a century before the word’s first recorded usage. It is a case of being demonstrably nowhere near as good a novelist as Melville. That of course is no crime, but it was Parini who first made the comparison.

Michael Cunningham is a much less conventional American novelist, but one, too, whose imagination seems to be sparked primarily by the aesthetic experience. In some ways he reminds me of that exquisite master of the short fiction of artist’s lives, Guy Davenport. Cunningham’s best-known and most remarkable novel, The Hours, is a beautiful jazz-riff on Mrs Dalloway, in which Virginia Woolf’s death, a repressed suburban life and an elegant contemporary socialite’s party are juxtaposed with poignant effect. Any intrinsically deadening effect of a writer’s reported thought or of the suspicion of pastiche is avoided by Cunningham’s rich psychological perceptions. It has become, quite rightly, one of the most influential of contemporary novels.

By Nightfall has a similar feel of Mrs Dalloway; it is concerned with the dis- appointments of rich lives and the mournful echo when conspicuous failure intrudes on apparently perfect existences. Peter Harris is a New York art dealer of the hungry second rank; his business is persuading rich and wilful collectors that they ought to buy works of art which most of us would trot rapidly past in a museum. One collector reports:

I’m truly sorry. I actually find that I don’t want to go into that part of the garden anymore . . . You know the Furstons? Bill and Augusta? They were over the other night and it sent their miniature schnauzer into paroxysms.

The action of the novel opens with the arrival of Harris’s wife’s much younger brother, a drug-addicted bisexual beauty called Ethan (or Mizzy, short for the Mistake), professing to have cleaned up. There is a difficult, absent daughter; Harris and his wife have reached the time in life when they start to wonder how they ever got to this point, and whether it is too late to make some kind of change. Mizzy is the catalyst here, and the situation has echoes of the sorts of ones Iris Murdoch used to handle with such mastery. Mizzy’s dealers start showing up at the apartment; sexual tension builds between Harris and Ethan, and a single irresistible blunder leads to a lovely point of blackmailing equilibrium, where no one can speak without destroying the gilded set-up.

What is interesting is that Cunningham’s characters lead the sort of aesthetically polished lives that few characters in fiction have led since Henry James’s The Perfect Muse. Much of their inner life is concerned with comparisons with art — the street ‘can start to feel like a Nauman’; Mizzy has ‘a resemblance to the Rodin bronze’; a millionaire’s house ‘resembles nothing so much as a sanitorium, like the place they sent Bette Davis in . . . hm, was it Now Voyager or Dark Victory?’ The properties of the novel are the Damien Hirst shark, a copy of Daniel Deronda, and a Japanese gravel gar
den. The means of the fiction are, much like in Virginia Woolf, inner reflections and exquisitely rendered, weightless exchanges; to someone of robust tastes, the novel may seem to shepherd its incidents a little scrupulously.

It has a beautiful surface and, rather like with The Hours, readers will be taken aback at the end by how so much reflection has succeeded in being so gripping. Finally, you must make up your mind, just as in Henry James, whether the primacy of the means of art, its veiling and its interpretation of existence, have contributed to the tremulous disasters of the characters’ lives. By Nightfall is probably unfairly having its cake and eating it: living within the aesthetic realm, and allowing the reader to conclude how limited that existence can be. But rather good novels are always unfair in that respect.

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