Life After Death Postmodern Biofiction English Literature Essay

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More than ten years ago in 1998 Adeline Tintner published her Henry Jamess Legacy: The Afterlife of His Figure and Fiction (Louisiana State University Press 1998) after having explored The Museum World of Henry James (Umi Research Press, 1986), The Book World of Henry James: Appropriating the Classics (Umi Research Press, 1987), The Cosmopolitan World of Henry James: An Intertextual Study (Louisiana State University Press, 1991), Henry James and the Lust of the Eyes: Thirteen Artists in His Work (Louisiana State University Press, 1993), and has continued with The Twentieth-Century World of Henry James: Changes in His Work After 1900 (Scholarly Book Services Inc, 2002). Henry James's Legacy starts with a quote from his essay "Is There a Life after Death?" published in 1910 in Harper's Bazaar, in which he claims that our life after death is pre-conditioned not only by the art we produce but by the traces we have left in the conscious memory others have preserved of us. Tintner rightly observes that "so absorbed is Henry James eighty years after his death that it is possible to find countless instances fitting his own definition of "a life after death". (p. 1?). She has probably never imagined what a revival the interest in Henry James as a fictional figure would undergo in the works of the writers in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

The most famous examples come from the year 2004 when Colm Toibin published The Master, David Lodge Author, Author, Emma Tennant issued in paperback her Felony, first published in 2002, and Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, published in April that same year, won the Booker Prize. It was in 2004 again that the South African writer Michiel Heyns offered to London publishers another book on Henry James entitled The Typewriter's Tale, which, refused by a lot of publishers as the last one in this succession of novels, was published in the next year. As an attempt to explain this extraordinary sequence, David Lodge wrote a lengthy essay "The Year of Henry James; or Timing is All: The Story of a Novel" to be included in his book of the same title published in 2007, while Michiel Heyns tried to explain it all in his essay "The Curse of Henry James" (2005) not by the intriguing circumstance of James's life but by the fact that he was the writer's writer. At the same time, as if despairing of finding any final answer to this heightened interest in James Cynthia Ozick published the hoax "An (Unfortunate) Interview with Henry James" in The Threepenny Review in 2005 as a reply to this extraordinary interest towards the fictional opportunities James's life has presented. This interest in Henry James's fictional lives has been continued in such critical papers as Max Saunders' "Master Narratives" published in the first issue of Cambridge Quarterly from 2008 entirely devoted to Henry James, while in 2008 to the unusually large crop of fictional representations of James have been added two new publication - Joyce Carol Oates's Wild Nights! and Cynthia Ozick's Dictation.

The present paper will look closer at two of these novels, Michiel Heyns' The Typewriter's Tale (2005) and Cynthia Ozick's Dictation (2008) not only as examples of the postmodern biofiction, but as contemporary re-appropriations of Henry James's forays into the occult from the end of the nineteenth century.

Henry James's writing has much been discussed within the discourse of the occult, which presents a lot of problems to the scholars in general. For many of the European scholars it seems to be just "an umbrella term", as Susan Gillman suggests, "intended primarily to summon forth a specific historical context, the confluence in the early twentieth century of popular occultisms encompassing such varied movements as Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, and the "Jung cult." These occultisms represent the Western esoteric tradition, broadly conceived, and derived, according to conventional historical accounts, from Gnosticism, hermetic writings on alchemy and magic, and the cabala." In Europe the attempt to find a reasonable explanation of the supernatural phenomena the 19th-century world witnessed was preconditioned by the Victorians' "enquiring minds, love of organizing knowledge, and religious beliefs (or passionate and high-minded agnosticism)", which "turn[ed] to the relationship between scientific research and life after death". ( R.G.O'F. "Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death", Contemporary Review ; Winter2007, Vol. 289 Issue 1687, p532-532, 1/4p), or, in other words, by the classic Victorian confrontation between religion and the emerging power of science.

If we look at the occult from the other side of the Atlantic, it acquires as if more "flesh". It is, indeed, a well-researched fact that the second half of the nineteenth century besides witnessing the unprecedented technological and industrial development of the Gilded Age in the United States, saw the rapid and sometimes frightening boom in supernatural occurrences. More and more people became convinced in the existence of forces beyond rational understanding and the "mediums and spirit-rappers" caught the popular imagination with grip and vehemence. That gave birth to the Modern Spiritualism movement. It started in 1848 with the strange events at John Fox's home in Hydesville, New York, and culminated in the creation of the Learned Society for Psychical Research to investigate all these supernatural occurrences believed by so many to be true. Opposed to the old spiritualism, which treated spirit exclusively within the framework of theology, the new movement concentrated on the scientific possibility of explaining the communication between consciousnesses in a novel way, aptly coherent with the new scientific age, and thus created a borderland where science and popular beliefs met. As Martha Banta observes, "Because of its common focus upon mind and spirit, it [New Spiritualism] could be accused of or praised for being both a pseudo-religion and a pseudo-science."

It should be noted also that some scholars have found an important connection between the late-nineteenth-century-early-twentieth-century occultism(s) and the development of the social sciences and especially anthropology. As Peter Pelps writes, "anthropology has a far tighter relationship with the occult than most practitioners know." The fact that the occult has actually contributed to the "construction of social scientific epistemology" does not prevent the usual association of the occult with one of the so-called pseudo-sciences, Theosophy. It was a movement headed by Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky that drew heavily on the ideas of some of the most popular secret societies, the occultism of ancient Egypt, and on Hinduism combining them with modern science to produce a "hybrid… an 'occult synthesis'… a veritable 'global boom' [that] worked a heterogeneous territory … combin[ing] overlapping mystical ritual and symbology with a variety of racial, national, and international politics."

It cannot be denied that New Spiritualism drew simultaneously on alchemist ideas of animal magnetism and Swedenborg's anti-materialist notions. In this way, it became, as Werner Sollors points out, "a spiritual response to material culture and technological progress while totally mechanizing the world of the spirits and the conception of man." To a certain extent, it also laid down the foundations of William James' psychology and Henri Bergson's philosophy. Both questioned the possibility for the existence of a harmonious, unified self, based on the traditional concepts of the unity between memory, consciousness, and the senses. They both allowed for the existence of double, even plural, selves, a theme that occupied the imagination of many writers of different backgrounds throughout the twentieth century, filling their works with ghostly figures and encounters with the Other.

The struggle to give scientific explanation to phenomena supernatural was led by the "Ghost Hunters", William James and his friends and colleagues, William Crookes, William Fletcher Barrett, Edward Gurney, Richard Hodgson, Fred Myers, Henry Sidgwick, James Hyslop and others. In her fascinating story of their brave attempt to find a reasonable answer to matters supernatural thus risking their reputations, Deborah Blum suggests that despite their failure, they managed to open new vistas for human consciousness at the beginning of the twentieth century. Very significantly she entitles her book, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, re-appropriating Henry James's title for the work of his brother.

Henry James, however, although strongly influenced by these ideas, was very much against the mechanization of the field of human consciousness. His own essay on the afterlife ends very significantly with the question: "And when once such a mental relation to the question as that begins to hover and settle, who shall say over what fields of experience, past and current, and what immensities of perception and yearning, it shall not spread the protection of its wings? No, no, no - I reach beyond the laboratory brain."

As Dana J. Ringuette points out in her article "Imagining the End: Henry James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and the "Reach Beyond the Laboratory-Brain"", "In his rejection of the "laboratory-brain," in his resistance to nominalist thinking, James is most specific about his general conception of an afterlife. If it exists, then it can only be "personal"; otherwise it would be concretely evident what happens to all of us at death, and the afterlife would be observable. We would see what happens to others, or we would hear from them, neither of which, of course, happen."

The attempt to see life after death in its materiality, on the 'mechanical level' as if, was nevertheless the preoccupation of many people of that time. To satirize that a whole new genre was created by John Kendrick Bangs, who worked as Harper's Magazine, Haeper's Bazaar and Harper's Young People Editor of the Departments of Humor at the turn of the century. This genre has become known as the Bangsian fantasy, that sets its stories wholly or partially in the afterlife. A very good example of that is Bangs' collection of stories The Enchanted Type-Writer written in 1899. I'm not interested in Bangs-James relation, however, but in he fact that both Heyns and Ozick would use the widely spread nineteenth-century believe that all these new mechanical inventions as the telephone and the type-writer could serve as the medium for connecting with the dead. Bangs satirizes exactly this belief placing his narrator in the company of a type-writer, which types messages from Hades, speaking with the voice of Boswell, Shakespeare, and other famous figures from the past and telling their afterlife-stories.

Ozick's novella is set in England at the turn of the 20th century and fictionalizes the very proper, slightly tense relationship between the novelists Henry James and Joseph Conrad. In the opening scene of "Dictation," a nervous, unproven Conrad - he has not yet published Heart of Darkness - visits James, already "the Master," in his London flat. There, Conrad sees a startlingly impersonal new instrument, the Remington typewriter through which James writes:

On a broad surface reserved for it in a far corner … stood the

Machine … headless, armless and legless - brute

shoulders merely: it might as well have been the torso of a broken


As in his real life James had hired an amanuensis or typist, Theodora Bosanquet, "who recorded in shorthand James's dictation and then transcribed it on the Machine; but it soon turned out to be more efficient to speak directly to the thing itself, with [the typist] at the keys." A decade later, Conrad would have his own typewriter and atypist, a fragile, besotted young woman named Lillian Hallowes, and the two writers, unbeknownst to each other, would both be working on doppelganger tales: Conrad on "The Secret Sharer" and James on "The Jolly Corner," about a man who confronts the ghost of the person he might have been. Inevitably, though each of their employers intuitively disapproves, Hallowes meets her opposite number, Bosanquet, and a plot is hatched out by the ingenious James's amanuensis, altogether a more forceful character, to achieve "life after death", the immortality of their employers.

"Think, Lily," Theodora urged… In all the past, has there ever been an amanuensis who has earned immortality? Who leaves a distinguishing mark on the unsuspecting future? One who stands as an indelible presence?

"Think!" said Theodora. "Everlastingness for such as us! Who?

Conciliating, Lilian overreached. "Boswell," she saidfinally.

"Boswell immortal? As an amanuensis? Never! An annoying sycophant. His only occupation was to follow in Dr. Johnson's wake, whether he was wanted or not!" (34-36)

Lillian goes on to suggest Moses to be rebuked by Theodora again who offers her immortality for them two to which Lillian answers flatly, "No one can live forever" (37) to which Theodora answers, "The Master will. Doubtless your Mr. Conrad will. And so shall we - we mere amanuenses…" (37) but Lillian gets frightened by what she interprets as the dire scheme of an unbalanced spirit and runs away. Theodora, however, does not give up, and finally succeeds to persuade Lillian to carry out her "ingenious but simple" plan to substitute two passages from their employers' writings and thus dupe both all those who claim to know the 'figure in the carpet' and the creators themselves. Because as Theodora has it, "What deeper power than the power of covert knowledge?"(46) Thus once Lillian is persuaded, Theodora leaves behind all talk of immortality and admits that what she is after is the power knowledge brings. The plan is carried out, two passages from Conrad's "The Secret Sharer" and James' "The Jolly Corner" have been swapped up and posterity is left to puzzle over the riddle of the two amanuenses.

As Socher suggests, "Ozick has created an elegant hall of mirrors: two authors, two typists, two stories, two passages of prose, one by Conrad that is almost Jamesian and another by James that sounds almost like Conrad. Out of this delirious twinning Miss Bosanquet, who is described at one point as an "idolatrous healer," contrives her own elegant plot for immortality, something halfway between a literary prank (another bit of secret sharing) and a diabolical usurpation. The allegory can be decoded - Bosanquet the usurper is to James as James is to God, and so on."

THE THEME of art as usurpation, or secret sharing, is also at the center of "Actors," the second story in the collection, featuring a mediocre television actor named Matt Sorley ("born Mose Sadacca") who attempts to re-create the histrionic grandeur of a Yiddish actor of the old school only to be vanquished by a kind of ghost. But the real twin of "Dictation," and the other immensely ambitious story of this collection, is "At Fumicaro."

The story's protagonist, Frank Knight, is a middle-aged Catholic journalist who attends a conference in Mussolini's Italy, before America has entered the war, on "The Church and How It Is Known." The conference is just as boring as it sounds, and yet it, or rather Knight's failure to attend very much of it, changes his life. Upon arriving in his room, he has found the teen-aged chambermaid retching over his toilet. "In four days," Ozick writes, "she would be his wife."

Knight sees her at first not as a suffering human being or even as an object of desire but as a beautiful object:

The woman went on vomiting …. Watching serenely, he thought of

some grand fountain where dolphins, or else infant cherubim, spew

foamy water from their bottomless throats. He saw her shamelessly:

she was a solid little nymph. She was the coarse muse of Italia. He

recited to himself, "If to any man the tumult of the flesh were

silenced, silenced the phantasies of earth, water, and air,

silenced, too, the poles."

The passage in quotes is, oddly, St. Augustine's attempt to describe the abstract beauties of heaven to his dying mother, and yet within two hours Knight has seduced this teenager, who is in fact already pregnant (hence the nausea).

Knight's first image of his future wife is as carved stone. But, to his chagrin, it is she who is "in thrall to sticks and stones" - ready to pray, it seems, almost anywhere and to almost anything: a decayed bit of Roman statuary on the roadside, which she insists on addressing as Saint Francis, kitschy icons of Jesus and the Madonna whose vividness is "molto sacro," museum pieces, and, in the final scene, the endless "saints and martyrs and angels and gryphons and gargoyles and Romans" at the top of the Milan cathedral. It is here that Knight has an epiphany concerning the consequences of idolatry that he finds both hilarious and humiliating. '"You could be up here,' he said - now he understood exactly what had happened at Fumicaro; he had fixed his penance for life - 'a thousand years!'"

OZICK'S OEUVRE is not exhausted by the question of idolatry. Even in this collection, the story that rounds out the quartet, "But What Happened to the Baby?" does not really fit the pattern. It is also, as it happens, the least successful of the four stories: a dark joke about Esperanto in the Catskills with an O. Henry twist that doesn't quite carry narrative conviction.

Nonetheless, if any writer has a grand metaphor, a secret, the tiling itself at the center of the maze, it is Ozick. That ineffable tiling is God, or, more precisely if also more negatively, the fact that nothing in this world, no matter how beautiful, is a god.

Modern Jewish thought may be said to have begun with Moses Mendelssohn's argument at the end of the 18th century that Judaism remained valid and still necessary in the world of the Enlightenment as the religion that rejected all idolatries. With a little license, one could say that modern Jewish literature began at the outset of the 20th century with Saul Tchernikovsky's Hebrew poem, "Before the Statue of Apollo," which laments that same rejection. Even when she is not entirely successful, Cynthia Ozick is, alone among the major Jewish American writers, a conscious heir to both traditions.


Reviewed by Abraham Socher

ABRAHAM SOCHER teaches Jewish studies at Oberlin College. He contributed "No Game for Old Men" to our March issue.

.. a hugely refreshing South African novel … Heyns has a knack for building clear, expressive prose like a watchmaker fitting together the workings of a timepiece.

Gareth Pike, Sunday Times.

… Heyns … is an extraordinary wordsmith who delights in the potential of the English language's variety and for whom every sentence presents an exercise in balance.

Heyns's first novel, The Children's Day, was impressive for its poignant lyricism; by dramatic contrast, his second novel, The Reluctant Passenger, was an acerbic romp. In The Typewriter's Tale he has fashioned an elegant combination of these apparently divergent styles.

Karen Scherzinger, The Sunday Independent.

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Extract from The Typewriter's Tale

The James family arrived in August, pleading exhaustion from their travels, but otherwise more cheerful than Frieda had yet seen them as a family. They brought with them their daughter Margaret Mary, known as Peggy, and their son Henry, known as Harry. Frieda thought that Peggy and Harry suggested a child-like jollity and chumminess altogether absent in the bearers of these names, and preferred to refer to them as Miss James and Mr Harry respectively.

The son had inherited all his father's confidence with little of his sensitivity or intelligence. He was a successful man of affairs, and treated his uncle with the condescension of a young man consciously more capable of dealing with life than an elderly bachelor who spent his time writing books that nobody read. Frieda guessed that he took his tone from the family dinner table, where the impracticality of Uncle Henry would be a frequent subject of good-humoured head-shaking. There was, in the way the young man settled into Lamb House and its amenities, something assessing and critical, as if he were already taking possession, it being presumably a made-out case that as eldest off-spring of Mr James's eldest brother he would in the natural course of things inherit Lamb House. He irritated George Gammon by proposing improvements to the garden, which the gardener dealt with by affecting not to understand 'American'; he infuriated Max by pretending to throw sticks for him to retrieve and then producing the stick from behind his back after the dog had dashed off into the empty distance yapping excitedly. He was, as a man of affairs, elaborately interested in his uncle's system of dictation, and asked if he could be present at the sessions in the Garden Room. Mr James, who in the past had treated the Garden Room as an inviolable sanctuary from even the most favoured guests, found it difficult to refuse his brother's family anything, and reluctantly agreed. Harry assured his uncle that he would not be an obtrusive presence, but as he was a rather large young man, and blessed with the family catarrh, he blocked the path of Mr James's circumambulations and sounded like a marine mammal in distress. This caused Mr James's dictation to be even less fluent than usual, more prone to long pauses and revisions.

Apart from this literal invasion of his sanctuary, Mr James had to bear with any number of other calls on his time. A bad headache on Mrs James's part, for instance, to which she was much prone, would necessitate the offices of Dr Skinner, the local physician; or an enquiry on Mr Harry's part as to the guest facilities of the golf club would impel his courteous uncle to accompany him there in order to introduce him. And whereas Harry's golf was conceivably, unlike his mother's headache, a matter that could be deferred to the afternoon, the young man's manner did not provide for that possibility. All the minor inconveniences occasioned by his own consideration Mr James revelled in even while he groaned at them; indeed, the more he groaned at them the more he revelled in them, as proof that he could, in refutation of his family's estimate of him, be of use.

Miss James took up less space than her brother, or did so less aggressively: her presence suffused rather than asserted itself, but was difficult to ignore, like a slight but damp draught. She was pale and serious, prone to nervous exhaustion, the subject of endless solicitude on the part of her parents and ill-concealed impatience on the part of her brother; this in spite of being alleged to have benefited greatly from the ministrations of Mrs Newman, the mental curist.

ABSA Chain: Marlene van Niekerk in conversation with Michiel Heyns

Marlene van Niekerk, Michiel Heyns


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In just over four years you have produced three novels: after the semi-autobiographical The Children's Day came The Reluctant Passenger, a-laugh-a-minute romp that reached cult status in gay circles, and recently Jonathan Ball launched The Typewriter's Tale, a novel which reflects a lifelong intellectual engagement with the world and work of Henry James. Could you reflect on this extraordinary rate of publication and the "writer's logic" of this sequence of works?

A blocked pipe gushes when you unblock it. For most of my adult life, which I spent as an academic, I felt that writing fiction was an indulgence that I couldn't afford. So when I got over that inhibition there was a lot of pent-up energy. As for the logic of the sequence: well, of course most first novels are to some extent autobiographical, so I had to get that out of the way. The Reluctant Passenger was written as a response to publishers who complained that The Children's Day was "too quiet"; I thought, well, let me write something very much not quiet (the publishers then said they missed the gentleness of The Children's Day). Having done that, I was free to turn an academic passion (Henry James) into something other than a research article.


What I find extraordinary is your ability to inhabit vastly different worlds, and your way of writing fluently from "within" entirely divergent moral and cultural spheres, from the deep rural areas in South Africa to the South African urban gay scene to Victorian England. Any comment?

It's tempting to blush modestly and mutter something about Keats's "chameleon poet", the "negative capability" that enables the imaginative writer to enter into and blend with a variety of backgrounds, but that sounds a bit presumptuous. More simply, then, my three different settings are just slightly more extreme instances of the kind of imaginative flexibility that comes with any writer's territory. Consider, after all, Triomf and Agaat.


It is not only The Reluctant Passenger that was funny. Your readers marvel at the specific type of dry ironic wit that you wield in your novels, also in The Typewriter's Tale. Could you say something about the place and use of humour in your work?

Humour happens. I didn't think, when I started writing The Typewriter's Tale, that there was anything particularly funny in the material, but somehow it turned out that way. Of course, few situations are inherently funny: the poor bugger who slips on the banana skin and breaks his coccyx fails to see why the rest of the world is laughing. It's a matter of the perspective one adopts, and again I can only say that it happens: I see these people and they're funny. It's possible that reading authors like Jane Austen and Henry James schooled me in a certain oblique way of looking at things, so that the more seriously people take themselves, the funnier they are. In any case, in the South Africa I grew up in, in which some people took themselves very seriously indeed ("Dit is ons erns"), humour was a mode of survival.


When one reads your work one soon falls under the spell of the well-chiselled Heyns sentences, wittily elegant in the qualifications, the oppositions, the exclusions, the symmetries that they propose. Often one despairs at how stylistically poor a lot of what one reads these days is. It makes me think that if you were to give a young writer an exercise, it might be something like the following: "Write seven long sentences (three subordinate clauses each) about a black cat in which you show that you know your grammar and your rhetoric and that you are interested in uncommon words." Comment? Any other advice to young novelists?

Yes, although for the cat I would suggest a colour more conducive to qualification, opposition and exclusion than black. Since you invite me to be pedantic: a long sentence is not just three sentences perversely strung together, it's a complex proposition of which the parts cohere, as you suggest, in a variety of logical and emotive relations. The wisdom of the ages has evolved the colon and the semicolon to fulfil a particular expressive need; doing away with those leaves the writer with only two rather blunt tools in his tool-box. And to me a verbless sentence remains a headless ox stuck in the mud. Advice to young novelists? Learn a foreign language, any foreign language, to make you aware of language as a structure.


Whom would you like to distinguish as the three writers you most admire in the international world of English letters today?

Phew. Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Philip Roth have had time to establish themselves with a long and impressive back-list; but I'd like to see, say, Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers in ten years' time.


You are entirely bilingual in English and Afrikaans, and come from a half English, half Afrikaans background. The Children's Day is about to be translated into Afrikaans, an uncommon move in the local publishing world. Could you motivate the move? Would you ever consider writing in Afrikaans?

Actually, my background is entirely Afrikaans, apart from my having an English grandmother. When The Children's Day appeared, quite a few people told me it should really have been an Afrikaans novel, given the Free State kleindorpie setting and the characters. I had, in fact, tried writing it in Afrikaans, but found, oddly, that it seemed artificial. Perhaps because I've spent my adult life teaching English literature, that's the language that comes naturally to me in writing. I think that answers both your questions: the publishers thought here is a book that would go well in Afrikaans, and yes, I have considered writing in Afrikaans, but it somehow wouldn't gel.


If you had to dream a little dream of a South African literary scene that would be most beneficial to your needs as a writer, what would it look like?

A writer needs, more than anything else, readers (the publishers will follow). So my dream is of a literate society, a society in which books are read, books are news, and this is reflected in the media. Consider the place of literature in schools; consider the meagre half-page devoted every week to books by a paper that aspires to quality status like the Mail and Guardian; consider the recognition given to creative writing (as opposed to "research outputs") by institutions like the University of Stellenbosch, and despair. Conversely, change all that, and you have my dream.

September 2004 | 102 » Reviews » The curse of Henry JamesHYPERLINK ""Buy Issue

The spate of novels about Henry James seems odd even to Michiel Heyns, who wrote one of them. But to reclaim a principle of mastery, novelists seem willing to violate a life

Michiel Heyns

Michiel Heyns is a writer living in South Africa

My agent forwards me another polite letter of rejection: "I am so sorry but timing is all - and there has just been a spate of fiction based on the life of Henry James published here. I don't know how these coincidences happen… something in the atmosphere? So regretfully I must say no."

The spate of fiction referred to by this editor, I don't need reminding, is Felony by Emma Tennant (Jonathan Cape), The Master by Colm Tóibín (Picador), and now Author, Author by David Lodge (Secker &Warburg). My own novel, The Typewriter's Tale, thus has to make its way, after three years in the making, into an "atmosphere"already saturated with fictions about James.

David Lodge (in an afterword) comments on this plethora, without explaining it: "I leave it to students of the zeitgeist to ponder the significance of these coincidences."As a victim of the zeitgeist, I am left pondering why James is such an irresistible subject for fictionalisation.

John Updike, in his New Yorker review of The Master, finds a clue in what he describes as "postmodernism's rampant eclecticism."The blending of fact with fiction that all these novels contrive certainly sits easily with a scepticism about ultimate truths. But isn't postmodernism yesterday's news? And, anyway, there are more luridly eventful lives than that of Henry James to choose from: a man who had, in the received opinion, no consummated sexual relationships, who lived an exemplary life, and who avoided scandal at all costs does not seem a promising fictional subject.

Part of the answer may be implicit in David Lodge's comment in the Bookseller that James was "a writers'writer."In his own lifetime, James allowed, not to say encouraged, disciples like Hugh Walpole to call him "Master,"and his friend Edith Wharton, whose novels far outsold his, habitually addressed him as cher maître.

Less beguiled by his magisterial presence, we after-comers nevertheless venerate James for the uncompromising subtlety and technical refinement of his writing. He was the first English novelist to insist on fiction-writing as an exacting art, the technique of which was available to scrutiny and analysis. The prefaces he wrote for the collected New York edition of his fiction from 1905 onwards have been published separately as The Art of the Novel, and are generally seen as the first serious novel-criticism in English. Towards the end of his book, Lodge imagines being able to travel back in time to James's deathbed to report to him his future fame: "'You only contributed one word to the English language,'I would tell HJ, 'but it's one to be proud of: Jamesian.'"Jamesian: the word suggests a certain superfine sensibility, expressed in a technical mastery as subtle as it is expressive. To admirers of James, like Lodge, it is indeed a word to be proud of; to the many people who find James's novels impossibly over-elaborate, the word tends to be pronounced with an ironic little grimace.

Modern Jamesians thus have a sense of being elected to the service of a benign but discriminating god. But the loyalty that James inspires leads all too many of those admirers to disregard the curse he pronounced upon all biographers and post-mortemers - "a curse,"he told his executor, "not less explicit than Shakespeare's own on any such as try to move my bones."James had a lifelong aversion to publicity and to the inquisitiveness of well-meaning admirers and prurient snoops alike. The promise of privacy and decorum was part of what persuaded the young American to settle in London in 1876. Finding, by 1898, that London offered no refuge from the strains of social living, he withdrew to Lamb House in Rye, where he lived till just before his death in 1916.

The seclusion of Lamb House accorded well with James's sense of the essential invisibility of the author: for him, the author as a person with a private life did not, or should not, exist, and had no critically relevant bearing on the fiction. Consistent with this principle, towards the end of his life, James burned all his letters - the accumulation of a lifetime of correspondence with the leading literary figures of his time. This destruction was prefigured in an essay on George Sand, written some ten years earlier, in which he imagines the "inquirer"violating the writer's privacy, even after "every track"has been "covered, every paper burnt."Perhaps not surprisingly, however, the effect of James's insistence on privacy has been to stimulate interest.

In one of his more perverse tales, "The Figure in the Carpet,"a young literary gentlemen embarks on a lifelong quest for the eponymous figure, prompted by a revered author who tantalises him with the question: "Isn't there for every writer a particular thing of that sort, the thing that most makes him apply himself, the thing without the effort to achieve which he wouldn't write at all, the very passion of his passion?"

The "particular thing"is never named, though the young man, being one of the Jamesian obsessives, is doomed thereafter to spend his life looking for the figure in the carpet, and some of James's readers, moved to wonder whether the Master was hinting at some such primal plan in his own fiction, have followed suit.

It is then a natural progression from the process of reading a James novel to the tendency to read James's life as if it were a James novel, and, if one is a writer, to the desire to write that novel. The figure in James's carpet has most often been taken to be his homosexuality, generally assumed to have been unconsummated. Some reference to this occurs in all three of the recent novels, but in itself it has not figured as a major theme; rather, the novelists have been drawn to the related matter of James's relationship with the American writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, who committed suicide in Venice in 1894. Tennant, Tóibín and Lodge all place this relationship at the centre of their recreation of James's emotional life, and it is not difficult to see why: the friendship with Fenimore, as James called her, was one of his few relationships with women amenable to fictional speculation. It is clear from her few surviving letters to him that she wished for more of his company than he was able or prepared to give her. The friendship is intriguingly like a James novel, with its heroine pining away quietly for the love of a more or less unresponsive male.

There has been a general sense, surfacing again in these novels, that James felt some guilt at his neglect, even some responsibility for Fenimore's suicide. In most respects such an exemplary and loyal friend, James, the "historian of fine consciences,"as Conrad called him, offers in this lapse an irresistible subject to his novel-writing disciples. Lodge presses least hard on this spring, Tóibín makes it central to his image of the loneliness and selfishness of art, and Tennant uses it to support her unsympathetic portrait of James as a petty and manipulative opportunist, jealous of Fenimore's commercial success and obsessed with his own reputation.

My own novel, which covers a later period of James's life, finds its subject not in James's derelictions of duties so much as in his own restrained infatuation with the fascinating, ruthless and sexually ambiguous William Morton Fullerton, another deracinated American, beloved of both James and Edith Wharton. The truly Jamesian figure here, by which I mean the character whose only option is to renounce, is James himself: time and again in letters he comments wistfully on the non-appearance of Morton Fullerton on his doorstep. Poignantly, he probably did not know that Fullerton and Edith Wharton were having an affair: he was thus in the same situation as Lambert Strether, the hero of The Ambassadors, who remains for much of the novel convinced of the innocent nature of the relationship between his young friend Chad Newsome and Madame de Vionnet. Strangely, then, eight years after writing The Ambassadors, James turned into the beguiled hero of his own novel; an irony which in turn begat my novel. I opted to tell the story from the point of view of his typist, and in this choice too, I was following James. In his short story "In the Cage,"a young woman telegraphist builds up a fantasy life around the telegrams she transmits for society ladies and gentlemen.

There is, then, to admirers of James, an irresistible story in the very absences of James's life. In this, they can claim to be following the example of James himself, who found his subjects in absences and suppressions. James is a writer's writer in that his life presents itself to writers as eminently writable. But he also presents himself as a model: not for imitation or copying, but of an artistic ideal. He found in his art the shape, the design and the decorum that life so often lacked.

It is this aspect that David Lodge develops most fully in his exploration of the friendship between James and George Du Maurier: as fate or the zeitgeist would have it, James's most humiliating failure, being booed on the first night of his play Guy Domville, coincided with the astronomic success of Du Maurier's Trilby. Lodge allows James some all too human envy of his friend's success and some ponderous reflections on the vagaries of public taste. If in relation to Fenimore Woolson some commentators have seen James as insensitive and exploitative, in relation to the theatre he is victim rather than perpetrator. In dealing with this disappointment, James's stoicism and mature resignation, especially well dealt with by Tóibín, represent an inspiration to writers, dependent as they all are on the fickle taste of the public. James's lonely artistic integrity, a source to him of both deprivation and consolation, is to other writers proof of a dedication that so much in the modern publishing industry conspires to discourage.

James presents to our age an image of modest mastery. We shy away from hero worship, from the large gesture and the bold claim and yet we admire the confidence based on technical mastery that James never lost, in spite of the discouragements charted by Tóibín and Lodge. James led a writer's life, paid the price and reaped the rewards - or some of them. He was not indifferent to material success or his relative lack of it, but he refused to compromise his art for its sake.

WH Auden put it best in his 1941 poem "At the Grave of Henry James":

…your heart, fastidious as

A delicate nun, remained true to the rare noblesse

Of your lucid gift and, for its love, ignored the

Resentful muttering Mass….

There is, of course, a certain irony in paying homage to such a man through our courting, if not the muttering Mass, then at any rate the mass market. This, too, Auden foresaw in his closing invocation:

Master of nuance and scruple,

Pray for me and for all writers, living or dead:

Because there are many whose works

Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end

To the vanity of our calling, make intercession

For the treason of all clerks.

For ultimately, these novels are also treason: treason to the high Jamesian ideal of privacy, discretion, proportion.

On a summer afternoon, shortly before the completion of my novel, my agent and I made a pilgrimage to Lamb House, now a National Trust property. There we met Colm Tóibín, whose presence was the first ominous inkling either of us had of his intentions. The custodian of the house kindly allowed us upstairs, normally closed to the public. Both of us made surreptitious notes, Tóibín's, it seems, enabling him to write the passage in his book in which Henry James, in his bedroom, can hear his young guest and the object of his adulation, Hendrik Andersen, undress in the adjoining guest room. My notes enabled me to recreate James dictating to his typist in the green room. David Lodge, in his acknowledgements, thanks three successive custodians of Lamb House.

Lamb House, James's retreat from publicity and scandal and inquiry, had become the site of betrayal: the tower of art had been scaled, the enemy was within the walls. We defied the prohibitions of the man in order to bring tribute to the master. But I am starting to suspect, as yet another letter of rejection arrives, that James's curse is taking effect - at least on one writer.