"The 'historic' novel is, for me, condemned ... to a fatal cheapness," Henry James once wrote a fellow novelist — and to my mind the biographical novel...

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“The ‘historic’ novel is, for me, condemned … to a fatal cheapness,” Henry James once wrote a fellow novelist — and to my mind the biographical novel suffers from the same affliction. Whether the subject is Lincoln or Michelangelo, for me there’s something forced and fake about turning a great life into a piece of fiction. No matter how hard the novelist tries, I never feel like I’m reading a “real” novel.

“Author, Author”

by David Lodge

Viking, 390 pp., $24.95

To his credit, David Lodge does try hard, in “Author, Author,” to make a fictional go of Henry James’ “treacherous years” — the period in the early 1890s when the writer chucked what he termed “the pale little art of fiction” for the heady (and he hoped golden) realm of the theater. Spurred by dwindling book sales and jealousy over the runaway success of the novel “Trilby” by his dear friend George du Maurier, James staked his professional reputation on a series of hastily written plays — only to find himself savagely booed at the London premier of “Guy Domville” (a historical drama condemned in part by the fatal cheapness of the leading lady’s plumed hat).

It was the most painful episode in a life famously screened from passion, and Lodge does his best to work up the suspense and pathos. But ultimately his book reads less like a novel than a biography fleshed out with dialogue, atmosphere and motive. Lodge follows “Henry” into the bathroom, makes him ride a bike (badly), and has him fantasize about “the chink of sovereigns” his play will bring. In the end, the intimate details only reduce the consummate artist to a state of perpetual pettiness. As for the vexed question of James’ sexuality, Lodge concludes that though Henry may have been more attracted to men than to women, “he found it impossible to imagine himself performing any of these acts, even the most elementary, with anyone.”

To my mind, the closeted homosexual Henry in Colm Tóibín’s “The Master” (another fictional rendering of James’ life, published earlier this year) is more successful, precisely because he’s more of a character and less a bundle of traits and habits. Tóibín paints a portrait of the artist as a lonely, haunted man — but Lodge gives us a convincing period scarecrow with some terrific clothes. What they both miss is the wicked, twinkling sense of humor that so delighted those who knew James best.