The Typewriter’s Tale
By Michiel Heyns
25 February from Freight Books, £8.99 paperback
For an author many claim to find imponderable and unreadable (I’m not one of them) Henry James has inspired not only his fair share of biography, but several novels in which he is a leading character. To read more — and more eloquently — on that subject, I recommend this essay from The Guardian, by David Lodge: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/may/20/featuresreviews.guardianreview2
His piece refers to Michiel Heyns’ The Typewriter’s Tale, which came out in South Africa in 2005, but was not taken up by any UK publishers for reasons that Lodge delineates. Thank you Freight, for bringing us the first UK edition of Heyns’ novel, timed to mark the centenary of James’ death.
It reminds us that publishing is a fickle, unpredictable industry and that in common with the movie business, to quote William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire field knows for a certainty what’s going to work.” The Typewriter’s Tale is excellent and admirable, written in Jamesian style, but with lashings of the humour often lacking in the great man’s work. Its failure to find a British publisher had nothing, therefore, to do with its quality.
As well as being an award winning translator, novelist, and journalist, Michiel Heyns, Professor Emeritus in English at Stellenbosch University, has written extensively about Henry James and Elizabeth Gaskell, and adapted works by both for radio. James’ history, his novels, and his rhythms are in Heyns’ bone marrow, and that familiarity shows in this masterfully handled story.
From 1887, James did dictate rather than scribble his novels and Frieda Wroth, the titular protagonist, is loosely based on Theodora Bosanquet, who worked for James from 1907 until his death. Her thoughts and actions, however, are imagined.
The timeframe is autumn 1907 through the summer of 1909. The action mostly takes place in Lamb House, in Rye. Wroth, an orphan, has a compelling back story and a keen, though not unquestioning, interest in thought transference and spirit communication. She is also — and this is becoming quite a theme in my year’s reading — a budding writer.
Seen through Frieda’s eyes, James is deeply human — worthy of her respect but also a source of amusement. “His politeness was such that it did not insist on a sentient object: Frieda had once . . . seen him doffing his hat to a passing ship in mid-Channel.” And Heyns’s description of James’s attempt to write a telegram had me honking with laughter.
Into the quiet, well-regulated James establishment comes Morton Fullerton to sweep everyone off his or her feet with his amiability and potent sexual charisma. Frieda is duly dazzled, swiftly drawn into his dangerous personal machinations.
Fullerton likely dazzled James, and definitely had an affair with Edith Wharton though the question of what James knew and when he knew it becomes pivotal to the novel’s resolution. Fullerton’s relationship to Frieda is more imagined than real on her part, yet his caddishness contributes enormously to her personal growth in ways that aren’t predictably resolved.
Heyns is a beautiful writer and it’s a measure of his talent that he apes James’s circumlocutions without stumbling. His images are vivid and apt. At Frieda’s job interview, James attempts to pace while speaking, “but the dimensions of the room enabled him only to rotate on the spot like a dog in a basket too small for it.” Of Fullerton, he writes: “Anybody, in their allotted time, could be young; to have lived and yet to have retained the freshness of youth was a far rarer achievement.”
He is devastatingly funny about the James clan’s hypochondria, giving Frieda pointed insights about the psyche of professional invalid Alice James. He is unkind to Edith Wharton, portrayed as vulgar, in possession of more money than sense. If I hadn’t read her novels I’d find it unimaginable that the woman depicted here should have written anything worth preserving. As for poor Hugh Walpole, he is prissy and sycophantic, and “one could imagine him having grandchildren but not children.”
For all that James is a towering figure casting his shadow over the proceedings, Frieda provides the novel’s heart and its soul, and she is a lovely creation. Smart and intuitive, and still occasionally naive, she’s a prototype for the modern woman. She’s just the sort of woman you’d expect to do something bold and brave during the upcoming world war, one of the many who’d go on to change the world and open doors for others like herself, women with the brains and the gumption to pursue unlikely dreams.
When Breath Becomes Air
By Paul Kalanithi
Out now from The Bodley Head; £12.99 hardback, also available as an Ebook
Much has already been said about this book, and it doesn’t need my review to boost its sales — I hope I’ve helped on that score by recommending it to everyone in my Twitter timeline. Still, it is worth repeating that this is a fantastic (and fantastically moving) addition to the literature of death.
Kalanithi was a superstar, a shit-hot neurosurgeon and scientist with everything going for him. Cancer had other plans. He died on 9 March 2015.
Before training as a doctor Kalanithi studied English literature. He had thought deeply about the meaning of life long before he held the power to harm or heal. Long before his terminal diagnosis, he worked to integrate meaning, dignity, joy and love into even the bleakest of deathbed scenes.
Everyone alive will die. That’s the way of it. Neither Kalanithi, nor this reviewer, is the first to point out that confronting the fact of death head on is the best possible way to get the most out of being alive. Read this and weep — and also rejoice.