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Times Literary Supplement: "the novel makes for a pleasant fictional rendering of - in effect - one of those fantasy dinner parties, postulating the outcome of the meeting of two such literary celebrities."

Date: Jan 18 2008

In 1888, Henry James despairingly hoped that "some day all my buried prose will kick off its various tombstones at once". He could not have imagined another type of literary revival: Henry James as a character, raised up from the grave by the imaginations of other authors. One thinks of Colm Toibin's The Master, David Lodge's Author Author (both in 2004), or Gore Vidal's Empire (1987), works in which James has been given a fictional resurrection. Indeed, one could almost imagine James himself constructing an artful nouvelle on the subject: the once masterful writer condemned to come to life only in the pages of other authors.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr.'s novel, Lions at Lamb House, features James, living in Sussex, engaged in the revision of his work that would become the New York Edition.  William James, concerned that such anal retentiveness might be a symptom of neurosis, asks Sigmund Freud to pay his younger brother a visit. The story is told from the perspective of Horace Briscoe, a young Jamesian scholar staying at Lamb House, who charts what happens when the "Stanley and Livingstone of the human psyche" meet.  The donnee (as James might say) is perfectly plausible, and the novel makes for a pleasant fictional rendering of - in effect - one of those fantasy dinner parties, postulating the outcome of the meeting of two such literary celebrities, "allied as they are in the quest for the deep secrets of human consciousness".

The problem of writing fictionally about such people is - as Henry James himself noted disapprovingly in the preface to The Aspern Papers - that the author (and reader) are tempted merely to consider that "the 'public person' portrayed should be at least of the tradition, of the general complexion, of the face-value, exactly, of some past or present counterfoil". And on this occasion we may feel that Yoder has merely taken Henry James at face value: the "master artist", a "creator, what I would call a visionary of consciousness", and so on.

This creates the related difficulty that the narrator must spend much of his time testifying to James's intricate spoken manner - what Vidal described as the "verbal equivalents of Laocoon's serpent" - without being able to demonstrate it himself. The proseis full of apologies for missing the "high registers of verbal teasing", the "musical inflections, rich in irony", or the "melody with many sharps and flats and chromatic chords". It merely records the existence of musicality, without striking any of the notes itself.

That said, Lions at Lamb House still represents a wry reversal of James's fabled international theme, in which the brash European (Freud and his "crude new science") is met by the traditional perspective of an American (James's "fine and subtle old art"). And Nabokov, perhaps, would have welcomed the humanistic conclusion, where we learn that Freud "in his confrontation with Mr. James . . . came very near repudiating psychoanalysis".