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November 03, 2004

Who Knew Henry James Was Such a Sidesplitter?

by Ron Hogan

The Significant Other and I were able to distract ourselves from the national tension Monday night with a trip to the 92nd Street Y to see Louis Auchincloss and David Lodge read. Bruce Bawer began the evening by paying tribute to Auchincloss' writing career, which has spanned more than fifty years and more than fifty books, celebrating him as "the most authoritative chronicler and the most trenchant critic" of America's elite class. We were expecting Auchincloss to read from his latest novel, East Side Story, so the Significant Other was pleasantly surprised when he announced upon arriving at the podium that he would be reading from perhaps his most famous work, The Rector of Justin. Soon she was shooting me dirty looks, trying to get me to stop laughing quite so hard at his uproarious prose; I'd not read this novel before, and it really is one of the funniest passages I've heard in ages. I calmed down soon enough, and Auchincloss continued with a portion of the story "Billy and the Gargoyles" followed by another short story about a disastrous night at the opera.

That last story was an apt choice given that Lodge was reading from Author, Author, his novel about Henry James' attempt to match his literary success with a hit play, an attempt which went terribly (but in Lodge's casting, hilariously) wrong on opening night. One could see that some in the audience felt his introductory remarks went on a bit long; people had already begun to walk out as soon as Auchincloss walked offstage, even as Alison Lurie was comparing Lodge to Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh for their mutual "ironic tone" and "sardonic humor." The digression about how a proposed TV adaptation of George du Maurier's Trilby ten years ago inspired Lodge to think about James might have overextended itself, perhaps, but at least it led to the sly quip that "if I'd started earlier, I might have been the first instead of the third novelist to write a book about Henry James," which drew a chuckle from the audience and brought any undecideds firmly into his camp...after which his brilliant recreation of the opening night of James' play held our attentions firmly. Afterwards, while the S.O. was getting our copy of Author, Author signed, I asked Lodge if he'd had a chance to read any of the other James books, knowing of his passing acquaintance with Colm Tóibin. Not yet, he told me, though he was looking forward to them after his book tour was complete.


I'm reading I Am Charlotte Simmons right now. (The library doesn't seem to have to abide by the November 9 release date.) I'm fifty pages in, and I find the Charlotte sections wonderful reading, but the Jojo the white guy basketball star sports sections are terribly tedious. Based on the dreadful reviews I read today, I'm not sure I have the will to brave the bacchanalia and misery that will trample Charlotte, and I'm especially unsure because the trampling will take 673 pages.
Would love to hear what others think.

Posted by: Judith at November 7, 2004 12:52 PM
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