AUTHOR, AUTHOR

By David Lodge. Viking. 390 pp. $24.95

At the close of a sterile negotiation with Sam Goldwyn over a possible screenplay, George Bernard Shaw is supposed to have told the movie mogul that he finally understood their aesthetic differences: "You, sir, are interested principally in art. I am interested only in money."

Many literary authors have tried to make this Faustian bargain with the Mammon faction, imagining that one good killing at the Hollywood or Broadway box office will free them to produce their principled, deathless, elevated prose. Faulkner, Greene, Waugh . . . the only one who seems to have got away with it -- or should I say had it both ways? -- is Gore Vidal. Still, it is something of a struggle to imagine Henry James himself descending into this vulgar arena, and the chief virtue of David Lodge's latest novel is that he convincingly shows us "The Master" as he begins to make his sordid, pecuniary calculations. The action is set in England (and, part of the time, in Italy) on the cusp of the 1880s and early '90s. Mr. James has become distinctly stout and more than a little pompous, and the success of Portrait of a Lady (his only actual thriller, in my opinion) is receding behind him. Used to his comforts, he is uneasily aware of declining sales and a possible shortage of ready money. Meanwhile, as is always the case from the standpoint of those wedded to art, the cheap and the meretricious continue to flourish. James's friend, the popular illustrator George Du Maurier, writes a popular and sentimental novel called Trilby, which becomes the runaway seller of the age. An amoral showoff named Oscar Wilde seems unstoppable with his crowd-pleasing efforts. Most disconcerting of all, perhaps, Constance Fenimore Woolson, a tough-minded American authoress, continues to produce fiction that is both worthy and "accessible." James cannot shake the feeling that this woman also has a design to lay siege to his long-guarded bachelorhood.

Lodge is very deft in two aspects of his reconstruction: the sexual and the contextual. He makes it seem quite plausible that James thought about sex a good deal ("It was . . . necessary to this project that the novelist should know exactly what it was he was leaving out") and, eschewing any undue nudging, he also rightly infers that the bed into which James never got would have contained a lissome male. There is a scene in a London restaurant, in the course of which the visiting Guy de Maupassant tries to talk about women with his host, which made me laugh aloud. As for the historical, Lodge recreates the little world of London's West End stage with great charm and care. I say "little world," even though its dramas and defeats were enacted before a wide and growing public. James slaved on a plot that he hoped would bring him riches and fame as well as praise from the cognoscenti, and the result was the play "Guy Domville." On opening night, the theater critics of the London press included George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett, and this on an evening when Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" was having its premiere only a few hundred yards away. (James chose to attend this first night, rather than his own, because of an excess of nerves.) I knew what had later happened to James on that night of nights, and could feel it coming on again as I turned the pages. It says a great deal for Lodge that he kept me in suspense for a considerable time about a denouement that I understood in advance, and then made that climax into something more shattering than I had anticipated. I shall give away nothing to the uninitiated, except to say that the pain we share with James is much diminished when we appreciate that this saved him for the writing of later novels such as The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl.

Obviously Lodge would have to write at supra-Jamesian length if he put in everything about those late-Victorian, Edwardian and Great War decades in England. He resolves the problem by risking anachronism and by starting and finishing in the year of James's death. I wish he had included that other low moment in the great man's career: the awful snub administered to the aspirant Anglophile and potential Englishman by the brash young half-American Winston Churchill. But one cannot, as James himself ruefully conceded, hope to have everything. The novelist Peter De Vries once said that he wanted a mass audience large enough for his elite audience to despise: This is the third novel this year (anticipated by both Colm Toibin's The Master and Emma Tennant's Felony) to have James as its virtual sex object, so it would appear that the "wrong" sort of fame and immortality lies still within his posthumous grasp. *

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His latest collection of essays, "Love, Poverty and War," will be published this month.

Henry James