If you are a fan of the novels of Henry James, or interested in his friendship with the novelist Edith Wharton, you’ll get a literate kick out of Michiel Heyns’s novel “The Typewriter’s Tale.” Originally published in South Africa in 2005 and then in the U.K. last year, it’s finally available in the United States.
When the story opens, penniless Frieda Wroth learns, during a seance, that her dead mother would like her to take what the not-quite-literate medium spells out as “a corse in somthing usful.” Frieda goes to school to become a typewriter, a human extension of the Remington machine itself, able to take dictation from any professional man who needs his words transcribed as they emerge from his mouth. Frieda has the good fortune to be hired by the novelist Henry James and goes to live near him in Rye in 1907.
Heyns draws James with an affectionate hand, as quirky and verbose and brilliant as we would wish, equal parts self-involved and kind. Frieda, who has writerly aspirations of her own, is a smart blend of the iconoclast and the conventional. Grateful to be freed of the banal, drudgery-filled life she had been destined for, Frieda focuses her energies on her tasks for Mr. James, eagerly observing his process at work. In her spare time, she takes solitary walks or bike rides, and occasionally — somewhat halfheartedly — works on her own writing.
Some of the novel’s most charming passages showcase Frieda and Mr. James in the dictation process, Frieda imagining she might guess the next word to issue from his lips after a prolonged silence, and then the always different — complex and interesting, or simpler and cleaner — choice that James makes:
“ ‘I have lost myself once more, comma, I confess, comma, in the curiosity of analysing the structure. Full stop. By what process of logical . . .’
“ ‘. . . accretion was this slight “personality” quotation marks, comma, the mere slim shade of an intelligent but presumptuous . . .’
“ ‘. . . girl, comma, to find itself endowed with the high attributes of a Subject, capitalised, question mark?’ ”
A search for a cache of intimate letters becomes the driving tension of the novel, once Frieda becomes involved with James’s friend, the handsome and captivating journalist Morton Fullerton. James has refused to return some letters to Fullerton, who enlists Frieda’s help in retrieving them. In real life, as in the novel, Fullerton was scandalously linked to Wharton, who considered him the love of her life. A set of letters played an important role in the Fullerton-Wharton relationship as well.
The other important plot thread, also distilled from history, toys with psychic communication and telepathy, an ironic contrast to Frieda’s day job receiving transmissions from James’s mind and typing them into solid-state form on the page. James’s brother, William, was one of the first members of the British Society for Psychical Research and, like many other educated people of the day, believed it possible to transfer thought between people over long distances. (How he would have loved text messaging!) Frieda, too, experiences the ability to send and receive thoughts, both with the living and the dead, using her trusty Remington as the recording tool:
“Sitting at her typewriter, she became aware of the presence of another consciousness, of her fingers obeying not the promptings of her own mind or eye, but half-formed thoughts entering her mind of their own volition. . . . Yielding to the impulses of the usurping consciousness, she found that she could record them as smoothly as if she were taking dictation.”
These psychic communications are perhaps the hardest aspect of the novel for a 21st-century reader to accept. Although believable in the world of the story, such moments effectively erect an emotional barrier between Heyns’s fictional world and our own. After all, a historical novel becomes literature if its story enhances our contemporary vision, moves us into a new relationship with both the past and our present. Such novels use history to point the reader to deeper revelations about life today. Although Heyns’s novel is delicious to read, that application to life in the present that one feels when reading, say, Colm Toibin’s novel about James, “The Master,” is sadly missing. “The Typewriter’s Tale” is a historian’s tale, chock-full of perfect detail, rather than a novelist’s creative transformation. As such, it’s more like a cover band than a performance of original music — but that’s not to say it isn’t genuinely fun.
Susan Scarf Merrell is the author, most recently, of “Shirley,” a novel about Shirley Jackson.
By Michiel Heyns
St. Martin’s. 270 pp. $25.99