The narrator of “The Death of the Lion,” a journalist, wants to write a profile of his favorite midlist novelist, Neil Paraday. Paraday’s new novel, brilliant, is about to appear. The writers meet and, the journalist being a true fan, quickly become friends. He is shown an even newer work, “the written scheme for another book”:
The subject I though singularly rich, quite the strongest he had yet treated; and this familiar statement of it, full too of fine maturities, was really, in summarized splendor, a mine of gold, a precious, independent work. (III)
If only Paraday, who has been ill, will have time to complete this masterpiece.
But the new novel becomes a surprise hit, or at least “[t]he big blundering newspaper had discovered him, and now he was proclaimed and anointed and crowned,” (III) even if his “book sold but moderately” (VI). The Lion’s first brush with fame is the arrival of a second, more vulgar, reporter, in pursuit of a more vulgar kind of piece. Human interest. The narrator deflects him:
“You will of course have perceived for yourself that one scarcely does read Neil Paraday till one reads him aloud; he gives out to the ear an extraordinary quality, and it’s only when you expose it confidently to that test that you really get near his style. Take up your book and let me listen, while you pay it out, to that wonderful fifteenth chapter. If you feel that you can’t do it justice, compose yourself to attention while I produce for you – I think I can! – this scarcely less admirable ninth.”
Mr. Morrow gave me a straight glance which was as hard as a blow between the eyes; he had turned rather red, and a question had formed itself in his mind which reached my sense as distinctly as if he had uttered it: “What sort of a damned fool are you?” (V)
The narrator is a fool of the con artist type, not a lunatic but rather deflecting his rival reporter from his source.
The Lion goes on to have his life ruined – see the story’s title – by his fame, especially the endless time-sucking invitations to everything. Meanwhile, the narrator performs one more deflection, convincing a young American lady, a genuine devotee who has actually read The Lion’s books, not to ever meet her idol. That will be “’an act of homage really sublime.’”
Here the sexual theme of the story is introduced, a reversal of “The Lesson of the Master,” where the disciple deliberately keeps the lovely admirer away from the charms of the master and marries her himself.
The story ends with a comic country house party, special guest: The Lion, at which the aristocratic party-goers gesture at reading the celebrity author’s novel, a copy of it moving around the house:
“Somebody else presently finds it, with its air of momentary desolation, to another piece of furniture. Every one is asking every one about it all day, and every one is telling every one where they put it last. I’m sure it’s rather smudgy around the twentieth page. I have a strong impression that the second volume is lost – has been packed in the bag of some departing guest; and yet everybody has the impression that somebody else has read to the end.” (IX)
Both the author and the manuscript of the golden scheme, described above, become victims of these indifferent idiots. The name of the country house, by the way, is Prestidge.
James does not give one word of The Lion’s work, not even a title this time. Just take the narrator’s word for the quality even if his descriptions are utterly useless. The proper attitude towards an author of genius is to make him as indefinite as possible – a glance can destroy him – unless you are the narrator. What choice do you have?