Friday, September 9, 2016

“I supply the most delicious irony” - "The Next Time" by Henry James, about a writer who is just too good - That was the colour of his magnificent mistake

he comic premise of “The Next Time” (1895) is that Ray Limbert wants to write something that makes money, but the harder he tries to be bad – bad work makes money – the greater - and therefore less commercial – his books.

She [his wife] gave a tragic shrug.  “What other course is open to him?  He wrote to them that such work as he does is the very worst he can do for the money.”  (Ch. I)

The narrator, not the novelist, is the James-like character, but my understanding is that something like this exact line can be found in James’s letters, but twenty years earlier, from his short-lived attempt to be the Paris gossip columnist for the New York Tribune.  He tried his worst, but it wasn’t bad enough.

Each novel is meant to be the one that sells.  A serialized novel is meant to be so bad that he insists his friends skip it until it is completed.  The narrator, when he finally reads it, wonders if Limbert had meant some sort of prank:

Popular? – how on earth could it be popular?  The thing was charming with all his charm and powerful with all his power: it was an unscrupulous, an unsparing, a shameless, merciless masterpiece.   

The narrator reads all night, finishing the novel as the sun rises:

The eastern sky, over the London housetops, had a wonderful tragic crimson.  That was the colour of his magnificent mistake.  (III)

As has been the case throughout this cluster of James stories, there is not the slightest hint about the content of the books, or a clue about what they are like – “tragic crimson”!  At least there are a couple of titles: The Major Key, The Hidden Heart, and Derogations, the latter a heck of a title, the middle one meant to be an adventure novel, but unrecognizable as such because it is too beautiful, too “deep and delicate.”  His friends learn to lie to him about how wonderful his books are.

Although I have no idea what Limbert’s writing is like, the narrator is an interesting case.  He gets off some good ones:

The strongest effect doubtless was produced on the publisher when, in its lemon-coloured volumes, like a dish of three custards, the book was at last served cold: he never got his money back and so far as I know has never got it back to this day.  (II)

A cruelly lovely metaphor embedded in money matters.  This narrator is James-like in the usual ways, but is subtly worse, more of a gasbag.  “It’s all tears and laughter as I look back upon this admirable time, in which nothing was so romantic as our intense vision of the real” (I) and so on.  Lots of arty baloney.  At first I thought “The Next Time” has some pretty serious flaws, but it was just my response to this narrator, who is just that much more irritating than is typical for James.  The narrator having it out with Mrs. Limbert, again, about a column the narrator supplies to Limbert’s doomed literary journal:

“It isn’t your price – [the publisher] says you’re dear at any price; you do so much to sink the ship.  Your ‘Remarks’ are called ‘Occasional,’ but nothing could be more deadly regular; you’re there month after month and you’re never anywhere else.  And you supply no public want.”

“I supply the most delicious irony.”

“So Ray appears to have declared.  [The publisher] says that’s not in the least a public want.  No one can make out what you’re talking about and no one would care if he could.”  (IV)

This is James’s self-parody.  James did not write novels that were just too exquisitely beautiful to live.  Who did? I wish I could read one of them.

Just to rub in the joke, Limbert’s sister is basically Nora Roberts, cranking out a bestseller every two or three months.  She would like to write a prestigious non-commercial book, but every time she tries it sells as well as ever.


  1. Have you, by chance, read David Lodge's Author, Author?

  2. No, I've not read any of the novels about James.

  3. I don't normally read fiction books about real people, and I don't intend to try and twist your arm on this one, but I really liked Author, Author. It focuses on the 1880s which was a tough time for James as a writer. (I see your story is written during the 80s)

  4. I looked up Lodge's book, and I see that Colm Tóibín wrote about exactly the same period of James's life. It is such a rich period. James is failing as a playwright and having other personal and financial problems, but we readers know that things work out all right. Artistically, especially.

    1. I've read neither book, though I quite like both Lodge and Tóibín, because a novel about James would be like someone else's portrait of Rembrandt - inevitably less than the model. However, I think Lodge wrote another book about his misfortune in publishing a novel about James just after Tóibín, which really is stretching out your material!

  5. Making the best of some amusingly bad luck.