David Lodge was one of the several writers attempting to bring the life of Henry James to the written word in a fictional format, but his book was edged out in the race by the likes of Alan Hollinghurst's and Colm Toibin's that went on to earn critical and popular praise. Now in a Guardian series, he recounts how the tragedy struck him. Coincidences can be brutal but funny!
On a summer afternoon, shortly before the completion of my novel, my agent and I made a pilgrimage to Lamb House, now a National Trust property. There we met Colm Tóibín, whose presence was the first ominous inkling either of us had of his intentions. The custodian of the house kindly allowed us upstairs, normally closed to the public. Both of us made surreptitious notes, Tóibín's, it seems, enabling him to write the passage in his book in which Henry James, in his bedroom, can hear his young guest and the object of his adulation, Hendrick Andersen, undress in the adjoining guest room.
Colm Toíbín told the same story, with more amusing details, in an article in the Daily Telegraph in March 2004, when The Master was published. He described going to visit Lamb House,
on a bright Saturday afternoon two years ago, when I was close to completing a draft of my novel about Henry James ...
Suddenly ... a voice called my name. It was a London literary agent whom I knew. She was with one of her clients. She asked me what I was doing in Lamb House. I said that I was writing a book about Henry James.
"So is my client," she said. She introduced me to her client, who was standing beside her.
"Are you writing about this house?" the agent asked.
I told her I was. As I spoke, I noticed a neatly dressed man whom I presumed was American listening to us carefully, moving closer. "Did you both say you are writing books on James?" he asked. "Because so am I." He shook our hands cheerfully.
By this time a small crowd had gathered, marvelling at three writers pursuing the same goal. We were very careful with each other, no one wishing to say exactly how close to finishing we were. We were also very polite to each other.
Tóibín does not identify the American writer, but one may safely assume from his cheerful demeanour that he was a scholar rather than a rival novelist. For me there are other intriguing features of the episode, and the two reports of it. If we put Tóibín's "two years ago" and Heyns's "a summer afternoon" together, it took place in the summer of 2002. I also visited Lamb House with my notebook and pencil that summer - on August 1, to be precise - privately, by appointment.