The Typewriter’s Tale
By Michiel Heyns
St. Martin’s Press
288 pages $25.99
Before reading the novel, “The Typewriter’s Tale”, by South African Michiel Heyns (1943 - ), it would be helpful to remember Henry James (1843 – 1916).
James was the American-born British resident who was known for novels featuring his characters’ point of view. In them, Americans experienced Europe.
James was famous for many insightful, yet careful adventures. Among my favorites are “The Europeans”, “Daisy Miller”, and “A Portrait of a Lady.” (I remember reading “The Aspern Papers”, another of James’ shorter works. Not sure why, perhaps for the quiet, but I pored over that novel as I entered college.)
Henry James' brother was William, the famous Harvard psychologist. William’s monumental work, “The Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902), remains a classic a century hence.
Michael Heyns, the author of "The Typewriter's Tale," is professor emeritus in English at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, and an expert on James. He was educated at Cambridge as well as the University of Stellenbosch, where he taught from 1983 until 2003. Since then he has won awards for his writing and translations.
Why should James have required a typist, Frieda Wroth, in 1907? The physical answer is that his years of writing long hand wore out his nerves. He could no longer write as well in the old-fashioned way. So he took advantage of a new machine, the typewriter. As one reads, you realize that, from time to time, Frieda and the typewriter seem coterminous conveyances of his art.
In the novel, James is particular about who he is hiring to type. He explains to his fictional prospective typist, Frieda: “You will be, as it were, the medium between my thoughts and the paper.”
Heyns is an extraordinary writer. His writing is beautiful in an old-world style, reminiscent of the early 20th century desire to be capacious and not immediately revealing in an orotund, guarded style. In more than a word, Heyns writes like “The Master” himself (called so in a 2005 introspective novel about Henry James by Irish writer Colm Toibin).
Frieda keeps a little notebook of personal stabs at fiction, but seems more put off by writing as she works for James and, inevitably, begins to copy his style. A handsome American living and writing in Paris, Morton Fullerton, visits Henry James and it appears he’s a good friend of the author. For litterateurs, handsome young men visiting the older James have been not much of a story for years.
Fullerton seduces Frieda on an overnight in Folkstone. “You do realize that it is my intention to make love to you,” he says. This seduction is away from the small town of Rye, where James has a home.
Frieda, inexperienced and anxious for love, felt this statement touched her deeply, spiritually and morally.
The plot thickens.
Fullerton wants Frieda, now that he’s compromised her, to filch away compromising letters that he’s written to James and bring them to him in Paris. Frieda sees this as a betrayal to her employer, but not much of a one, since she is paid so little.
Along the way, Edith Wharton shows up as a well-drawn character writing to James, her friend, in “The Typewriter’s Tale.” There is considerable attention in the novel to the belief that people can speak from the afterlife to those on this side of the veil.
This idea, along with "automatic writing" – a cognate concept – had considerable sway on the continent and in England and Ireland at this time. (Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, renounced his Catholic upbringing and purchased this piece of business entirely. Doyle promised friends that he’d make a comeback after his death, but he never showed up.)
Frieda is a careful critic in her own way. She knows that she is only a part of the furniture. Heyns explains her status this way.
“As she reflects on Henry James complete unawareness of her personhood and destiny, she is aware of the material on which James’ artistic sensibility is fed. It is the stuff as models in his books such as Julia, Portia, and Henry Sorrel, and Maggie Tulliver; but what were they to him or he to them, when he claimed his subject was Life itself?”
If you like the following Jamesian sentence written by Heyns and attributed to Frieda, this is your book to read.
“Thus pondered Frieda in the winter of 1907, a period in which she was more aware than ever before of chafing against the envelope of her circumstances.”
That’s her status in the novel, off to the side, while suffering her own undoing; a moral error, as she aches for love.
Frieda allows herself to be compromised by both Fullerton and James and becomes like the typewriter, an instrument used by men.
Michael D. Langan is frequent book reviewer for The Buffalo News.