Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

The Jouissance of Influence: Being and Following the Writer in Michiel Heyns's the Typewriter's Tale

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

The Jouissance of Influence: Being and Following the Writer in Michiel Heyns's the Typewriter's Tale

Article excerpt

One of the earliest observations Frieda Wroth makes in Michiel Heyns's third novel, The Typewriter's Tale (2005), (1) about her position as amanuensis to the writer in Henry James's household is that she is "neither guest nor servant". This rueful remark is prompted by her perception of the "distinctions and boundaries, differences subtle but strong, between 'living in' servants and 'living out'" (TT: 6); boundaries which govern her relations with the domestic staff and dictate, for example, which entrances she may or may not use to enter James's house; and yet others which define her relations with James and his guests: "She was the typewriter, tout court, and persons of quality did not as a rule dine with their typewriters" (TT: 33). However, the liminal condition of being "betwixt and between"--to use Victor Turner's helpful phrase (1992: 50)--extends beyond the petty imperatives of domestic and social privilege. It also describes her status as both writer and amanuensis; of being, on the one hand, in possession of a keen "intellectual hunger" (TT: 76) and in an exclusive position of physical and mental proximity with her master, but fated, on the other, to be little more than a device, or a "wistful presence peering in at the windows, as it were, of the stronghold of his art" (TT: 77). Intriguingly--and this will be the subject of this essay--the conditions that describe Frieda's occupation, as well as the role she plays in the novel, index Heyns's own narrative practice in The Typewriter's Tale as a writer of biographical fiction. My interest here is in the particular characteristics, opportunities and pitfalls associated with writing a novel about a historical person who is also a writer. This type of novel represents a relatively new and increasingly popular trend in contemporary fiction, and one in which Henry James has been given a startlingly central and recurring position. (2)

The most obvious connection between Frieda and Heyns, wherein the allegorical dimension of the story is established, is suggested in the penultimate sentence of the novel, where Frieda sits down at her typewriter, and writes the opening sentence of the novel we have just finished reading. The boundaries between narrator, central consciousness and author are substantially blurred thereby, and the sympathetic link between Frieda and Heyns is made clear. Like Frieda, Heyns is neither "guest nor servant" of Henry James. Heyns's status with respect to his subject is similarly liminal: he is neither exclusively a reader of James's work (a "guest"), nor biographer of his life (a "servant"). Nor is he purely an "author" in the Romantic, pre-Barthesian sense of one who "originates". His position is characterised by an unavoidable belatedness, yet his imaginative participation in James's life story is in many respects primary, creative and original, too. Like Frieda, Heyns is "betwixt and between". His erratic tenancy of these domains (reader, biographer, author) is motivated and complicated by a conflict that might be considered particular to writers of biographical fictions about authors--and especially about Henry James, who famously maintained a vigilant resistance to personal exposure, much to the chagrin of his biographers and the editors of his letters. (3) Just as Frieda cannot repress her need to write, in spite of James's demand that she be "blank" (TT: 15) and "non-participatory" (TT: 16; italics in original), so Heyns cannot resist the temptation to "write" Henry James. On the one hand, to write a fiction about Henry James, to turn him into a partially fictional character, is to succumb to the beguiling chimera of intimacy that is created by a deep-seated familiarity with James's texts: an illusion of transparent access instantiated by automatic writing in The Typewriter's Tale. On the other hand, this fantasy of untrammelled access is attenuated because neither James's material being nor his imaginative self can be satisfactorily or completely recuperated, and the writer's relationship with his subject becomes uncomfortably similar to that of the "living out" servant. …

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