Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Jamesean Portrait of a Typewriter

Michael Heyns' knowledge of Henry James is evident in The Typewriter's Tale. It is not biographical historical fiction as much as fiction inspired by The Master.

In 1907, twenty-three-year-old Frieda has finished typewriting school and is hired to work for the novelist Henry James. Frieda has literary aspirations and is familiar with James' work, but he does not hold it against her; a typewriter is expected to be a mere mechanic, a conduit between the dictator and the machine.

Life in Rye working for James is dull but agreeable. James is strapped for cash and working on a new issue of his work. Frieda waits as James composes in his head then dictates. He rewards her with chocolate bars left on her typewriter, which she connects with the biscuits James tosses to his dachshund Max.

A visitor arrives at Lamb House, a Mr. Fullerton whom James insists has been a friend for many year but only in letters. Fullerton is charming, handsome, and notices James' amanuensis. He arranges to meet the girl with a request: he wants to steal back letters he has sent to James, for fear of their discovery after his death. Fullerton also beds Frieda, who imagines a love affair.

Over the next two years, Frieda is a typewriter for her employer. She believes she is a spiritualist typewriter, transmitting messages from Fullerton.

James is visited by Mrs. Edith Wharton and a quiet man, Walpole, who asks Frieda to warn her employer about gossip concerning his involvement with illicit going-ons between Wharton and Fullerton. She stands up for James' privacy but secretly does not believe Fullerton could be involved with Wharton, sure he loves her.

Caught between her loyalty to James and her desire to be with Fullerton, Frieda comes to understand how the world works, the vagaries of love, and the trust of friendship.

The novel is written in the style of Henry James, which will delight his fans but may put off the general reader. Frieda's internal world and moral education about life and the climax of the book may lack the fireworks required by many but the book left me satisfied, contemplative, and eager to revisit the author's work.

The Typewriter's Tale
by Michael Heyns
St Martins Press
Publication Feb. 29, 2017
$25.99 hardcover

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