Friday, March 10, 2017

"The Typewriter's Tale"

Michiel Heyns is Professor Emeritus in English at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Author of numerous academic works and radio adaptations of Henry James's and Elizabeth Gaskell's novels, Heyns wrote the chapter on Henry James for the Cambridge Companion to English Novelists. He is winner of the Thomas Pringle Award for journalism 2007, and the Sol Plaatje Award for translation, 2008 and was winner of the Sunday Times Fiction Award 2012 for Lost Ground. The French translation of his novel The Typewriter's Tale was shortlisted for the Prix Femina Etranger, and won the Prix de l'Union Interalliee.

Heyns applied the Page 69 Test to The Typewriter's Tale and reported the following:
The Typewriter’s Tale dramatises and explores the tension between the life of letters, as exemplified by the great novelist Henry James, and the claims of the life of the senses and passions, as experienced by his young typist (“Typewriter”), Frieda Wroth. Page 69 usefully encapsulates a central moment in this conflict, and in the central intrigue of the novel.

The page starts on a knock at the door (“There was a tap at the door”) – a time-honoured harbinger of drama. The knocker is only “the little butler”, Burgess Noakes. But he comes bearing a telegram to Frieda Wroth, and it is a telegram of some import, from Morton Fullerton, the dashing young American journalist with whom she has just had a breathless fling. (“Arrived Paris but thinking of Rye” the telegram reads.) Somebody reading only this page would know that Frieda is embroiled in some intrigue that involves finding something belonging to her employer, (“There were so many places they could be”,) more specifically a bundle of letters. (“Impelled to recklessness by Mr Fullerton’s graceful reminder, she went up to the cabinets and opened the first. …. A cursory glance sufficed to assure Frieda that there no letters there.”) The reader would also gather that Frieda is drawn into this intrigue by an undertaking to an absent person, possibly a lover (“Mr Fullerton had apprehended her uncertainty and was sending her this encouragement.”).

It is admittedly mainly at the level of practical intrigue that the page is representative of the novel as a whole, but it also encapsulates Frieda’s central quandary: her split between loyalty to her employer (“Frieda’s training and instincts combined to make her avert her glance”) and infatuation with her seducer. Thus the divide between life and letters that the novel explores is here dramatised through the juxtaposition of the telegram (the urgent messenger of passion and intrigue) and the letters (the record of friendship and fidelity), with Frieda as the mediator between the two, as, in typing, she mediates between James and his creations. Though the typewriter is merely a recording agent, she has a tale of her own.
Learn more about the author and his work at Michiel Heyns' website.

The Page 69 Test: The Children’s Day.

My Book, The Movie: The Typewriter's Tale.

--Marshal Zeringue