It will take a certain kind of person to fully appreciate this book. If, for instance, you could never make it through the densely twisting word-forests of Henry James, you will likely run screaming away to some more easily navigable, clear-cut pasture.
If, however, you found yourself enthralled with every belabored word, reveling in his sly, molasses-slow wit, The Typewriter’s Tale by Michiel Heyns will make your heart sing.
The novel opens in 1907 when Henry James decides to bow to modern pressure and engage a typist to take dictation of his work. Enter young Frieda Wroth, decidedly unworldly, but possessed of her own burbling passions and ambitions.
We’re treated to several interwoven tales: the stories that James dictates; the heavily influenced book being written by Wroth in her spare time; Wroth’s spirit communications, achieved through a sort of automatic typing; and (for me the juiciest part) the comings and goings of James’ friends, which ultimately find Frieda Wroth sucked into the churning whirlpool of societal games.
I found the latter so enticing because Heyns namedrops a cast of characters more complex than an episode of E! Hollywood News. Imagine a tapestry of background players that includes Edith Wharton, Morton Fullerton, contemporary suffragettes, mediums, writers and artists. I found myself with the urge to look up each new name, both those I recognized and those I did not, wanting to dig into historical accuracy and context.
It would be easy for this to become a novelty act, snatching the best parts of Henry James and his life without adding anything new, but that isn’t what happens here. Using the lens of Frieda Wroth is somewhat genius in itself. It becomes a reflection on “the help” and how they are seen as nearly inanimate objects, while actually possessing deep and possibly scandalous knowledge. It takes a strange amount of selective blindness to live that way.
It becomes much more beyond this, though. It’s also the story of a young woman coming into her own, on the cusp of a time when women as a whole were just beginning to stand together in solidarity and demand an equal place beside men. It’s also a complex thought experiment on the themes of fame and loyalty and seduction, and the many forms they may take.
Heyns’ writing serves in places to be as convolutedly enlightening and sharp as James’ own. There is one moment when Frieda Wroth is mentally railing against the weaknesses and naivety of another character- while she herself is engaging in the exact same behavior, though she doesn’t see her own failings in this regard. You feel a sense of self-righteous anger and simultaneous sadness for her- and THEN you realize you’ve been set up to feel precisely this way at this very moment. But instead of feeling manipulated, you can only gasp at the artful machinations of the writer.
Ultimately, this is a coming of age story. Frieda spends much of the book being a conduit for men- their creations, their desires, their maneuverings- much like the mindless typewriter James insisted in the beginning that he required. By the end she has stopped allowing men and the mores of society to choose her direction in the world, instead firmly setting her own course into the future.
The Typewriter’s Tale by Michiel Heyns is available from St. Martin’s Press.