Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Bicycling and the art of fiction

N'est-pas un interlude

In the 1890's, rotund Henry James engaged an instructor and took up bicycling. In another scene in David Lodge's novel Author, Author!, a letter has just arrived from the instructor
apologetically cancelling the afternoon's lesson. He was downcast for a moment, then reflected: why should he not take a spin on his own along the sea-road? He had managed well enough on his last outing. Accordingly he changed into plus-fours and Norfolk jacket, put on a soft cap, and fetched his bike from the stables at the back of the hotel where it was kept. Rather than entertain other guests by attempting to mount the machine on the carriage drive in full view of their windows and balconies, he wheeled it out of the hotel grounds and on to the Meadfoot Road. After one false start and a few alarming wobbles, he got the bike under way and pedalled stoutly.

It was a pleasant, sunny afternoon, with a light breeze from the south that, augmented by his movement through the air, stirred his beard and cooled his cheeks agreeably. As always he felt exhilarated by the surge of speed compared with mere walking. In a few minutes he had travelled half a mile. What a wonderful invention it was! So simple, and so ingenious. Why had it taken mankind so long to realise that, given a certain momentum, a human being could balance indefinitely on two wheels? The combination of Momentum and Balance was the secret—and one might draw an analogy here with the art of fiction: momentum was the onward drive of narrative, the raising of questions to which the audience desired to know the answers, and balance was the symmetry of structure, the elimination of the irrelevant, the repetition of motifs and symbols, the elegant variation of—

At this point in is reverie a very small perambulator suddenly rolled out of a side alley in front of him, pursued by a young woman and a little girl. He braked hard, his front wheel locked and skidded in some loose gravel on the road, the bicycle overturned and he tumbled to the ground....[pp. 302-303]
For some bicycle history.


  1. I like the excerpt from the novel, but I have a question.

    I thought I read in the Tomlin bio of Hardy - I don't have it on hand to check - that Hardy learned to cycle from Emma. How do we know he had an instructor?


  2. Dear Boy, Aren't you confusing Thomas Hardy with Henry James, who is the subject of Lodge's novel? I am certain that James paid for instruction, if Lodge says so, for his book gives copious evidence of having been based very, very closely on the facts of Henry James's life.

  3. Ah. I'm a nimrod - again! Thanks for the gentle correction.

    I'll need to dig around and find where Lodge found that tidbit.