Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Book Review - The Master by Colm Toibin


I've been a longtime fan of Henry James and I've read almost everything he ever published. Not quite everything, but almost. My favorites are The Golden Bowl, the novella, The Turn of the Screw, and the exquisite Portrait of a Lady. Henry James is the only man, other than Jose Saramago, who can grab my attention at the beginning of a sentence and hold it until he concludes that very same sentence several pages later.

Talented Irish author, Colm Toibin's The Master, a book about Henry James, is very different from what I thought it would be, but it fulfilled all of my expectations for an engrossing and very serious book. As one reads The Master, one must be aware that this is a novel, a novel in which the central character is Henry James, and not a biography of James. To view the book as a biography would be doing it a grave disservice.

The Master opens in London in 1895, at the dreadful premiere of James' play, Guy Domville, a play James, himself, was too nervous to attend. He went, instead, to see Oscar Wilde's comedy, An Ideal Husband, but returned to the theatre in which Guy Domville had been staged in time to hear the humiliating jeers and boos from the audience. The book ends in Rye, in southern Sussex, at James' beloved Lamb House, as the 19th century is ending and his brother, William, William's wife, Alice, and their daughter, Peggy (a lover of the works of Dickens), are departing for the sunnier and warmer South of France.

While no previous knowledge of James is required to understand The Master, I think this is a book that's best appreciated by those with some familiarity with the works of Henry James and with his personal life as well. For example, it helps greatly in your appreciation of The Master if you know that James' cousin, the vivacious Minny Temple, as well as his own hypochondriacal sister, Alice, formed the basis for many of his heroines, Minny for Daisy Miler and Isabel Archer and Alice for the little girl in The Turn of the Screw. In fact, Toibin even goes so far as to suggest that James actually preferred his loved ones dead, rather than alive, so he could resurrect their ghosts as characters in his stories.

In what is the most heartbreaking section of the book, The Master explores James' tragic relationship with the American novelist, Constance Fenimore Woolson, a talented, elegant and highly intelligent woman (but one given to much deep melancholia) who was, in all probability James' soulmate, but a woman to whom James could not give the physical intimacy she so craved. In heartrending set pieces, James visits Constance in Florence, then later travels to Venice after learning of her suicide there to view the place where she threw herself from a palazzo window and died, broken and bleeding, on the pavement below.

Toibin portrays James as a man who always let down those he loved, particularly women. Besides laying the blame for Constance's suicide squarely on James' shoulders (he allegedly refused to join her in Venice during a particularly dismal winter after indicating that he might), he also places the blame for Minny Temple's death from tuberculosis at James' feet, pointing out that Minny wanted to join James in Rome:

Think, my dear, of the pleasure we would have together in Rome....

...Minny wrote to James. What Toibin doesn't tell us is that Minny knew her fantasy of traveling to Rome, or anywhere else, for that matter, was just that...a fantasy, for in a postscript to her letter to James she wrote:

I am really not strong enough to go abroad with even the kindest of friends.

Toibin leaves us with the idea that James was a cold, selfish and self-centered man, when in fact, while certainly not a gadfly, he may very well have been a kind and sympathetic friend.

Toibin is probably at his best when exploring James' repressed sexuality. It is well known that James was horrified at the fate of the very open Oscar Wilde, and Toibin assumes, probably correctly, that James' fear of the same consequences kept him from exploring and expressing his own feelings.

Toibin does manage to write in the same style as did James, but he wisely stops short of giving us James' pages-long sentences. The Master is, however, a melancholy, wistful book, and if anything, Toibin puts too much emphasis on the solitary, tragic aspects of James' life, while ignoring the author's more sociable, witty side. Toibin weaves his story into eleven chapters, each one containing an incident that triggers a memory of the past in James. A remark made by the Archbishop of Canterbury's son, for example, triggers a memory in James that later becomes The Turn of the Screw.

The book is beautifully detailed, something that further served to bring James to life. When describing James' room in the Florentine palazzo of a friend, Toibin tells us it had a:

...pompous painted ceiling and walls of ancient pale green damask slightly shredded and patched....

Despite a few misgivings, I found The Master to be a beautiful book, as graceful and delicately nuanced as a watercolor. For me, its only failing, if it can even be termed a failing, is Toibin's insistence on concentrating on James as an essentially tragic figure. He paints James' life as a life devoid of passion. While it's true that James lived during a time in which it would have been difficult for him to explore his sexuality, Toibin doesn't seem to consider the passion, or the redemptive power, inherent in a life dedicated to art. Still, this book is so well written, and so elegantly written, that I can't justify giving it any fewer than five stars.

5/5

Recommended: Yes, especially to lovers of the works of Henry James. Those readers, I think, will be enthralled.

Note: This book won the 2006 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

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