The Master by Colm Toibin. Scribner. 338 pp. $14.00.
I bought this book because I saw it in a used bookstore where I had a lot of credit, so it was free. Some months back I started and couldn’t get into it. But my reading buddy Sally Sexton recommended it highly, along with Toibin’s Brooklyn—so I gave it a second try. And I found it to be a marvelous novel, which somehow to captured the very spirit of Henry James. Toibin doesn’t write like James, or have his sensibility. But he seems somehow to inhabit the man in this novel. It’s a remarkable performance.
I wouldn’t have said I was interested in Henry James. I read a number of his books in college, haven’t looked at him since. I’ve always thought that the satirical description of his style—like an elephant picking up a pea—was accurate. And he lived in such a rarefied world. I didn’t see how his experience was relevant to mine.
Yet I realized, reading this novel, that anyone’s experience is relevant to mine. James tried to confront human existence as all of us do. He tried more sincerely and directly than many. He wrote about life brilliantly. He engaged with various people in his life, even those he didn’t care for. He fell in love, at least according to Toibin, and tried to figure out what to do about that. In the hands of a masterful novelist—and Toibin is all of that—any life is relevant.
Toibin captures James’ entire life by focusing on four years, moving around in time from their vantage point. He opens with the most humiliating moment in James’ life, the failure of the play Guy Domville, when James came out to take bows as the author and was mocked by the vast majority of the audience. (James hadn’t attended the play. He was too nervous. If he’d been around for the whole thing he never would have taken that curtain call, because the audience’s restlessness was obvious.) That was the first time that I realized an obvious fact: James wanted to be loved by his audience. Not just by the audience for his play, but by his readers. This most distant, effete, artistic of all novelists wanted to be as popular as Dickens, or as Stephen King. He didn’t write the way he did because he felt superior. He wrote that way because that’s who he was. That was him, on the page.
From early in life James was considered extraordinarily sensitive—mostly by his mother—and thereby sheltered. There is a scene early in childhood where somebody was going to read from the newly published David Copperfield, and Henry was forbidden to listen because he was too young, but he hid himself away and listened anyway, burst into tears at the cruelty of what he heard and was inconsolable. His mother sheltered him all along, trying to give him the psychic space she thought he needed, and his family kept him and his brother William from the Civil War, though two other brothers fought in the war and were wounded. James’ family was wealthy and he had some income from them, but he also earned a living as a writer and was shrewd about the money he made and the way he lived.
The great question about James is: did he live that isolated hot house life because he felt it necessary to produce his art, or was he afraid of life and became an artist because he couldn’t engage with it? Two relationships in particular call that into question. One was his friendship with a writer named Constance Fenimore Woolson, niece of James Fenimore Cooper. She was a kindred spirit to James, not as great a writer, obviously, but a woman who had expatriated from the United States, loved living in Europe, loved art and lived as a writer. She and James were great friends and sometimes lived under the same roof, though nothing sexual ever went on. The suggestion is that she was satisfied with his friendship but really valued that, loved him as a friend.
He was always concerned—in that fussy, prissy way of his—that someone might find out about these arrangements and read more into them than was there. He seemed obsessed with what people thought of him, with keeping up appearances. On one occasion, when she thought he had committed to spending the winter with her in Venice, he reneged on what he’d said, even though he knew she was depressive, that winters were difficult for her, and that she had just finished a book, which also tended to bring on melancholy. Woolsen apparently killed herself that winter, throwing herself from a second story window. James cared for the woman deeply, and was deeply affected by her death, but needed a certain emotional isolation to work, and needed to maintain propriety. In that situation, also possibly with the situation of his sister Alice, who died young, James failed people emotionally because he was trying to maintain his vocation.
He also failed to engage with one young man who was obviously attracted to him, an artist named Hendrik Christian Andersen. Andersen was obviously attracted to the older man, full of admiration for him; it was one of those situations where it seemed partly that the young man admired the older artist, partly that he wanted to advance his career by knowing him (especially because James could have written about his art). This was an occasion when James seemed almost to ache with the possibility of a real connection—of finally getting laid, which doesn’t happen in the novel—but couldn’t pull the trigger. Again, he seemed to be trying to preserve himself for his art. But the same question remains: was he really just afraid, and an artist by default?
When I was young, men like Henry James and Flaubert were held up to me as models of great artists, men who had practiced their art as if it were a religious vocation, gave their lives to art as if it were the only valuable human endeavor. There was a part of me that was attracted to that, but I could also see that there were plenty of artists who had not lived that way, who had lived lives in the world but produced plenty of art (D.H. Lawrence comes to mind). It isn’t as if I would have been a great artist if I’d dedicated myself that way. I would have been the same half-assed writer I’ve been anyway. But I rejected that view of the artist and to some extent the artists who upheld it. Toibin’s novel helped me see that, despite the way he lived, James was as human as anyone.
I especially enjoyed the novel’s final section, when Henry’s famous older brother William comes to visit, and we see their sibling rivalry, see William actually jealous of his younger brother. We hear William lecture Henry about how he should never have left the United States, he should have stayed and been an American novelist, he was wasting his time and talent living among these effete expatriates. It was obvious that William cared for his brother and cared for his work. But he was completely wrong in everything he said. Henry, at that point, was mature enough—enough of a master—to know that.
We see the extremely moving reaction of both brothers at their father’s death. We see a kind of reconciliation between the brothers as they seem to realize they each have their own worlds and are successful where they are. I was full of admiration for James as I finished, but especially for Colm Toibin, who showed himself to be a master in writing this book. I’m delighted to have discovered him. I see Brooklyn in my future.
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