A review of The Master by Colm Toibin

Although readers of The Master can’t help comparing this fictional James against the figure who is so well known and written about, the focus of the novel isn’t James the real writer. Instead the reader moves between life and longing and its realisation in fiction. James’ the fictional character holds himself back time and again, allowing himself the desire but not the consummation.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Master
By Colm Toibin
Picador, April 2004, $A30
ISBN 0330364669

It is January 1895, and Henry James is about to attend the performance of his play Guy Domville. Although most of James’ friends and colleagues are at the play and compliment it, James arrives in time to present himself to boos and catcalls and feels the play to be a complete and very public failure, contrasting sharply with the very successful opening night of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, which James attended before returning to the final curtain of his own play. In Toibin’s novel, this is a pivotal moment for James – a moment when his focus on fiction is sharpened, and when, perhaps, he begins a further shut down of his personal emotions.

Although the extensive research which Toibin has done on James’ life is obvious, as is his own deep knowledge of this era due in part to other books he has written on historical figures such as Lady Gregory and Oscar Wilde, Toibin has created his own character – a fictional James with fictional emotions. The play between fact and fiction is a fascinating one, especially for fans of James’ work, and yields a very subtle story. Each chapter is built around James’ “real” fictions, exploring the way he was inspired by his “real life” situations to create his work. The fictional scenes are informed by bits taken from letters and journals of James’ and his friends and family as well as the finished work of James, so there is a very complex, Escher-like tension between art and life which is very much the focus of The Master.

Toibin’s James remains almost as enigmatic as the real one, but we do begin to understand some of what drives him – his pain, his hesitation, his desire, and its impact on the finished work. This is so much more than a biography that the comparison is hardly even relevant. Although readers of The Master can’t help comparing this fictional James against the figure who is so well known and written about, the focus of the novel isn’t James the real writer. Instead the reader moves between life and longing and its realisation in fiction. James’ the fictional character holds himself back time and again, allowing himself the desire but not the consummation. He is drawn to his cousin Minnie Temple’s great inner intelligence, to the simpatico he finds in the lonely writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, to the beauty and youthful energy of the sculptor Henrik Anderson, but in all instances, Toibin pushes James back to his pen rather than forward towards life.

The eleven chapters of the novel move between 1895 and 1899, and pivot around James’s major works produced during that period, The Turn of the Screw and Wings of the Dove. The reader experiences how James moves painfully in the real world of gossip and passion (where quite a few famous names are dropped) and then turns his family and friends into art – “remembered and captured and held.” (359). Everything we learn about James, from his own unmet longings, to his failure to really give love and support to his friends and family who call upon him, is turned into the permanent beauty of his writings:

He had his reasons for choosing to remain alone; his imagination, however, had stretched merely as far as his fears and not beyond. He had exerted control; what he had done made him shudder.” (256)

As James moves between his social set in Ireland, London, his country home in Rye, and Venice, the settings and characters other than James are merely a backdrop for the fiction they are to become, although there is quite a strong amount of setting from the US Civil War to Oscar Wilde‘s imprisonment. The five years are enriched by letters and memories of James’ well known family, and above all, of the guilt which he feels towards those he has failed to support, from his own faked illness which kept him from war and away from his father’s call to action, his brother, who demands that the younger James concentrate his work on American characters and subjects rather than European ones, to his dying sister, or suicidal friend. All become the charge behind his work, converted in silent and satisfying sessions with a transcriber: “The feeling of power was new to him. This raid on his own memories, this parading of an object so close to him, so deeply part of his own personal store that no one might ever know where this moment in his story came from, made him believe that he had done something daring and original.” (195)

Readers who are fans of James will gain a new perspective of James’ possible interior world, and a greater understanding for why he felt he could not spend himself in living an active life, and the relationship between interior and exterior is one of the richer themes of The Master. Toibin’s Henry James is a rich enough character however, to exist without the “original” James. He is as believable as he is lonely in his “undisturbed life” where he “neither gave offence…nor took it easily.“ (249) When seen in the context of the artistic impact of James’ work, we understand that his sacrifices were small. This is a tightly written, beautifully characterised novel – an enjoyable and thoughtful look at the artistic process of a master.

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