Week 63 – The Master Book Review

Colm Tóibín’s 2004 novel is a hybrid – not totally fiction, not purely biography. The proper name for it, I think, is creative nonfiction, although there are so many interpretations of that genre that it’s difficult to categorize. The Malahat Review awards its Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize to “the best work submitted to the magazine’s annual contest for a genre that embraces, but is not limited to, the personal essay, memoir, narrative nonfiction, social commentary, travel writing, historical accounts, and biography, all enhanced by such elements as description, dramatic scenes, dialogue, and characterization.” Making CNF, in my humble opinion, an exciting, even exhilarating, venture for both writer and reader.

In the case of The Master, Tóibín has chosen to inhabit the consciousness of Henry James, one of the greatest novelists in the English language. I’ll leave it to the James scholars to say whether or not he pulls it off, but I will say that Tóibín draws a compelling portrait of a complex individual whose ambiguous sexuality both informed and hindered his writing. It also makes me want to reread James. So watch this space.

Tóibín has chosen as his time frame the five-year period which James’s earlier biographer, Leon Edel, calls the treacherous years. It begins in January 1895 with the staging of “Guy Domville”, a mortifying disaster that effectively ended James’s relationship with the theatre, and ends in October 1899 with Henry – as Tóibín refers to him – beginning work on the masterpieces of his later years: The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl. Having left America to settle in Europe as a young man, Henry is now in his 50s and living mainly in London. The restless, rootless life of an expatriate is beginning to weigh on him. He’s accomplished a great deal as a writer, but his books, which were never read by the masses, are dwindling in popularity. His attempt to find a new audience through drama has proved a failure. And, it has to be said, he’s lonely.

In the aftermath of the public humiliation caused by the failure of his play, Henry escapes to Ireland, where he’s the guest of Lord Wolseley, Commander-in-Chief of the army. There he’s waited on by an attractive young corporal named Hammond, who seems to be willing to be more than a manservant if Henry will give the word. Henry, being Henry, says nothing. Back in London, he learns that Oscar Wilde is going to trial, an event which he views it with a kind of fascinated horror. He has no love for Wilde, who, in terms of discretion, is his polar opposite, and finds his behaviour outrageous and appalling. Still, like everyone else, he wants to know the details.

In many ways, The Master is a story of ghosts. Dead friends and family members haunt Henry James – or rather, as a writer, he haunts them. Two women in particular occupy his thoughts: one is his sister Alice, who died of breast cancer at the age of 43, and the other is his cousin, Minny Temple, an attractive, energetic young woman who died in 1870 when she was only 24. She was the model for Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady; he will return to her again as Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove. Now, almost 30 years after her death, he wonders: does he prefer her dead to alive, so he can write her the way he wished her to be? “He could control her destiny now that she was dead, offer her the experiences she would have wanted, and provide drama for a life which had been so cruelly shortened”. It’s thoughts like these (if indeed Henry had them) that reveals a pretty cold, bloody-minded nature – reveals him, in other words, as a born writer.

As for his sister, Alice, she was aggressive and intelligent and possessed an acerbic wit. In her own words, she was born a few years too soon. Overshadowed by her brothers, she chose – or was chosen by – illness, and spent most of her life in bed, cared for first by her parents, then by Henry, and finally by the educator, Katharine Peabody Loring. Henry, while feeling that he failed his sister by not inviting her to live with him, firmly believes he had no option. Alice would have been too much of a distraction – the work comes first.

Work, in fact, comes before everything: before family, before pleasure, before intimacy. The people he meets, especially those he cares for, are important mainly because of what they bring to his writing . . . what he can use. The Henry James we read in this book is happiest “alone in his room with the night coming down… and pen and paper and the knowledge that the door would remain shut until the morning came and he would not be disturbed”.

In terms of a plot, there’s not much to hang your hat on. He travels, attends social evenings, and makes peace with William, his older brother. In 1897 he leases and eventually buys Lamb House in Sussex, where he lives for most of the rest of his life. He brings his longtime servants with him and ends up having to sack them for drunkenness. That same year his close friend, Constance Fenimore Woolson, commits suicide, and he faces accusations from another friend that he might have saved her if he’d visited her in Venice as he promised. He does return to Venice to help clear out her apartment; while there he takes part in a rather bizarre ritual which Tóibín definitely did not invent: with the assistance of her favourite gondolier, he rows out to the deepest part of the Venetian lagoon and, one by one, drowns all of her dresses.

Tóibín, who’s never made a secret of his own homosexuality – why should he? – gives full rein to his subject’s repressed homoerotic leanings. He imagines the conflict Henry experienced as a young man lying naked next to his friend, Oliver Wendell Holmes. He refers, in passing, to his long-ago passion for Paul Joukowsky, a handsome young man he met in Paris. And late in the book, on a visit to Rome, he describes Henry’s meeting with the young Norwegian-American sculptor, Hendrik Andersen, with whom he falls in love and to whom he remains devoted until his death.

For decades Henry James’s descendants fought to keep his sexuality a secret. The cat was let out of the bag for good in 1990 when Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick proposed that we read James as “a gay writer whose efforts to remain in the closet gave him his style”. Her argument, Tóibín writes, “removed James from the realm of dead white males who wrote about posh people. He became our contemporary”.

Colm Tóibín’s to be commended, I think, for not trying to mimic James’s style. For those who find “the Master” hard going at times – and here I’m referring to the individual, not the novel – this is a good thing. The Master is an intelligent, remarkable novel about a writer, dead for a century, who deserves to continue to be read.

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Valerie B.