The Master

by Colm Toibin
ISBN: 0771085826

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A Review of: The Master
by Gerald Lynch

Joining the likes of Conor Cruise O'Brien, Seamus Heaney and John Banville, Colm Tibn has emerged over the past decade as one of Ireland's leading literary figures. Prolific cultural journalist, editor, essayist, and author of a number of highly praised non-fiction books, he has also written five superbly wrought novels featuring an impressive range of characters in international settings. If nothing else-and there is much else-he shows that a new generation of Irish novelists is not writing only about the nightmare of Irish history. Those blessed with Colm Tibn's gifts and industry are free to imagine (as in the novel under review) five years in the life of Henry James, with the American novelist serving as the Jamesean centre of intelligence. Thus, The Master, short-listed last year for the ManBooker Prize, diverts and awes us again with the magic and mystery of great fiction: readers will finish the story believing they've had privileged access to the consciousness of a fascinating other'. When that other character is the radically reticent, ber-sensitive, sexually conflicted Henry James in his mid-fifties, closing the novel is something of a relief as well as a reluctant leave-taking.
The Master opens with James himself preparing for the opening of his play, Guy Domville. His foray onto the stage is an unqualified failure. The introspective drama is allowed to run only until Oscar Wilde has his next production ready, which will give Wilde two concurrently running successes on the London stage (which stings James, as will Wilde's imminent public disgrace for homosexuality haunt him). The compulsively private James must nonetheless take the stage on opening night in answer to the calls of his front-row friends, while the paying public jeers him brutally. What human with any ambition would not cringe sympathetically with a slinking James when the stage door closes behind him with a boot: "Now he would walk home and keep his head down like a man who has committed a crime and is in imminent danger of apprehension." Tibn has a genius for writing the suggestively anxious, the laughably uncomfortable, leaving us suspended somewhere between Freud and schadenfreude.
I wondered, taking on this novel, if I'd also have to take up the appropriation-of-voice topic. As in: is it fair game to monkey fictionally with real historical figures? This is the sort of question that vexes our academic and cultural leaders-and not one admired writer I've ever heard on it. Surely the novelist's raison d'tre is to appropriate other lives, to imagine another's subjectivity, to give us the gift of rare sympathy or just prick the prejudiced lot of us towards greater understanding. That said, and despite Tibn's fidelity to his prodigious research, I didn't for a second believe-after the novel's spell was broken-that I'd encountered anything other than Tibn's version of Henry James.
Tibn himself deals, obliquely and somewhat cutely, with the matter of appropriation in The Master. At one point the late-Victorian essayist and critic Edmund Gosse is distressed to read that James has used some actual events he had revealed to him. The non-fiction writer "insisted that writing a story using factual material and real people was dishonest and strange and somehow underhand. Henry refused to listen to him. Soon, however, his friend forgot his objections to the art of fiction as a cheap raid on the real and the true, and began once more to tell Henry all the news he had picked up since their last meeting." Sensible readers will agree that James's response is the only sensible one. And it's neat the way Tibn slips in the title of James's landmark book on writing, The Art of Fiction.
There is much indeed to admire in Tibn's expansive miniature of "Henry" (never James or Henry James in Colm's identifying), and much over which to wag the head. The scenes set in Dublin and Italy are evocative and provocative and, with their air of good travel writing, will ring true even for those who don't know the sites. But troubled and troubling, Henry traverses all such squalor and beauty, spending considerable energy avoiding confrontation and repelling intimacy, even when provoked by direct assault bordering on accusation or romantic overture. Readers come to appreciate Henry as a character of deep affections, but also as an ice-man who slips from affectionate engagement even with those he professes to love.
Among those Henry loves most are the members of the rarely gifted and eccentric James family: his gentleman-scholar father, his doting mother, his weird sister Alice (another sexual suspect), the famous brother William, and two younger brothers who figure little apart from their participation in the American Civil War, highlighting Henry's guilt over avoiding enlistment. Alice's death scene is one of the best I've ever read, depicted succinctly, convincingly, and beautifully. William James is very much the overbearing big brother, and something of a flake. He and his wife introduce mystic mumbo-jumbo into the story, respectfully reporting the channelling and prognostications of a medium to a Henry (familiarly "Harry") who appears to endorse the nonsense (as does Tibn, I suspect).
But readers who remain un-charmed by the James style will appreciate brother William's insensitively forthright critique of Henry's rococo proclivities: "Harry, I find I have to read innumerable sentences you now write twice over to see what they could possibly mean. That is the long and the short of it. In this crowded and hurried reading age you will remain unread and neglected as long as you continue to indulge in this style and these subjects.'" Some wit (or halfwit) once said that the literary James gang got it backwards, that William should have been the novelist and Henry the pioneering psychologist. Regardless, I wondered what the great pragmatist would have thought of today's fading readers, or of the boom in movies based on James's novels (which allow viewers to act like they've read the demanding fiction).
The most eccentric James is pater familias Henry Sr., who is appropriated more as comic figure than as psyche shaper: he's glimpsed here as a caricature, as something of an absent-minded professor. Comedy also comes subtly to the fore when Henry has difficulties with an ancient servant couple, the Smiths, who become increasingly alcoholic: "Smith carried a plate of meat with the movements of someone who was about to expire." Unable to confront the socially embarrassing pair, Henry the host resorts to forbidding the shaky serving of soups and even gravies! At suppers with visiting friends, effete Henry suffers incremental mortifications in perfect Jamesean manner: "They ate in silence, the subject he wished to change now accompanied by another subject which could not be mentioned." Such scenes are piquant instances of the humour of discomfort. They are also perfectly Irish in illustrating Tibn's darker comic impulse, not least because the cause of the servants' alcoholism remains as unexplained as the cause of a novelist friend's unfunny suicide, which simultaneously preoccupies Henry's thoughts.
The most seriously uncomfortable events of The Master describe James's history with that expired, expatriate American novelist, Constance Fenimore Woolson. With fair accuracy, Tibn presents her death as a suicide (though historically there remains the possibility that she fell from her Italian balcony). He suggests that Woolson's suicide could have been caused either by depression or by her ambivalent entanglement with-even her unrequited love for-Henry. But Henry has only ever performed a sort of mating fan dance for those with whom he engages in mutual attraction. For Henry, falling in love is an exercise in some perverse tease-and-flight reflex. It's black mark enough that he has played freely with the complex Woolson emotionally, and always protesting too much against such a charge, protecting himself from himself. But when he is tasked with settling the mess of Woolson's papers, he acts unethically, burning whatever he thinks might compromise himself and his sister Alice. The scenes of the literary lion carrying another's literary legacy to the fireplace may well be the lowest view of Henry that Tibn presents.
In our voyeuristic age, when a revisionist movie of Alexander the Great foregrounds his purported homosexuality (someone said it should have been called "Alexander the Fabulous"), Henry's suspect sexual orientation understandably sustains the attention of the homosexual Tibn. It's not the centre of The Master, but Henry's apparent lifelong residence in the closet offers ample room for engrossing characterization respecting the psychological contortions and distortions attendant on such an unfortunate position. Readers are given Henry's night of naked spooning with the young Oliver Wendell Holmes of judicial fame (was it more than manly cuddling? we don't know). Henry has a dark night of the soul in quashing his first self-admitted sexual-romantic attraction to the sculptor Paul Joukowsky, and this formative episode frames The Master in Henry's thoughts when, towards the end, he performs his final fan dance for another sculptor, Henrik Andersen. But too often Tibn stages the business of the love that dare not speak its name with formulas bordering on melodramatic clich. Henry is always "locking eyes" with some handsome man-servant or other, or they are "fixing their eyes," or "staring" meaningfully, even "outstaring" one another, in a manner that is no different from the old speaking eyes' of bad romance.
The most successful aspect of the novel is its treatment of Henry's own appropriation of reality for his fictions, and for none more so than The Turn of the Screw. I've read a few books by eminent writers on writing, and most of them are unessential reading (Annie Dillard's The Writing Life is an exception). I've never read anything that showed so compellingly how the events of a writer's life-exterior and interior-transmute into great fiction. Tibn convinces me-and Northrop Frye said something similar about the balance of subconsciousness and self-consciousness in poets-that Henry was exemplary in balancing his pained awareness of a story's raw materials with his ultimate need to look the other way and get on with it. For example: Henry was not only especially fond of his cousin Minny Temple but also greatly admired her intellect and style. Yet when she dies, apparently from being too much in love with easeful death (Keats is referred to a number of times in The Master), Henry courageously observes his own authorial need, "his sense of his own ruthlessness, his own will to survive. And finally, as he turned back into the room, he felt a sharp and unbearable idea staring at him, like something alive and fierce and predatory in the air, whispering to him that he had preferred her dead rather than alive, that he had known what to do with her once life was taken from her, but he had denied her when she asked him gently for help." There is poignantly brave and chilling self-reflection in that-more chilling even than Henry's emotional frigidity-implying an aesthetic realm where few but a Henry or a Colm would tread. Tibn's countryman, Brian Moore (about whom Tibn has written at length), observes something very close to this cold-pastoral vision in the writer's way with the living and the dead in his underrated An Answer From Limbo.
The Master and its hero are as demanding, as frustrating, and as rewarding as a James novel itself. It is a slow and deeply engaging psychological portrait-cum-analysis. It is not for the faint of attention span, but it's a literary experience not to be missed.

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