In all honesty, Colm Toibin’s Irish descent is what attracted me to this book. I have always been fascinated by all things Irish and I harbour the dream – the intention – to go and spend some time there. On the other hand, the subject of Henry James left me rather cold and uninterested; in fact it made me wonder if I will ever go through the book. I have nothing against Mr. James really, I just found this prose (3 or 4 years ago when I read some of his works) somewhat stuffy and his characters, with all their obeying of unspoken rules and society codes – tiring. Come to thing of it now, this affirmation might be rather unfair – I only read The Ambassadors (which does portray very vividly the late 19th century society) and Daisy Miller & other short stories (which I very much enjoyed). Perhaps Mr. James is, to me, more tolerable in smaller doses 😀
Back to The Master though – it’s more or less a fictitious chronicle of a few months in Mr James’s life, spiced with memories from his childhood and youth. It takes place between 1895 and 1899, starts with Henry’s attempt at theatre (Guy Domville and the embarrassing failure it represented – in contrast with Oscar Wilde’s successful works and popularity and James’s despise for both was great to read, especially since I’m an admirer of Mr. Wilde’s 😉 ) and ends with the author comfortable retired in a newly acquired home in Rye (Lamb House – which to me looks like the perfect place to live 😉 ) where he would spend his final years.
The novel goes back and forth in time, focusing on certain relationships that constituted a powerful and influential force in the author’s life: his father, Henry James sr. (respected and renowned theologian of his time ); his sister Alice (whose tragic life culminated with her much desired death); his buoyant, sparking cousin Minnie (who also found an untimely end); his close friend Constance Fenimore Woolson (who committed suicide). Especially regarding the last two, Henry feels a certain amount of guilt and uneasiness, having refused them both his company in a time when (even if he hadn’t known it) they most needed it. The gondola scene, after Constance’s death is especially powerful and moving: a man racked with sorrow and guilt, trying to do a last and perhaps unneeded gesture for his friend in the hope that they will both find peace. Speaking of Constance, I thought the depiction of their relationship, the insight and the woman’s struggle, her multidimensional portraying is one of the highlights of the book. From James’s letters she takes a life of her own, which he can’t control, a life whose fascination sometimes surpasses his. Of course, I’ve no idea how much is fact and how much is fiction, but, as a literary character, Constance was quite a presence. One thing makes me wonder though – related to her and to other popular novelists of the time mentioned – how much of what we read now will still be known in 100 years’ time, how many of all these writers will deserve even a footnote in some History of Literature of the future?
But perhaps the most important and submerged relationship is that of James with himself. Biographers have speculated on his sexuality and his reasons for never marrying and now the general agreement seems to be that he was a very (very) closeted homosexual. Toibin toys around with these feelings, revealing for a second desires that James would instantly repress and, once, before the visit of sculptor Henrik Andersen, indulge him in a short and unlivable fantasy of them sharing a life.
Something else I really liked – the discussion (based, I assume, on biographies and notes of James’s) on the fact that most of his characters had real life counterparts (Daisy Miller was based on Minnie, Isabel Archer of Portrait of a Lady was based on Constance , a ghost story finding its inspiration in an anecdote told by a friend etc.). Everytime he saw or heard something, James explored its fictionalized potential, he made mental notes and used all these scenes and characters in his works. Maybe that’s why he managed to produce such a detailed and accurate account of the fin de siecle.
When talking about the driving forces of James’s life I forgot to mentions his mother. He reminisces about her a lot and lovingly; she was protective of him (perhaps too protective), ready to embrace an imaginary illness that exempted her second son from the army or from any other domestic duties, thus allowing him to discover and pursue literary interests.
The whole novel has a very jamesian feel to it, Toibin even inserted expressions and passages from his novels (which, of course, I wasn’t able to detect 😀 ). After an initial slow start, the atmosphere and the characters drew me in, and overall, I have to say that I liked it, and found it a lot more interesting than I was expecting.
Must be a bit strange though, to use a real person, who led a real life, and put words in his mouth, thoughts in his head, feelings in his heart (pardon the idiotic expressions 😀 ). You’re creating a character and at the same time bringing someone back from the dead – and I wonder, how much liberty can you take; and how much is too much?