The Master by Colm Tóibín: “Playing with vital elements….masking and unmasking himself”

This is my review of The Master (Picador Classic) by Colm Toibin.

In his fictionalised biography of Henry James, Colm Tóibín slides us into the author’s thoughts with no background explanation. The five year period covered is 1895-99, when he was a celebrated author in his fifties, but with many lapses into past memories going back to childhood.

At first, I thought that a full appreciation of the novel would require a detailed knowledge of James’s style, plots and characters and that it would bewilder and bore those who know little or nothing about James. In fact, what turns out to be a subtle and perceptive book, may be enjoyed and admired simply as a portrayal of a sensitive loner who cannot help employing his acute sensitivity to observe others, conjuring stories out of small incidents, yet who goes to great pains to conceal his feelings, and who, despite a sense of loneliness, even loss, ruthlessly steers clear of commitment, even at the cost of destroying the lives of those he has used as source material. Somehow, he generally manages to avoid acknowledging this realisation, just as he represses the expression of his sexuality.

So it is that he uses his beautiful cousin Minnie Temple as a model for several stories, but is chided by his friends for failing to invite her to stay with him in Italy when she is sick and close to death. Did he simply fail to notice her appeal for such an invitation, or refuse to make it because it interfered with his work? Similarly, he enjoys a secret friendship with a female writer, breaking through the defences of her self-contained loneliness, without apparently realising until too late the depth of her need for his presence and love.

James is continually an indecisive mixture of self-delusion and self-knowledge. The book opens with his excitement over the possibility of becoming a playwright: “He foresaw an end to long, solitary days; the grim satisfaction that fiction gave him would be replaced by… voices and movement and immediacy that …up to now he had believed he would never experience”. Yet this alternates with the certainty of failure (as proves to be the case) which would force him to return “willingly and unwillingly, to this true medium”. In such complex and nuanced chains of thought, Tóibín captures a sense of James’s convoluted yet insightful, hypnotic prose, but without making the mistake of concocting wordy, interminable sentences in what would inevitably prove a parody of “the master”.

There are some lighter moments, as Henry James steers his way through a world of gossip. On a visit to Ireland, it is clear that the domineering socialite Lady Wolseley, believing him to be gay, assigns the handsome army corporal Hammond to act as his servant, “smiling strangely” over his apparent satisfaction with the arrangement. The whole issue of the author’s sexuality is treated ambiguously, as it no doubt was at the time.

One of the funniest moments is towards the end when, briefly reunited with his elder brother William, with whom there has always been a degree of sibling tension. William takes him to task for wasting his sharp eye and wide-ranging sympathy on the superficial, class-ridden English whom he can never understand. In an outrageous, misconceived yet telling outburst, he asserts, “I believe that the English can never be your true subject. And I believe that your style has suffered from the strain of constantly dramatizing social insipidity. I also think that something cold and thin-blooded and oddly priggish has come to the fore in your content…I find I have to read innumerable sentences you now write twice over to see what they could possibly mean. 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”.

Not always an easy read, this has many brilliant moments.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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