Synopses & Reviews
Like Michael Cunningham in The Hours,
Colm Tóibín captures the extraordinary mind and heart of a great writer. Brilliant and profoundly moving, The Master
tells the story of Henry James, a man born into one of America's first intellectual families two decades before the Civil War. James left his country to live in Paris, Rome, Venice, and London among privileged artists and writers.
In stunningly resonant prose, Tóibín captures the loneliness and longing, the hope and despair of a man who never married, never resolved his sexual identity, and whose forays into intimacy inevitably failed him and those he tried to love. The emotional intensity of Tóibín's portrait of James is riveting. Time and again, James, a master of psychological subtlety in his fiction, proves blind to his own heart and incapable of reconciling his dreams of passion with his own fragility.
Tóibín is "a great and humanizing writer" who describes complex relationships in "supple, beautifully modulated prose" (The Washington Post Book World). In The Master, he has written his most ambitious and heartbreaking novel, an extraordinarily inventive encounter with a character at the cusp of the modern age, elusive to his own friends and even family, yet astonishingly vivid in these pages.
"There's little in Colm Tóibín's previous work, to some of which this reviewer has been immune or even mildly allergic, to prepare for the startling excellence of his new novel. The Master is a portrait of Henry James that has the depth and finish of great sculpture." Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer
"A formidably brilliant performance." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Reviews)
"Even the reader who knows little about Henry James or his work can enjoy this marvelously intelligent and engaging novel, which presents not on a
silver platter but in tender, opened hands a beautifully nuanced psychological portrait." Booklist (Starred Review)
"The subtlety and empathy with which Tóibín inhabits James's psyche and captures the fleeting emotional nuances of his world are beyond praise....Far more than a stunt, this is a riveting, if inevitably somewhat evasive, portrait of the creative life." Publishers Weekly
"This is an audacious, profound, and wonderfully intelligent book." The Guardian
"In The Master, Colm Tóibín takes us almost shockingly close to the soul of Henry James and, by extension, to the mystery of art itself. It is a remarkable, utterly original book." Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours
"A deep, lovely, and enthralling book that engages with the disquiet and drama of a famous writing life: splendidly conceived and composed by a writer who is himself a master of his art." Shirley Hazzard, author of The Great Fire and winner of the National Book Award
"Tóibín's enthralling novel displays in a manner that is masterly the wit and metaphorical flair, psychological subtlety and phrases of pouncing incisiveness with which a great novelist captured the nuances of consciousness and duplicities of society." Sunday Times Review
"If Leon Edel's five-volume life of Henry James is the literary equivalent of a vast but perfectly articulated symphony, this novel can best be described as a series of brilliant études based on themes derived from it." Francis King, Literary Review
"[S]crupulously researched and artfully rendered....Tóibín excels at showing us...the connections between James's life and his fictional oeuvre. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"Henry James, the greatest observer we have, is now made to observe himself in this meditation that is, oddly, both Olympian and troubled. Colm Tóibín has a perfect understanding of the greatest of all American writers and accompanies him to Rome, Newport, Paris, Florence, the London of Oscar Wilde. Nothing about this book, however, feels piecemeal or improvised; it is a sustained performance worthy of the Master." Edmund White
"Superbly controlled... this novel is a masterful, unshowy meditation on work, ambition, friendship, longing and mortality." Maureen N. McLane, Chicago Tribune
"The Master is unquestionably the work of a first-rate novelist." Daniel Mendelsohn, The New York Times Book Review
"[T]he Irish novelist Colm Tóibín has written several subtly imagined works of fiction, including The Blackwater Lightship
, which was short-listed for the 1999 Booker Prize. And, against all odds, he succeeds here. The Master
is a small tour de force of a novel....[A] lovely portrait of the artist, rich in fictional truth." Paula Marantz Cohen, The Times Literary Supplement
(read the entire Times Literary Supplement review
"Tóibín's work displays the kind of depth and sensitivity that few authors can offer or demand. After all, writing a novel that captures Henry James is like deriving an equation that calculates Albert Einstein. It's an audacious attempt that manages to beat the master at his own game, while avoiding the perils of parody or sycophancy. The result is a beautiful, haunting portrayal that measures the amplitude of silence and the trajectory of a glance in the life of one of the world's most astute social observers." Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor
(read the entire Christian Science Monitor review
"Few writers have been so well written about as Henry James. Tóibín is a wise and rapacious citizen of the Jamesian universe, an excellent reader of the biographies and of the literary criticism. In the end, though, he does all those works a disservice. For the James whom he creates on the page is a man who seems so utterly real, a creature of such vitality and pain, that he threatens to obscure or to overwhelm the actual man. I imagine that James would have been horrified by such a quantity of vitality; but when in the future I think of James, it will be Colm Tóibín's." Deborah Friedell, The New Republic
(read the entire New Republic review
It is January 1895 and Henry James's play Guy Domville, from which he hoped to make a fortune, has failed on the London stage. The Master opens with this disaster and takes James through the next five years, as having found his dream retreat, he moves to Rye in Sussex. It is there he writes his short masterpiece, The Turn of the Screw, in which he used much of his own life as an exile in England and a member of one of the great eccentric American families. He is impelled by the need to work and haunted by sections of his own past, including his own failure to fight in the American Civil War, the golden summer of 1865, and the death of his sister Alice. He is watchful and witty, relishing the England in which he has come to live and regretting the New England he has left.
About the Author
Colm TÓibÍn is the author of six novels, The South, The Heather Blazing, The Story of the Night, The Blackwater Lightship, The Master, and Brooklyn, as well as the story collection Mothers and Sons. He has been twice nominated for the Booker Prize. He lives in Dublin and New York.
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide for The Master by Colm Toibin
1. In this book Colm Toibin makes the novelist Henry James a protagonist. Do you think the novel is more powerful because it's based on a significant historical figure? Would it be equally powerful and resonant if the central figure were invented?
2. The novel reveals Henry James as a dedicated and inspired writer who relishes the solitary confinement that a writer's life often demands. The reader discovers early on that Henry "wished for solitude and for the comfort of knowing that his life depended not on the multitude but on remaining himself"(page 23). Does Henry achieve his wish of staying true to himself? How might have Henry betrayed his true feelings/ longings?
3. After the terrible reception of Henry's play, "Guy Domville," the narrator states that "he now had to face the melancholy fact that nothing he did would ever be popular or generally appreciated"(page 32). Henry is prolific, nonetheless, producing volumes of work during his writing life. Would you consider Henry's life successful? Do you think he considered his life's work a success?
4. Henry never marries and seems to have little interest in women beyond friendship, but there are several curious interactions between him and Paul Joukovsky, the war veteran Holmes, the manservant Hammond, and the sculptor Andersen. Discuss Henry's ambivalence toward his sexuality. Why do you suppose he never fully acts on his sexual impulses? How might the Oscar Wilde scandal have affected him?
5. Alice James, Henry's sister, clings to her sickness like an occupation. Do you think Alice manipulates her sickness to evoke pity? Henry's sister-in-law, Alice, asserts that Alice and her caretaker, Miss Loring, shared a "sort of happiness together that is not mentioned in the Bible"(p.528) What do you make of her relationship with Miss Loring?
6. Both Henry's sister, Alice, and his cousin Minny Temple shared a witty intellect and a sharp tongue that was never silenced in the company of men. Henry's father has strong feelings about the role of women claiming that "It is a woman's job to be submissive"(p.152). What commentary does the novel make about women's roles during the late nineteenth century? Overall, how are women portrayed?
7. Many of Henry's stories and novels are inspired directly from people and events in his life such that reality often blurs into fiction.
8. Henry shared an interesting relationship with his mother, silently conspiring with her about his so-called illness. Why does Henry so easily fall into his prescribed role? Why do you think Henry's mother becomes so doting and over-protective of him?
9. Bob and Wilkie, Henry's brothers, go off to war while Henry and William are sent to school. Henry experiences guilt even though he knows "he was not cut out to be a soldier"(p.267). Discuss Henry's conflicted feelings about the war, his lack of participation, and his obvious admiration for the soldiers, especially his brothers, who fought.
10. William disliked England, claiming its people had "no spiritual life." Henry, on the other hand, felt that New England had "no flavour, no life to dramatise." So Henry traveled and lived abroad, using the European landscape and its people as muse for many of his novels and stories. Discuss the differences of attitude and society between America and its mother country, England, during this time.
11. After being so inspired by Hawthorne's work, Henry seeks to know more about the author and his life. His brother, Bob, assumes Hawthorne is a minister because he "thought only women wrote stories." Consequently, Henry publishes his first story anonymously. What do you make of the stigma attached to male writers of fiction?
12. Henry's relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolson was one of his most intimate. Yet when she attempts to get too close, Henry becomes reclusive. Her sadness compounds and she eventually commits suicide. Do you think Henry's absence and withdrawal lead to her death? Discuss his guilt associated with Constance's suicide.
13. After Henry allows the sister of his servant, Mrs. Smith, to coalesce in his home, the boundaries between servant and master become less stringent. Henry begins to doubt his authority, feeling that Mrs. Smith "had won some invisible battle with him which allowed her to make herself at home in other subtle ways in the household" (page 334). Describe Henry's relationship with his servants, and his strange inability to confront the situation.
14. Henry's American privilege allows him to travel Europe and socialize in elite European circles. What statements does the novel make about class? Compare the English ideas surrounding class with those of the Americans during the late 1800's.
15. William, Henry's eldest brother sees himself as a "practical man, a family man, a man who did not write fictions but gave lectures, an American man plain in his habits and arguments, representing gruff masculinity against his brother's effete style"(page 513). Discuss the sibling rivalry of sorts that exists between Henry and his eldest brother, William. What is William's opinion of Henry's lifestyle and career choice?
16. Henry prefers to maintain a polite distance between himself and his acquaintances. He was a keen listener and observer but was "not prepared to reveal the mind at work, the imagination, or depth of feeling"(page 366). Discuss the narrator's revelations about the mind and imagination of Henry James.
17. As Henry ages, the narrator makes it clear that, "He did not wish to be regarded as a fossil, but he also wanted to keep the past to himself, a prized and private possession"(page 451). How important are nostalgia and memory to the telling of Henry's story? Why do you think Henry was so guarded with himself and his past?
18. A good portion of the novel is told in flashback; the reader is almost always reliving a memory along with Henry. Do you find this style of narrative effective?