Master your Minecraft

Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, March 28th, 2004


The Master

by Colm Tóibín

The quest for a necessary shell

A review by Paula Marantz Cohen

The idea of a novel written from the point of view of Henry James seems presumptuous, fated to caricature or, at best, oversimplification. But the Irish novelist Colm Toibin 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. This is less a Jamesian novel than it is a novel about James. Toibin makes James his central intelligence but has the sense not to imitate his style. He chooses a style that is mannered but modest, and concentrates on the people and places that formed James's consciousness and served his art.

The story opens in 1895, as James feverishly anticipates the London debut of his play Guy Domville. Toibin takes some time describing his protagonist's exhilarated mood as the opening night approaches:

"He foresaw an end to long, solitary days; the grim satisfaction that fiction gave him would be replaced by a life in which he wrote for voices and movement and an immediacy that through all his life up to now he had believed he would never experience. This new world was now within his grasp."

Of course, James's play is a disaster and it becomes a source of personal humiliation. He faces catcalls and hisses from the audience. "He had failed to take the measure of the great flat foot of the public."

The early part of the novel focuses on James's response to this failure. He pulls back from the London social scene: he visits friends in Ireland, where, characteristically discreet, he refrains from voicing sympathy for the Irish cause to his British hosts; he briefly returns to his London flat to hire a stenographer, a concession to the modern that will greatly facilitate his writing; and he finally retreats to Rye, where he purchases the perfect English home, Lamb House, that will serve as his "necessary shell" until his death. Here, he will find the peace and solitude needed to write his last, most ambitious novels.

The withdrawal to Rye is used by Toibin to mark the final expression of a pattern that has governed the novelist's life from an early age. A powerful sequence imagines how James's mother fabricated his famous back ailment to keep him out of the Civil War, and how he was complicit in supporting this fiction. His back "injury" gives him licence to avoid the risk and tumult of war and to stay in his room and read. The failure of Guy Domville produces the same sort of threatened exposure, albeit psychological rather than physical, represented by the war. He counters it, once again, by withdrawing: in a literal escape from London and a metaphorical escape into art.

Although Toibin's book begins in 1895, it does not hold to a simple chronology proceeding from that point. It moves fluidly back and forth in time, following the vagaries of James's memories and associations. Encounters with friends and relatives, trivial irritations and triumphs, and moments of solitary contentment are entwined with memories of the recent and distant past. These bits and pieces of life and memory are connected to the novels and stories that James has already written, is in the process of writing, and has yet to write.

Toibin is especially good at "turning over" (as James might say) some of the salient individuals and events that contributed to the novelist's sensibility and informed his fiction. A portion of the narrative is devoted to James's feelings about his sister, Alice. He saw her, even as a child, as possessed of a sharply observant, ironic mind. She eventually dealt with the burden of her intelligence and the contradictory demands of their family by retreating into illness, much as James retreated into art.

Toibin shows James using Alice as the "germ" for characters in his novels and stories, sometimes employing her in a "double portrait": the knowing child and the frustrated governess in The Turn of the Screw; the powerful princess and the invalid sister in The Princess Casamassima. The more familiar connection of Alice to Verena Tarrant, the malleable young girl under the spell of the controlling older woman in The Bostonians, is also addressed. In Toibin's reading, James occupies the Basil Ransom role in an unspoken battle with Alice's friend and nurse, Katherine Loring. While Ransom wins the battle in the novel, James steps aside and lets Loring win in life.

Other characters weave in and out — among them James's cousin, the charming, outspoken Minnie Temple, who died young of tuberculosis. Toibin's James admits uneasily that this young woman, whom he so extravagantly admired in life, was more useful to his imagination in death, serving as the inspiration for characters such as Daisy Miller, Isabel Archer and Milly Theale.

Also probed is James's relationship to the American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, who committed suicide in Venice, possibly out of unrequited love. Toibin represents the situation as more complicated than that, while also showing James suffering a lacerating guilt at his inability to respond adequately to Woolson as a friend, if not a lover.

In a comic interval, Toibin imagines James's frustration with his servants, the couple who worked for him for years, first in London and then in Rye. The situation is laid out in careful detail: after James has agreed to let the couple care for a sick sister in his house, they take this act of kindness (not unleavened with characteristic Jamesian cowardice in his inability to refuse their request) as licence to become slovenly and insubordinate. James was notoriously uncomfortable with direct confrontation, and Toibin draws on this to create scenes that approach farce: "the state of (Mrs Smith's) fingernails (did not) invite confidence. He wondered if she knew why he had suspended soup when there were visitors, and gravy too, as well as any of the more runny sauces".

Most impressive and moving is Toibin's re-creation of the final visit to Rye of James's brother William and his family, not long before William's death. The depiction of the older brother's smug, authoritative manner includes a scene in which he counsels his younger brother to abandon European subjects and write an American novel "about the Puritan Fathers". Henry reacts with irritation: "May I interrupt you? . . . Or is this a lecture whose finish will be marked by the ringing of a bell?". But if William is a complacent bully at times, he is also shown to suffer a profound, existential fearfulness. Superficially, William appeared to be the most grounded member of the James family: he had a wife and children; he was at home in his native country; and he was internationally revered for his knowledge on a range of subjects. But Toibin suggests how fragile William's psyche was and how unfixed his place in the family. He depicts the changing hierarchical positions of the other children: Wilky James, for example, is briefly raised to eminence in their father's eyes after he enlists and then is badly wounded during the Civil War (Henry and William are shown to skulk about, ashamed of themselves for failing to enlist).

Alice James also achieves temporary power when she cares for her father after her mother's death (when he dies, she sinks definitively into invalidism). And Henry wields a muted authority as the reliable child, the one who never breaks down or gives anything away. He, to his older brother's envy and irritation, is chosen as executor of his father's will. Even at the end, when William lectures Henry on the need to write a novel about American history, Toibin gives Henry the last word. "'It would be all humbug!' he said and smiled gently, almost patronizingly at his brother."

Some of these observations about family dynamics are well known, derived from Jamesian biography and criticism; some are the product of Toibin's extrapolating imagination. But it is a tribute to the author's delicacy that he creates a convincing feel to his scenes while never pressing too hard. As he has James ruminate on one of his gestating tales: "The story, he thought, was vulgar and ugly only if the motives were so, but what if the motives were mixed and ambiguous?". Toibin always allows for the mixed and ambiguous.

The keynote of the book is perhaps encapsulated in the famous advice that Lambert Strether gives the wayward Chad Newsome in The Ambassadors: "Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life". The pathos of these lines, as applied to James's seemingly uneventful life, is well known. But Toibin's novel grapples with what it really means to "live".

Again and again, he depicts James's yearnings for other men, for more vigorous engagement with issues and events, and for financial success and popularity. But, reticent, discreet and solitary, James chooses to draw back from these things. The compensations he receives are the pleasures of routine, an appreciation for old friends, a love of solitude, and, of course, a devotion to the creative process. These values are acknowledged to be worthy ones — and the final note of the novel affirms that James did indeed "have his life".

The book is hard to categorize generically. It relies on a scaffolding of facts and familiar fictions: people James knew, things he wrote, known visits and travels, and well-established rumours about him. But it freely imagines what occurred in the actual encounters and, more audaciously, what went on inside James's head. Ultimately, the book seems a genre unto itself: a personalized way into the fiction through the life and the life through the fiction. It pretends to no special authority except its ability to strike a note that reverberates pleasingly and persuasively for the reader. For this reader, at least, it did, offering a perspective on James and his fiction that is compelling without being coercive. After all, those of us who care for James have our own Jamesian idea. Colm Toibin's James did not damage mine; it complemented and enlarged it. This is saying a great deal. The Master is a lovely portrait of the artist, rich in fictional truth.

Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University and author of Silent Film and the Triumph of the American Myth and the novel Jane Austen in Boca. Her new novel Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan will appear this Spring.

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