If you read Jeet Heer’s recent G&M essay on kid-versus-adult lit, you were probably left with the impression that Henry James was a fuddy duddy. And while reading Colm Tóibín’s Booker-shortlisted novel The Master may not disabuse you of this notion, it will certainly give you a more in-depth portrait of this singular—and singularly complicated—literary heavyweight.
Indeed, that is the whole point. Tóibín’s expansive if somewhat dense tome captures the inner turbulences and emotional life of Henry James (1843-1916) during the years 1895 to 1899, when he was living in England and Italy. The historical detail captured therein is impressive—we get to see, for example, James following the machinations of the Oscar Wilde trial with the quietly rabid interest of both a rival and closet homosexual—but it is the workings of James’s creative mind that draws us in the most. Tóibín’s intention is nothing short of showing us how James could manipulate, alter or otherwise distill experience into fodder for his art. In one flashback, he meets a young and sharp-minded girl named Minny Temple, and her personality and circumstances go on to inspire—sort of—the character of Isabel in The Portrait of a Lady. Or how an anecdote, about two women who have charged themselves with protecting a literary legacy, went on to inspire The Aspern Papers:
The implications and possibilities of this story filled Henry’s mind for some time afterwards. He took note, as soon as he went back to his quarters, of the picture of the two fascinating, poor and discredited old Englishwomen living on into a strange generation, in their musty corner of a foreign city with the letters their prized possession. But as he considered the core of the drama, he saw that it lay in the hands of the scholar. The story of the three figures locked in a drama of faded memories and desperate need would take time and concentration. It could not be done in the mornings in Florence. Nor could he set his story in the city without everyone there believing that he was merely transcribing a story already known and often recounted. He would move the story to Venice, he thought, and, as more invitations came in, he decided he would move himself to Venice also, and work there on a story whose properties he came more and more to relish.
This one passage has it all—the capturing and manipulating of a idea, as well as the challenges a writer faces in the implementing of it. Anyone who has tried to write creatively will see shadows of their experience in The Master.
There are other delights. Tóibín’s loyalty to the period lies not only his attention to historical accuracy but also in the very style of his prose. There is a certain 19th-century quality to the interactions between characters, the dialogue and exposition, where implication through body language and what is not said is just as important as the exchanges themselves. It’s remarkable how Tóibín’s prose is able to conjure the tone of a previous century without making itself seem antiquated.
The other great strength of this novel is how Tóibín handles James’s hidden sexuality. There is no overt reference to the author’s gayness or even his latent desire for certain male characters. Instead, The Master uses more covert means to show us what James was struggling with. Examples include his obsession with the Oscar Wilde trial and especially what will happen to Wilde once he’s convicted of sodomy, and the awkward bodily joys James feels as a young man when he is forced to share a bed with another lad.
While there’s much to love about The Master, there’s also some elements that frustrate. I sometimes felt there wasn’t enough narrative arc, or even narrative raison d’etre, to hold the various chapters together and propel them forward. The novel, upon lengthy reflection, feels like an overly episodic read. It also relies a lot on flashbacks and memories, and this often divorced me from what was supposed to be the “present period” in the book. I’m not sure whether it was a good strategy to centre the novel on these specific years of James’s life when so much of the story relies on his history. Perhaps it should have followed the model of something like The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Wayne Johnston’s fictional take on the life of Joey Smallwood, which examines its subject from a much higher chronological perch.
While these are not small quibbles, they don’t undermine the novel as a whole. There’s no mistaking the power of this exploration of a literary giant, or of Tóibín’s skill as a stylist. The Master is truly masterful.