Tuesday, January 25, 2011

382. The Master – Colm Toibin

History: This book was published in 2004.
Plot: The novel begins with the humiliating failure of his play Guy Domville in 1895. James visits Ireland (an excuse for a lightning sketch of late 19th-century British colonialism, a subject closer to Tóibín's heart than James's), reacts with horror to the trial of Oscar Wilde (its scandal carefully set against his own intense discretion), acquires Lamb House in Rye and has reluctantly to sack a pair of grotesquely incompetent servants (the novel's best-sustained comic episode). He returns to Italy after a five-year absence, falls in love with the handsome and egotistical young sculptor Hendrik Andersen, and makes his peace with his brother. He writes, among other things, The Spoils of Poynton, What Maisie Knew, The Awkward Age, "The Figure in the Carpet" and The Turn of the Screw, and starts planning The Ambassadors.
The book recreates only four years of James's life and only a few of his relationships, beginning, and ending with his brother's stay, with his wife and daughter, in Rye, in 1899. In these four years, the author writes a portrait of Henry James as a public figure who feels humiliated in an unexpected way, not just in the public side of his writing career but also in a more personal way, in which all the precautions he had taken to carry on with his life as he wished it to be, come to a crisis.
We enter into James's extraordinary family life - his father's alarming search for spiritual perfection, his mother's protective care of her writer son, the illness and death of his caustic, brilliant, neurotic invalid sister Alice, his conflict with his overbearing older brother William. Henry's evasion of the American Civil War, dramatically contrasted with his brother Wilkie's injuries; his love for his dazzling and doomed young cousin Minnie Temple; his close, edgy friendship with the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, her suicide in Venice and James's clearing-out of her possessions.
Henry resolves to reduce his public life by buying a house in Rye and there he nurses his loneliness and is haunted by all the consequences his need to maintain a protected space in which to live and write has generated all through his life. He's in his fifties and he's very much aware of how he had to refuse the company of his ill sister, whom he adored, at some point, how he chose to stay away from his country and his family, how he felt to turn cold with a writer friend he had been very close to previously and becomes a bachelor with an unresolved sexuality, certainly close to homosexuality, living in a house with servants in the South of England and a daily visit of the stenographer to whom he dictates. Appalled by the Oscar Wilde case, the portrait of Henry is not one of someone who just represses his self and his sexuality but of something more complex and ambiguous, of somebody who copes with life exerting a control on how much he'd reveal, even to himself, and choosing to be a writer in order to achieve precisely that.
Review: At the start of the 1900s, Henry James produced three masterpieces in as many years: first The Wings of the Dove, then The Ambassadors, and next The Golden Bowl. The Master introduces James six years prior, in January 1895, on the eve of his great public failure, as "Guy Domville" premieres on the London stage and wholly, horribly, flops. "Nothing had prepared him for this," Tóibín writes. "For his friends, this night would be entered into the annals of the unmentionable, pages in which he had so studiously avoided having his name appear." Nothing could be worse than that, to be exposed. But they are mixed with scenes which Tóibín has invented or extrapolated from the fact. There is a suggestive argument with Edmund Gosse, soon to write Father and Son, over whether there can be repressed memories, locked in the unconscious. ("No", Henry said sternly, "nothing is locked within") There is an unspoken attraction to a manservant in Ireland. There is a sexy (but not sexual) night in bed, at Minnie Temple's house, with Oliver Wendell Holmes. There is the amazing scene (based on fact) of James disposing of Constance Fenimore Woolson's dresses, after her death, by going out on the Venetian lagoon with her faithful gondolier and dropping them into the water, where they balloon back like dark, giant, mushrooming ghosts.
At first I thought that the main point of the novel would be to expose the secrets of James's repressed homosexuality; and certainly Tóibín makes the most of James's long-ago feelings for the homosexual Paul Joukowsky and his mixed attraction and repulsion for Andersen. But the plot that emerges from The Master's crafty structure is more interesting, and less obvious, than the outing of Henry James. It becomes apparent that James, at least in this version, has repeatedly resisted demands, controlled intimacy and avoided commitment in order to do his writing. Tóibín's James is haunted by self-reproaches: did he abandon Minnie and prefer her "dead rather than alive", so that he could turn her into art? Did he fake his "wound" at the time of the war? Every human contact he makes must be measured against the imperative of "this quiet and strange treachery" towards the world, so that he can be "not available": "alone in his room with the night coming down... and pen and paper and the knowledge that the door would remain shut until the morning came and he would not be disturbed".
How the books grow out of the life is the novel's deepest story. The phrase "I can imagine" crops up several times in the imaginary conversations. It irritated me, as it seemed so anomalous - but it's a clue to what Tóibín is doing. He shows us James's capacity for imagining his way in minute detail into, say, the state of mind of an abandoned child, his superhuman attention to "figures seen from a window or a doorway, a small gesture standing for a much larger relationship, something hidden suddenly revealed". Tóibín too "can imagine" his way into Henry James with exceptional attention - and, particularly, into the process of turning his own "personal store" of memories and relationships into fiction. Sometimes he allows himself simplistic biographical links, but at its best, the novel deals carefully and subtly with the complicated, mysterious process of how a novelist - above all, this master-novelist - goes about "masking and unmasking himself". What James mostly makes his books out of, Tóibín thinks, are his ghosts: the lost, the past, the dead. The book is suffused with longing and bereavement and the power of writing to cure and console. This emphasis means that we miss out, to a great extent, on the funny, worldly, satirical Henry James, whose novels can be read as comedies. But what we are left with is a powerful note of sadness, as the great novelist, working alone in Lamb House, hears the sound "like a vague cry in the distance, of his own great solitude, and his memory working like grief, the past coming to him with its arm outstretched looking for comfort".
Opening Line: “Sometimes in the night he dreamed about the dead – familiar faces and the others, half-forgotten ones, fleetingly summoned up.”
Closing Line: “He walked up and down the stairs, going into the rooms as though they too, in how they yielded to him, belonged to an unrecoverable past and would join the room with the tassle tablecloths and the screens and the shadowed corners, and all the other rooms from whose windows he had observed the world, so that they could be remembered and captured and held.”
Quotes: "His attempt to be earnest, hesitant and polite had not fooled women like her who watched his full mouth and the glance of his eyes and instantly understood it all."
Rating: Very Good.

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