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[5] The Master – Colm Toibin

The Master paints a picture of a writer who is private, independent and who leads a quiet writing life that he would not trade for the world. Henry James is an American living under the grandeur of Europe and whose life is entwined with elite people who move like players in a game of seek-and-hide, between knowing and not knowing, with awestruck disguise and pretense. The book captures the writer in his early fifties, 14 years after the critical success with The Portrait of a Lady, to which the current novel repeatedly alludes. The Master begins on the disastrous opening night of his play Guy Domville, when James came onstage only to be hissed and booed by the London audience; whereas the ribald and vulgar plays of his rival achieved unprecedented success.

The substantial value of the doomed play, which soberly considers the conflict between material life and the life of pure contemplation and the vicissitudes of human love, leaves an indelible impression on the elite. But the clash between the invited audience and the general public is as unbridgeable a gap as the success between Henry James and his rival Oscar Wilde. Guy Domville forever ends his career as a playwright: an idea that he subsequently recalls with despondency and contempt.

It is under such a decided turning point Colm Toibin concocts the story of James’s life, as the novelist rededicates himself to fiction but with the burden of a melancholy fact that nothing he did would ever be popular or generally appreciated. The novel reiterates his refusal to compromise in forfeiting the noble art of writing in order to make his works popular. It matters to him how he is seen as a writer who is utterly nonchalant about popularizing his works. The idea of being seen to devote himself in solitude and selfless appreciation to writing gives him ineffable satisfaction. The brothers have minor fallout when William James cajoles him to write a novel about moral values of America and to abandon the silly fastidiousness of English manners that William believes are conducive to Henry’s unclear and over-embellished style.

The Master is a writer’s own sober reflection on life: bittersweet memories of an unprotected childhood, unconsoled grief of unfulfilled love, and unrepressed regret of love not pursued, and an incessant longing. The prose exudes an air of loneliness that attributes to his recoiling from engagements, from deep companionship and from the warmth of love. The writing is redolent of discretion and stoicism. Henry James himself learns never to disclose anything, and even to acknowledge the moment when some new intelligence is imparted. He scrupulously keeps his sentiment, especially for men, in check and assiduously safeguards his passions from being known. He knows everyone carries with him the aura of another life that is half-secret and half-open, to be known about but not mentioned. His longing for the companionship and the touch of a man is stored away in an entirely private world to which it could only return at the sound of a name or at the vision in mind.

The Master delineates a writer who consistently draws on his domestic life as materials for his novels. The Bostonian and The Ambassador are mindful of his sister and more significantly offer her the experiences she would have wanted and provide drama for a life which had been so cruelly shortened. In a similar manner, The Portrait of a Lady reminisces his cousin who had been more real to him than any of the new people he associated with.

Colm Toibin, with a quiet and stoic manner, deftly unfolds and retrieves pieces of mind that James so assiduously conceals. The death of his friend Constance Woolson, to whom he had been the closest out of his family, and who contemplates at length all his works, preys his mind. The Master turns out to be a marvelously intelligent and engaging novel mapping the mind behind James’s writing. The completion of the novel plies opens a corner of his mind that urges me to read his novels. Entwined in the description of James’s perception of his novels is such psychological subtlety that captures the nuances of consciousness of both the writer and society.

4 Responses

  1. I absolutely loved this book and thought it was brilliant. It was difficult for me to get into at the beginning, but it was quite a surprise to see he had slept with Oliver Wendell Holmes naked. You did a great job describing the character that was set forth in the novel, and it makes me wonder how much it really was like James. Although after reading a whole article by eve sedgwick surrounding bowel movements discussed in letters by James, somehow I can imagine his being that anal (not that I’m a huge fan of Freud).

  2. […] woman. Colm Tóibín’, twice shortlisted for Booker Prize, author of The Blackwater Lightship and The Master, has a new book out in May 2009. I have been looking forward to his new novel like many of you have […]

  3. […] A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook: “Colm Toibin, with a quiet and stoic manner, deftly unfolds and retrieves pieces of mind that James so assiduously conceals…. The Master turns out to be a marvelously intelligent and engaging novel mapping the mind behind James’s writing.” […]

  4. […] A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook: “Colm Toibin, with a quiet and stoic manner, deftly unfolds and retrieves pieces of mind that James so assiduously conceals…. The Master turns out to be a marvelously intelligent and engaging novel mapping the mind behind James’s writing.” […]

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