Thursday, July 14, 2005

the master - colm tóibín

" The Master" was last year's Booker favourite, and having finally read it, I know I'd have chosen it over the eventual winner, another book featuring Henry James (in a lesser capacity) myself. In a competition where each book seems to be chosen primarily for its display of style and writerly skill - and were that the only crtierion, Cloud Atlas would be really tough to beat - it stands to reason that, when each work is some form of tour de force in its own right, an overall measure comes into play, that takes into account things like, oh, how the book makes you feel, perhaps; or how far the writer's succeeded in accomplishing what he set out to do. In both cases, I'd grant my vote to "The Master." (I'm talking like these were the only three books in the running - does anyone even remember the names of the other two?) Both this book and "The Line of Beauty" are intensely psychological, self-absorbed books, but it is Tóibín who infuses his story with a rarer and more profound quality than Hollinghurst's authorial intelligence: authorial compassion.

In "The Master," Tóibín recreates some of James' own heavily elliptical, allusive style by constructing his story as a bunch of disconnected episodes set between 1895 and 1901. James' play has failed miserably in London, against his expectations, and, deeply mortified, he retreats further into himself. The next four years him will bring him more success; a slew of brilliant novels, a house of his own, and a headlong tumble into TS Eliot's deadly April cocktail of memory and desire.

As the novel walks us backwards and forwards through cities in which James has spent his life observing people, making friends, developing relationships but never seeing them through, it manages to create a subtle but accurate impact on the reader as the private life of the man who wrote Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove. Tóibín manages to create a psychological verisimilitude without ever focussing too sharply on the painful details of James' sexual crises (reviewer's note: yay!), his failure to save his friends from death and decay, and his social obligations. The moments of palpable dramatic tension (a young Henry sharing a bed with Oliver Wendell Holmes, his scattering of Constance Woolson's clothes in the ocean) are balanced by clear, calm reflective ones. You can only marvel at the lightness of touch it takes to create those, to make them sober and dark without being clumsy and heavy-handed. The Master is as much of a biography as Finding Neverland was a biopic; it's job is to pull threads from its subject's life together to fashion a plot out of mere story, and the gentle, meandering way in which connections are established and reinforced is both original and poignant.

If I was forced to pick a flaw in the tapestry, it'd be the sudden, inexplicable introduction of the subject of the occult (Henry's brother William and his wife were known for their interest in it) which isn't adequately resolved. But then, as James' work itself shows time and again, there's not much about the human condition that is.

Tóibín is no James, and I think he knows it: his language and basic tropes are all simple enough. James, after all, was not a character out of his own books, but a human being who wrote extraordinarily complex stories. In setting out to portray that man, Tóibín accomplishes an elegant, quiet novel that might just inspire a reader to read more of him - and more of James.

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