Monday, 15 September 2014

The Master

I've been reading The Master by Colm Toibin - a book I'd been vaguely meaning to read for some while. When I spotted it on the shelves of Britain's Best Bookshop (The Bookshop, Market Place, Wirksworth, Derbyshire), I took this as a sign that I should finally get round to it, and I'm not sorry I did. It's a fine example of a hybrid form that embodies biography in the form of a novel - an episodic one in this case, dipping into Henry James's life at various points, each of which also becomes a way into the past, explores the fascinating emotional cross-currents of James's family life, and often throws light on the inspiration of  his works. It's cleverly done (appropriately in the third person and past tense), Toibin catching the subtle modulations of the Jamesian tone very well, with scarcely a false note - indeed, as he acknowledges, the text is peppered with quotation from James's letters and other writings.
 It's a life famously short of incident, one that the Master chose to devote single-mindedly to his Art, but James's very withdrawal from life - especially from human intimacy - itself becomes the subject. There is something chilling, almost pathological, in the way in which 'Henry' repeatedly invites intimacy, then, if it is returned in too great a measure, recoils. We are left in no doubt of the human cost of this, particularly to two vulnerable women who made the mistake of getting too close, taking too much for granted. James's exquisite sensibility, it seems, could only cope with so much. He was more than capable of hardening his heart and turning his back, in the higher cause of his Art. And yet Toibin manages to make him a sympathetic character and to keep us, for most of the time, on his side.
 The novel at least feels as if it stays very close to the facts of James's life and state of mind (in as much as that can be known), and I'm sure it must be a more enjoyable read than any biography - though, having never read one, I may well be wrong. It has inspired me to read more of James's fiction - which I love in its shorter forms but have, to my shame, found all but unreadable in its later doorstop form. Time for another crack at The Wings of the Dove? Or perhaps I'll add that to my bulging portfolio of Retirement Projects...

2 comments:

  1. I've also had it on my bookshelf, ever on the verge of the 'to-read' pile, since it was published. Now that you've taken the plunge and recommend it, I now surely will.

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