Monday, June 28, 2010
"The Master" by Colm Toibin
When I finished this book I actually hugged it to myself. It is an absolute marvel.
The Master is a novel based on the life of writer Henry James. It depicts James in his mid and late fifties reflecting back on important events, people and losses of his life. The portrait that Toibin builds up of James is astoundingly complex, clear and nuanced. I loved this book.
We get to know James as a very solitary man. A man of enormous intelligence who at once craves, seeks and guards his isolation and yet at times does seem to regret some of the decisions he has made, over the years, in order to maintain it.
Colm Toibin explores this isolation in all of its complexity. James is portrayed as a watcher, an observer of life rather than a participant. For me much of the sadness of his character is tied in with this. It seems that James often sees the people who inhabit his worlds through a lens that is always on the lookout for possible story lines for his writing. To me it seems that Toibin is suggesting that James's alertness and astute observation is some sort of defense or protection against any sort of self disclosure or intimacy. The pain of this is achingly real at times. Occasionally James will contemplate lowering his guard with someone, or is brought to the brink of making real contact, and yet does not take that leap into abandonment or hope or whatever that thing is when we allow someone to get close. Several times while reading the novel I had to put the book down momentarily to manage my own response to the anguish that just flies of the page.
The impact of the deaths of James's family and friends on his life feature in the novel. The way Toibin portrays the effect of death and its sequelae is truly beautiful. There is a scene where James has to dispose of the clothes of a deceased loved one. I have not read a passage in any book that better evokes the sense of unreality and desolation that follows a death.
World events and other literary characters give a wonderful context to this story. These include the American Civil War and literary figures such as Oscar Wilde, Thackeray, George Eliot, Constance Fenimore Woolson and many more. Toibin captures what I imagine would be the spirit of the times. The differences in outlook between the new world of the United States and the more controlled environs of Britain and Europe, where Henry James made his various homes. The cities of London, Venice and Rome in the closing decades of the 19th century come alive in this novel.
Toibin has created a seamless story where we go back and forth from James's present to related incidents from his past. There is not a wasted word and the pace of the narrative is swift. So much so that I found I read the last two thirds of the novel in a single afternoon sitting.
Toibin does it all. I can't think of a book I have read this year that has involved a more complete portrait of a character. We experience the very heart of Henry James complete with foibles and contradictions and amazing kindness at times. There is drama and poignancy in relation to opportunities lost, and at other times Toibin's observations are deliciously sharp as with this little gem that took place at a dinner party:
The Baroness, in finishing, looked at Henry as though daring him to contradict her. Clearly, he had displeased her, and she seemed uncertain whether she had made herself disagreeable enough. He sat with her as she made up her mind that she had not. p.281
And the best news is that while the writing is beautiful, it is not at all difficult to decipher, unlike the work of James himself. And while I have said there are poignant and sad elements to the story, do not be put off by that because it is not at all dark or depressing. "The Master" is above all incredibly moving and illuminating. I can not recommend it highly enough.