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.


  1. Wow, this sounds amazing. I have read my first two James novels this year and have enjoyed them both in different degrees. I saw Colm Toibin on the First Tuesday Book Club and loved him, although I have never read one his books. So this seems perfect for me! Great review, i will add this book to my wish list with a link to your review

  2. Thanks Becky. I really do think you would enjoy this one. I saw that interview with Colm Toibin also and admired him greatly. I also heard him on a RN presentation as part of Sydney Writers Festival with the Australian author of "The Legacy" Kirsten Tranter. He was impressive in that discussion also. After that I looked up your review on The Legacy, because I had not read it myself. Your review was entertaining and informative (as always) and confirmed for me my initial impressions that The Legacy may have been a bit over hyped.

    I have only read The Turn of the Screw by James and I am steeling myself to deal with the complicated language and complexities of A Portrait of a Lady. Knowing a bit more about James himself may be just the push I need to take the plunge with one of his longer works.

  3. I will for sure read The Master Soon-I ordered it this morning from Amazon. I have been reading James on and off for a long time-I suggest new readers try Daisy Miller, then the Europeans or the Bostonians-when I post on the Masters I will come back and link to your great post

  4. Mel - thank you very much for your recommendations on reading Henry James. Daisy Miller is referred to in "The Master" and I was thinking this might be a good one for me to try next. And I can't wait to hear what you think of The Master.

    Juju - thank you very much. And right back at you. I adore your blog!!

  5. What a fabulous review! Thanks for directing me to it. Since reading Henry James I've been dying to read more, but want to take it in stride so I don't get bored with his style. This would be a good one to mix it up with. Thanks again, Mel.

  6. I will start reading The Master Next week-very excited over the prospect!

  7. Hi Mel U - I hope you enjoy it! And I very much look forward to your review.

  8. I just complete The Master a few days ago-it is a really a work r subtle intelligence-only a great writer could hope to display the internal life of a genius like Henry James and Toibin does a wonderful job-I linked back to you very perceptive post in my post-thanks for your insights


Comments are very welcome.