The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985. These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of The New
Canon, Ted Gioia reviews The
Master by Colm Tóibín.
by Colm Tóibín
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
To write a psychologically-charged novel about Henry James, as
Colm Tóibín does in his 2004 book The Master, sets up certain
expectations—expectations that Tóibín will
toy with and subvert during the course of this
book. James, after all, is the master of the
resonance between the exterior appearance
and inner life, the expert at probing and prod-
ding the painful hidden corners of the psyche.
Does one dare give the literary lion a taste of
his own bitter medicine?
No novelist wrote more charged dialogue than
James, but not because the words spoken
stood out, but rather because he looked
deeply into the spaces between the utterances.
He was a connoisseur of unsaid overtones, hidden agendas, verbal
self-deceptions, and the meanings behind the meanings that make a
conversation into something rich and multidimensional. In his
hands, a chat about the most innocent topic can be a staging ground
for soul-wrenching turmoil.
Yet this same author who laid bare the inner workings of his
characters did a exemplary job of hiding his own private life—and
this is what gives Tóibín such a rich field for his imaginative
recreation. You can read through all five volumes of Leon Edel’s
biography of James, only to learn that this fellow is still a cipher.
Even some of the most basic questions can only be answered with
conjectures and hypotheses. (Check out the exchanges between
Edel and Sheldon M. Novick for a taste of the heated James
debates.) One way of dealing with this uncertainty is for another
novelist to jump into the fray and resolve matters that the historical
record leaves ambiguous.
What gives The Master its piquant flavor is how little this version of
James matches up with long-prevailing preconceptions about our
magisterial author. In a spirit of full disclosure, I need to state that I
consider the late novels of Henry James—especially The Wings of
the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) and The Golden Bowl
(1904)—as perhaps the most perfectly realized works in American
fiction. The mind that constructed these rich and subtle works
comes across as poised, sensitive to the smallest tremblings of the
inner life, and totally in control of his subject. These qualities rarely
rise to the surface in the character Henry James in Tóibín’s novel.
Tóibín’s James is conflicted, repressed and self-centered. A key
scene early in the book focuses on the failure of James’s aspirations
as a playwright, and the disastrous debut performance of his drama
Guy Domville (1895). James made the mistake of appearing on
stage to take a bow after the final curtain—only to be jeered by some
members of the audience. This is a central scene for Tóibín, and the
shame experienced by the great man of letters—an embarrassment
heightened by the presence of many of his friends and fellow literati
among the onlookers—sets the tone for much of the rest of the The
Readers may be reminded of the Peter Shaffer’s play (and later
movie) Amadeus. When they write the history of how highbrow got
browbeaten by lowbrow, this work will deserve a chapter of its own
for its transformation of the iconic Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart into a
hyper-talented buffoon. The Master is much the same, and even if
you disagree with the premise—and, yes, I do disagree with the
premise—that artists can be on completely different wavelength
from the masterpieces they leave behind, you will find it hard not to
be caught up in the boldness of this imaginative reconstruction of
the great man of letters.
But this is, above all, a modern take on James, and as such must
reveal the modern obsession with . . . yes, the writer’s sex life. Was
there a Jamesian sex life? Our committed bachelor may have
written close to ten million words during the course of his life, but
you can read all of them and still not get to the bottom of that
question. That didn't stop Ernest Hemingway from using James as a
model for Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, the character whose
obscure war injury crimps his love life. One can make a case that
James had a similar injury. Or you can follow Sheldon M. Novick,
and draw the implication from James’s mention of a “first initiation”
to construct a possible affair . . . with future Supreme Court justice
Oliver Wendell Holmes. Or you can take the path Tóibín takes, and
view James as repressed and conflicted, the kind of man who can
hang around outside the window of a possible lover, but never get
the courage to knock at the door.
I find the obsession fascinating . . . but I am not talking about Henry
James’s obsession here. It’s the obsession of the modern mind with
these details in the life of a long-dead novelist that is revealing.
Tóibín exemplifies this prurience of the literary mind, and its
assumption that you can’t really understand someone until you
comprehend the nature of their couplings—or lack thereof. The fact
that you can wrap up Henry James in this cloud of concupiscence is
especially impressive. The author who did the most to rise above
the biological in his books, and look at second-order and third-order
effects of the mind, of the social organism, at play . . . well, this is
quite an achievement.
We have encountered before this rewriting of Victorian narratives
in modern form. John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant's Woman
was a gripping, pioneering effort in this regard (and deserves to be
better known these days), and A.S. Byatt’s Possession found similar
resonance in contrasting the public rectitude and private passions of
the late nineteenth century. But where Byatt created a mythical
literary figure on which to pin her con-sex-tualizing, Tóibín draws
on salient details from a real biography.
Here Tóibín probes into Henry James’s intriguing relationship with
Constance Fenimore Woolson—a writer herself and grandniece of
James Fenimore Cooper—whose death in 1894 might have been a
suicide, and might have been linked to Henry James. Here we dig
into James’s “eternal fellowship” (in his words) with Russian
aristocrat Paul Zhukovski. Here we follow James’s interactions
with sculptor Hendrik Christian Andersen. And, yes, we get to
watch him in close contact with Oliver Wendell Holmes, where he
finds his own personal equivalent of a clear and present danger (if I
may borrow that jurist’s most famous phrase).
We follow James on his peregrinations, look over his shoulder as he
extracts source material for his books from his day-to-day life (just
as Tóibín is doing a hundred years later), and even see how he
handles misbehaving servants, siblings, and those who try to probe
into the private life he wishes to keep under lock and key. If Henry
James did a reality show, sort of a highbrow equivalent of that
tawdry Ozzy Osbourne affair, these would be the subplots.
This book picks the lock, and opens up everything for inspection,
although it is no substitute for a real James’s biography. If you want
to learn more about Henry James the historical figure, I would
suggest you begin with unfairly maligned Mr. Edel who doesn’t have
a post-modern bone in his body, yet despite that fact (or—take your
choice—perhaps because of it), is a solid starting point for assessing
the ins-and-outs (or lack thereof) of this American literary lion.
Perhaps at one point in the past, when Edel’s name showed up in the
same sentences as Boswell’s and Plutarch’s, his stock may have been
too high, but nowadays Edel’s reluctance to play the ideological
calling cards from the bottom of the deck is refreshing. Once you
start there, you can add spice via the revisionist works that have
been published in more recent years. You won’t find out much
about what happened in Henry James's bedroom, but you will learn
what the surviving documents tells us about one of the most creative
minds produced by the New World.
Then again, if you want to play a postmodern game with a famous
figure from the past—which is probably a lot more fun than studying
the biography of such a circumspect individual as Henry James—
Tóibín is an incomparable cicerone. There is a certain playfulness
at work here, but one that is not incompatible with finding a dark,
tragic streak in this account of a genius at loggerheads with his own
impulses and struggling to reconcile opposing forces that threaten to
derail a mental equilibrium constructed at such great costs. In fact,
one can’t help wondering what Henry James might have done with
that kind of character.
|The Best in Fiction Since 1985