The Master by Colm Tóibín

Friends reunited - for his own fictional purposes
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The Independent Culture

Colm Tóibín, author of the Booker-shortlisted The Blackwater Lightship, does a fine line in repression. About a young man dying of Aids in a rural Irish backwater, The Blackwater Lightship was carried almost as much by what Tóibín left out, as what he put in.

With that in mind, it seems natural that Tóibín should turn to Henry James for his next fictional enterprise, for James was a master at withholding information. Despite the page-length sentences, he was obsessed with deft nuances, with secrets. With the great unsaid. Of course, James was a pretty repressed individual himself, who spent his life struggling with his sexual identity and desperately trying to avoid any close or complicated relationships.

What fodder then for Tóibín. The Master is not short of a masterpiece. That is presuming it is accepted as a novel. What Tóibín has done is to fictionalise five years of Henry James's life: January 1895 to Christmas 1899. These were the years that saw James move from London to his beloved Lamb House in Rye, from the failure of his play, Guy Domville, to the writing of The Turn of The Screw. But these years also, as Tóibín points out, laid the foundations for his greatest creative period which saw him produce, in quick order, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl.

If The Master has a weakness it is in Tóibín's rather crass way of alluding to how James may have used real life to inspire his fiction. Tóibín's James is forever on the lookout for plots, for characters, and ruthlessly mines all who are close to him for his own fictional purposes. James probably did this; in fact numerous biographies have pointed out similarities between the lives of James's friends and some of his characters, but the way Tóibín has James "suddenly" stumble upon a "fictional" idea drawn from real life, seems both clumsy, and a little too forced - as, especially, with the way he suggests James came up with The Wings of the Dove.

Also, I'm not sure whether Tóibín has, strictly speaking, written a novel. Stylistically, indeed generically, the closest book to The Master is Don DeLillo's Libra. Using the facts and a lot of psychological insight, but making up the dialogue, DeLillo brilliantly brought to life Lee Harvey Oswald and one of the darkest chapters in American history. Certainly Tóibín magnificently conjures up Henry James, or, at the very least, his idea of Henry James. Most of the facts seem to stack up, as do the period details.

While James scholars might be appalled, or even amused, The Master, for the rest of us, is terrific entertainment. I'm thankful that Tóibín doesn't try to ape James's convoluted prose style but remains marvellously succinct, if slightly, but clearly deliberately, camp. "Everyone he knew," writes Tóibín about James, "carried with them the aura of another life, which was half secret and half open."

This applies to James too, or Tóibín's James, as we watch him gain the confidence of, then all too quickly distance himself from, a succession of male and female friends. The men, such as soldier turned servant Oliver Holmes, and sculptor Hendrick Andersen, he falls hopelessly in lust with, yet fails to touch, while the women, notably Minny Temple and Constance Fenimore Woolson fall hopelessly in love with him, only for him to rebuff them guiltily.

The real story which emerges here is of a desperately lonely, sexually frustrated and more than slightly eccentric American exile, who sacrificed everything for his art. That Tóibín makes you care for this character says more about Tóibín's writing, in this instance, than Henry James's.

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