From The Master by Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín wrote one of two recent novels about a pivotal period in the life of Henry James. David Lodge wrote the other book, Author, Author, not knowing that Tóibín had just finished The Master. I’m a big fan of Lodge, so I read his novel when it was published in 2004, and liked it as much or more than any of his other novels. I finally got around to reading Tóibín’s version last week, and enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s much, much better than the other book by Tóibín I’d read, The Blackwater Lightship – which is good, but not on the same level of The Master. As to how it compares with Author, Author, I’ll only say that the two complement each other rather well.

Divided into parts with each of the last five years of the 19th century as titles, the novel actually covers many important aspects of James’ life before the full flowering of his late style, which included novels such as Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl.

Tóibín writes about James’ gay orientation directly, including one weirdly awkward scene with Oliver Wendall Holmes (?!). Is it legal to yell “Fire!” in a closet so crowded? Well, it makes for a good story, and it’s not entirely implausible. Anyway, another highlight of The Master is the story of James’ friendship with Constance Fenimore Woolson, including a hair-raising sequence following her suicide in Venice. There are great chapters about James’ relatiionship with others in his family, including his brother William, the psychologist, with some speculation about the origin of James’ interest in ghost stories. The descriptions throughout are very well done, including this one detailing the call to work:

His play Guy Domville, the story of a rich Catholic heir who must choose whether to carry on the family line or join a monastery, would open on January 5. All the invitations to the opening night had gone out and he had received many replies of acceptance and thanks. Alexander, the producer and lead actor, had a following among theatregoers, and the costumes – the play was set in the eighteenth century – were sumptuous. Yet, despite his new enjoyment of the society of actors and the glitter and the daily small changes and improvements in the production, he was, he said, not made for the theatre. He sighed as he sat at his desk. He wished it were an ordinary day and he could read over yesterday’s sentences, spend a slow morning making corrections, and then start out once more, filling the afternoon with ordinary work. And yet he knew that his mood could change as quickly as the light in the room could darken, and he easily could feel only happiness at his life in the theatre and begin again to hate the company of his blank pages. Middle age, he thought, had made him fickle.

Good stuff. Now it’s back to Lodge, who has written an account of his own novel, The Year of Henry James, and has another novel coming out this fall, Deaf Sentence.

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