I spent part of the holidays reading Colm Tóibín’s wonderful novel about Henry James, The Master. The Washington Post’s book review called it “hardly a typical summer book,” and it does seem like a perfect winter book.
The Master is convincingly written from the start: “As he moved his head, he could hear the muscles creaking. I am like an old door, he said to himself.” Tóibín creates a style that seems true to James without mimicking him. When Aunt Kate suggests trying to contact the dead, Tóibín has Alice, Henry’s 16-year-old sister, forcefully dismiss the idea: “One need pray for nothing. Reference to those whom we should meet again makes me shiver. It is an invasion of their sanctity. It is the sort of personal claim to which I am deeply opposed.” This sounds so true to James’ own spirit! Who else would object to contacting the dead, not so much out of scientific skepticism as out of a sort of “good manners” that reaches beyond the grave?
I really enjoyed the book, but I did have some reservations. Now that I look back on it, maybe the problem is that none of the other characters seem as strong as Henry. Perhaps this was part of the tragedy of James’ life: he knew women, like the novelist Constance Woolson (who committed suicide partly because of James’ unresponsiveness to her), who were his match in intellect and insight, but the men he was closest to were like the narcissistic sculptor in the novel. This may have made it all the harder for James to confront his own homosexuality (it’s hard to think of him as “gay”!), but the novel frustrated me because so often James seems to get away without confronting anything.
I haven’t read that much of Henry James, but I love The Golden Bowl. It has a great scene where Charlotte confronts “the Prince” with her love for him, and he can’t deal with it, and James makes us see just how thoroughly and terribly he can’t deal with it. Tóibín similarly shows us a James who “can’t deal with it” either, in so many ways, but we never really get a confrontation. We just get James wistfully looking down the canal in Venice where Constance killed herself and wondering if he might have done something.
This all interests me because I’ve been writing poems about the lives of artists, and it brings up the question of what the difference is between a historical novel or poem and a biography. At times I felt that Tóibín had written a very sensitively and vividly imagined biography, but one that didn’t quite come together as a novel. I felt that something was missing for me from The Master, and as I feared that what was missing might also be missing from my own poems, I got rather obsessed trying to figure out what it was. I hope someone else has read The Master and will tell me what they think.