I discovered The Master by Colm Toibin in a Powell’s newsletter. It won several awards and was short-listed for the Man Booker prize (likely because of it is just the kind of book us lit-geeks love – books about literary figures that are written by powerfully articulate authors) and it was on sale when I saw it on the shelf. The Master is a fictional account of Henry James’ life from his own perspective. Henry James, of course, is a huge figure in Modern fiction, a prolific author of novels as well as literary criticism. His most popluar works are probably The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of a Dove (both of which I have seen film adaptations of, neither of which I enjoyed very much).
If you had asked me – before I read this book – where Henry James was from, I would have said he was from England. And if you’d asked me if he was gay, I would told you that I’d heard nothing to the contrary (but I would never rule it out, of course). Oscar Wilde – everyone (read: English geeks) knows he was gay; Henry James, never heard a whisper. Well, James was American – and gay. However, I often confuse Henry James and James Joyce in my head – so I’m hardly a good person to ask these questions of.
James is portrayed as a character on the edge of, but rarely involved in, many experiences and events. He had two brothers who fought in the American Civil War. He was born and raised in America but spent time in Europe as a child and young adult and eventually made his home there. He never married but had close women friends and was closest to his sister of all his siblings. He was welcomed in high society in Britain and Europe as an artist but was not truly included in that strata. He was attracted to men but was not able to truly pursue that as a lifestyle. He was a lauded author but not actually well-read by the general public.
The Master is engaging and well-written, but doesn’t paint Henry James as a very likable character, at least in my eyes. Well, not truly unlikeable, but probably not someone you’d want as a close friend or lover. He seems to have a difficult time actually experiencing any moment that he’s in. Rather, he removes himself as much as possible from what is happening around him and only later allows himself to feel one way or the other about it. We probably all know people like this, but few count them as close friends. Some might think it horrible that he used his personal experiences as fodder for fiction, but that doesn’t really bother me. What bothers me is that he only seems to really be able to connect with people through fiction, either his actual work or the stories he tells only to himself. So any happiness he might give or receive is difficult, if not impossible. Instead, he hurts the people he cares most about and doesn’t seem to realize it until after they’ve died and it’s too late to do anything about it. Such a sad way to live.
Strange coincidence – I read this book right after Sandra Day O’Connor’s book, and Henry James was a friend of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (as young men and throughout their lives). It even implies – and again, this is a work of fiction based on facts, not a biography of established facts – that James and Holmes had a one-time sexual encounter during their friendship.
Toibin is clearly a skilled writer (a master, one might say) who can create authentic atmosphere and character for people, places and eras. He made the character of James interesting and sympathetic without ignoring his negative traits. I will surely be looking for other books by Toibin. If you are looking for an enjoyable way to learn more about Henry James, artists in the early modern period, American ex-patriots, gay men in the Modern period, the English relationship with Ireland, American views on the Civil War, or the thought processes of conflicted people – all of these and more can be found here.