“The Old High Art of Fiction”: Colm Tóibín, The Master

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Once it became more solid, the emerging story and all its ramifications and possibilities lifted him out of the gloom of his failure. He grew determined that he would become more hardworking now. He took up his pen again — the pen of all his unforgettable efforts and sacred struggles. It was now, he believed, that he would do the work of his life. He was ready to begin again, to return to the old high art of fiction with ambitions now too deep and pure for any utterance.

As I finished reading yet another not-very-good novel about George Eliot (Dinitia Smith’s The Honeymoon, review forthcoming), I found myself wondering why she has been so ill-served by later novelists who obviously (judging by their choice of subject) found her very inspiring. But I suppose in some ways it’s a thankless task, deliberately to set yourself against one of the geniuses of your genre: you can’t help but invite comparison, and you have to find a way to be not just connected to your source but also brilliant on your own terms. Naturally, this got me wondering where the good examples are of what we might call “homage fiction” — and this led me to The Master, which has been ripening on my bookshelves for a few years now.

The Master is a book I have long wanted to read, but my intention to actually do so kept getting undermined by my fear that reading it would be like reading the Master himself. He’s a writer with whom I have a vexed relationship: usually when I read him I’m equal parts fascinated and repelled, impressed and impatient. I sometimes feel a bit resentful of him — of his influence on people’s thinking about the art of fiction, for instance — but I love his actual essay on “The Art of Fiction.” Even in my best Jamesian moments, I can’t muster anything like the enthusiasm for him that, say, Jessa Crispin has expressed — I find him too claustrophobic in his meticulousness — but at the same time he’s a writer I can’t resist wrestling with.

I have not so far been a great Colm Tóibín fan either. My only previous experience is Brooklyn, which I also found a bit too perfect, though not so much for any particularly Jamesian qualities as in its replication of its protagonist’s emotional suppression. There’s a fine line between representing and enacting flatness and inertia. And yet even though I was mostly unmoved by Brooklyn, I could tell that Tóibín was a writer to trust — smart, skilled, deliberate. So I hung on to The Master, as if I knew that its day would come!

master2I’m glad it finally did, because I thought it was wonderful. I knew only snippets about James’s biography before, and I’m not at all familiar with his letters or other key sources, so I don’t know how far Tóibín has shaped the story in a distinctive way or how far his Henry is recognizable to people who already knew him well from other versions. But to me, Tóibín’s character was immediately convincing because he was so specific, so somehow complete, not just as a man but (more important, perhaps, in a Jamesian context) as a point of view. The Master read like a novel looking at the world from a very particular consciousness, which of course is the crucial twist James gave to the form himself — not that he was the first to do this, but he developed and concentrated the technique until its very singularity perversely crowded out some of the other things novelists valued (or were valued for). Tóibín’s novel isn’t quite as insular as its inspiration’s can be, but it seemed to me very much a novel of looking, rather than doing: it’s a novel about a man for whom the meaning of an action is more significant than the action itself.

Tóibín does a beautiful job showing how James’s novels arose from that way of being in the world. He doesn’t avoid making the literal connections between biographical events and real-life relationships and James’s plots and character — in his detailed account, for instance, of James’s cousin Minny, resurrected particularly in Isabel Archer:

he had a great mission now to make Minny walk these streets, to allow the soft Tuscan sunlight to shine on her soft face. But more than that, he sought to re-create her moral presence more finely and more dramatically than he had ever done before.

But Tóibín also evokes the creative mysteries that underlie the transformation of life into art: we feel the ideas for new stories glimmer in Henry’s mind before they take any final form, and see them as part of a broader striving to elucidate and connect both people and ideas. His Henry’s mind is always at work, observing details (“Henry noticed how beautiful his shoes were and how slender his feet”), puzzling over nuances, shaping thoughts into the elegantly complex sentences which Tóibín can hardly resist invoking in his own prose (“He dictated with his usual mixture of certainty and hesitation, stopping briefly and darting forward again, and then going to the window, as if to find the word or phrase he sought in the garden, among the shrubs or the creepers or the abundant growth of late summer, and turning back deliberately into the cool room with the right phrase in his head and the sentence which followed until the paragraph had been completed”).

Henry_James_SargentSomething that moved me deeply about Tóibín’s vision is that, as he tells it, there really are costs to such an extraordinarily intellectual life. It isn’t easy to be “one of those on whom nothing is lost”: The Master is suffused with melancholy, and with a strange, contradictory longing for decisive moments that never quite arrive, for connections that are never quite achieved. Every time Henry ventures further out into the world, whether literally or emotionally, just as promptly he retreats. For him, to be fully himself is, paradoxically, to be distant from himself; his best company, it sometimes seems, is his memory, but that is an equivocal solace:

Alice was dead now, Aunt Kate was in her grave, the parents who noticed nothing also lay inert under the ground, and William was miles away in his own world, where he would stay. And there was silence now in Kensington, not a sound in the house, except the sound, like a vague cry in the distance, of his own great solitude, and his memory working like grief, the past coming to him with its arm outstretched, looking for comfort.

The Master overall is a mournful book, as if the great achievements of its protagonist came, in some sense, at the his own expense. But at the same time, Tóibín shows us a Henry who is happiest precisely at that remove from liveliness. I was struck, at the very end, by the unexpected image of young Henry wholly absorbed in David Copperfield, reading, as David himself says, “as if for life.” In some ways it’s hard to imagine a less Jamesian novel than David Copperfield: although both David and Henry find their vocation in writing fictions of their own, David — and Dickens — has a vitality I’ve never found in James. Tóibín’s Henry seems at once wistfully aware that such energetic engagement is not for him and quietly content that it should be so — that he should be, at the end of the day (at the end of his days) alone with his thoughts.

2 Comments to “The Old High Art of Fiction”: Colm Tóibín, The Master

  1. April 19, 2016 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Curiously, I am also reading this book at this very moment. Unlike you, I am a huge and unqualified admirer of James; like you, I love Tóibín’s book. I’d read most of the biographies he used to gather material for the book—Edel and Novick are the highlights—so I can say that he is astonishingly accurate in his portrayal of James’s life (barring, naturally, such things as the scenes where James weeds through Constance’s papers to remove references to himself and his sister—which no one has any way of knowing that he did; though it seems like something he might do). Moreover, literally every page is sprinkled with multiple phrases and sometimes whole sentences taken from James. To me this interpolation of actual words from letters, journals, and books is the greatest formal achievement of the novel, because Tóibín does it seamlessly, the style of the whole seems like his own, and you can only really tell if you pay close attention to the punctuation (James used commas differently than Tóibín does, and I suspect that every dash and most semicolons to be found in this novel are from James). But the really astonishingly beautiful thing, as you so well describe it here, is the thesis about James’s life as a writer, and its emotional costs, that the novel puts forward. It’s also fun to see Tóibín slip in figures and scenes that are obviously meant as inspirations for some of the major works, The Turn of the Screw, the Aspern Papers, etc. For the dedicated Jamesian like myself, the book offers the secondary pleasure of guessing what great short story of novel or novella is being alluded to in some of the scenes Tóibín makes up. Since you liked the novel so much, next time you feel inclined to grapple with James himself, might I suggest the little book entitled All a Novelist Needs, which collects Tóibín’s nonfiction writings about James—it also includes some stuff he wrote reflecting on his own process in writing the novel, which is fascinating. (For example: how he connected James to his own preoccupations with Ireland, or how a visit to James’s Lamb House gave him something he needed for his story.)

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