By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Photo by Bruce Weber|
In the months after his fourth novel, The Blackwater Lightship, was delivered for publication — it would go on to be nominated for the Booker Prize in London — Irish author Colm ToibĂn had the idea to write a book about five years in the life of the novelist Henry James. “I didn’t think of the idea with any great delight because I didn’t think it would work,” ToibĂn said in a recent telephone interview. “But it would be something that I would do that everybody would say was a nice try.” The result, The Master, is a very nice try indeed. At once stately and intricate, beautifully written and deeply compelling, the novel has been a critical triumph in both Britain and America.
The book opens in January 1895 when, at age 52, Henry James is famously booed onstage after the opening performance of his first major play — a failure that makes James withdraw publicly and emotionally and sends him back to fiction. If, like me, you’re curious to see how ToibĂn’s version plays against the historical record, you’d likely go to Leon Edel’s classic five-volume biography of James, and pull out the one entitled The Master only to find that you have the wrong book; the Edel volume whose years actually correspond to ToibĂn’s novel is entitled The Treacherous Years.“Yes,” ToibĂn said. “My title is somewhat ironic. In these years, he’s not a master. He’s becoming one, but it doesn’t feel like that every day.”
The buzz about ToibĂn’s book suggested that it was a novel chronicling James’ homosexuality; and in ToibĂn’s first several chapters, when James seizes up at the mention of an old flame’s name, sparks with a handsome manservant in Ireland, and (in a flashback) spends a night nude and pressed up against Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the book seems headed in that direction. Then the narrative emphasis broadens, there are chapters on his two younger brothers, his sister Alice, and the two women who most impacted his life, his cousin Minny Temple and the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson.
“The last thing in the world I wanted to do,” said ToibĂn, “was confine the emotional and artistic life of Henry James to a closeted homosexuality, which is the key to it all. My own experience [as a gay man] in the public world has been richer than that . . . And especially with James, where the level of creation was supreme — he remains one of the supreme creators we have — we must allow his life full amplitude, which includes homosexuality and includes a great love of his family, many matters, because of course he was one of the most sensitive and sensuous and serious people who has lived . . .”
ToibĂn began writing the book in a house outside of Florence in March 2000 and, once he had the first chapter, let the project sit for 18 months while he worked out the structure, researched and visited “James’ places” — Rome, Venice, London, Lamb House in Rye, and Newport, Rhode Island. During this time, he also spent nine months on a fellowship at the New York Public Library. (“I was there for the last year of innocence,” he said.) By the time he sat down to write the rest of the book in September of 2001, he had a complete plan, from which he deviated very little.
“I start with the failure in the theater because it was public and dramatic and because it would hold the reader. The years of [James’] triumph in London, his social triumph — they didn’t interest me at all. And therefore [I wrote] this opening, and how he deals with the next five years building up to the writing of the three miraculous last novels — The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl — but it looks as though he’s written his life’s work, and he will now know only failure. These years are more interesting for a novelist than years of triumph or years of pure, unstarved industry.”
The writer of historical fiction walks a thin line between dramatizing and staying true to the historical record. “All I’m doing is taking from half a sentence or a sentence, a sentence from a letter or even a whole letter of his and making a scene,” said ToibĂn. “I made up very little.” To his own surprise (if not ours), he found that much of what he chose to dramatize had, in fact, a large autobiographical component. “I was never going to write my own story,” he said, “but when I was finishing the book, I began to realize that certain things I had chosen for personal reasons echoed certain things that really happened to me.”
Some of these parallels, he allowed, were very private. Of the public ones, he described the evening he spent at a ceremony when his previous novel, The Blackwater Lightship, was a finalist for the Booker Prize in London. “They film you having dinner, and film you throughout the main judge’s speech. ‰ You really don’t know who’s won. They have six cameras, one on each author, and when it’s announced, everyone cheers, and then when you haven’t won, as I didn’t, they push you out of the way. And that was the opening of the book, in the theater, the sense of, not of deep humiliation but nonetheless . . .” He laughed. “So I was unconsciously using things, and I think that goes right through the book.” Of course, the sympathy between author and subject adds to the book’s emotional weight and resonance.