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 Toibín 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,” Toibín 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 Toibín’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 Toibín’s novel is entitled The Treacherous Years. “Yes,” Toibín 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 Toibín’s book suggested that it was a novel chronicling James’ homosexuality; and in Toibín’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 Toibín, “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 . . .”

Toibín 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 Toibín. “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.

Toibín’s skill and authority are such that the line between fact and authorial fancy is largely invisible. James’ struggle with a pair of alcoholic servants; his disposal of Constance Woolson’s dresses in the sea near Venice; the collusion of his mother with his hypochondria are rendered with breathtaking vividness. I did, however, take issue with Toibín’s portrayal of sibling rivalry between Henry and his older brother, the philosopher and psychologist William James — because he shows the latter to a great disadvantage. Granted, William James often played the smug, condescending older brother, but does he really deserve to be portrayed as writhing, moaning and whimpering in terror in a fetal curl on the floor in Henry’s guest bedroom? Wasn’t that, I asked Toibín, just a little bit naughty?

Toibín defended his take on the rivalry (“Some of the letters from William to Henry are astonishing”); he said he based the “fit” on fact (in an essay, Louis Menand suggested that William James had such episodes throughout his life). When I persisted in defending William, Toibín put his foot down. “This is Henry’s book, in which William is a nuisance!”

All told, Toibín’s portrait of Henry James is powerful, moving and whole; nevertheless, it is the portrait of a man who is unremittingly restrained, repressed, often almost grim and devoid of the humor and wit and cleverness that shine through James’ fiction and letters, even during these treacherous years. The Spoils of Poynton, the first book written after his theatrical failure, is an exquisite comedy, full of quiet wit.

“There is that orotund, jocular, sometimes very sharply comic tone of his,” Toibín agreed. “And no, I didn’t do that. In the Oscar Wilde chapter, there’s some of it. But I was trying to deal with the solitary self rather than the social one . . . I was trying to deal with him alone,” Toibín said, then dropped his voice to a whisper. “I don’t think people are funny when they’re alone . . . I don’t really.”

In writing a book about James, Toibín wisely, even brilliantly, did not attempt to imitate James’ idiosyncratic sentences. “I tried just to find a style that was slightly less Hemingwayesque than what I’ve done before, to pretend that Hemingway had never existed.” Nor has his immersion in James’ work, he said, made a lasting impact on his prose. As the author of five distinctly different novels, he normally shifts gears rather drastically between projects. Currently, he is writing a book of short stories about provincial life in Ireland — “written very simply” — and says he has “a novel in my head, a very different novel, set in provincial Ireland in the very last years of the ’60s, but not a ’60s anyone will recognize.” Toibín has also finished his first play that will be produced at the Peacock Theater in Dublin in mid-August. We wish him the best of luck with that — and a far merrier opening night than that accorded to The Master.

THE MASTER | BY COLM TOIBÎN| Scribner | 338 pages | $25 hardcover

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