Observer review: The Master by Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín adopts the register of Henry James in a sympathetic and triumphant novel, The Master

The Master
by Colm Tóibín
Picador £16.99, pp360

There's little in Colm Tóibín's previous work, to some of which this reviewer has been immune or even mildly allergic, to prepare for the startling excellence of his new novel. The Master is a portrait of Henry James that has the depth and finish of great sculpture. For decades now, anyone interested in this fascinating, infuriating figure has been unfailingly directed to Leon Edel's massive biography (which has pride of place in Tóibín's acknowledgments). It may be time at last to change the signposts. The Master pays ample homage to James, without suppressing a prickle of critique.

The pillars of the narrative are failure, avoidance, renunciation and withdrawal. Unpromising quartet, but appropriate to a life without obvious eventfulness, and a work with a strong, negative dynamic, structured round the missed opportunity, the faulty choice, the golden bowl with its latent crack, the 'beast in the jungle' whose annihilating leap is delayed and delayed.

Tóibín's starting point is the most painful public event of James's life, the dramatic failure of a drama. On the disastrous opening night of James's play Guy Domville, the applause of James's friends was drowned out by the jeering of an audience that wanted incident and emotion, not anaemia in three acts. After this fiasco, James reconsecrated himself to fiction, but first he visited Ireland, hoping to escape the echoes of his London failure.

Tóibín shows James missing nothing, but refusing almost everything as literary material or personal priority. On these pages, he abstains in short order from politics, history, sexuality and the expression of emotion. He has the exile's advantage and handicap, of being 'too alert... to be able to participate'. He sees the grotesque shams of British rule, but doesn't adopt anti-imperialism as a cause, as his tragic sister Alice had. An impertinent stranger seeks to humiliate him by referring to his family's humble Irish roots, and a woman he had imagined his friend makes no protest. He leaves their company as soon as he can, but even the sting of British snobbery isn't enough to make him find his origins interesting.

Returned to London, and writing again, James receives regular bulletins about Oscar Wilde. It was a play of Wilde's that he attended on that terrible first night, being too keyed-up to watch his own, and it was another piece of Wilde's which replaced Guy Domville. Now that Wilde has his own disaster, James listens attentively but without betraying any personal interest. Edmund Gosse wonders if James himself might not have some secrets to protect, which would make the night boat to France attractive, but as James hears the details of the scandal, it is the fate of Wilde's abandoned children which touches his heart and imagination.

Wilde functions in the book rather as he did in Stoppard's play about AE Housman, as an anti-type. Wilde was a self-destructive butterfly, a florid imago torn by the beaks of the law and the press, while others remained at the pupal, even the larval stage of eroticism. Nevertheless, Tóibín has had the courage and tact to include one scene of something like sexual experience for the young James. This is a remarkable feat, given that James naked was some thing that even James seems to have had difficulty imagining.

The novel covers a period of five years, during which James was becoming, indeed, 'the Master'. It also deals with earlier passages in his life, from childhood on. In Tóibín's understanding, and perhaps also in James's, the past everywhere underlies the present without doing anything as dreary as explaining it.

Looking back, James takes the measure of his own consecrated egotism, which led for instance to asymmetrical intimacies with clever women. Their needs engaged and moved him, without abolishing the tender distance from which he observed them.

One extraordinary passage deals with the Civil War, a cataclysm supported by the unpredictable Henry James Snr, but one from which both William James (whose later fame was as a psychologist and philosopher of religion) and Henry Jnr managed to exempt themselves, though a younger brother fought and suffered horribly.

On the day that Wilky James's regiment, the famous 54th (notable for its large number of black volunteers) left Boston with much pomp, William had an important laboratory experiment to perform, while Henry wrote to his mother that back pain might prevent his attending. He was having a relapse of the hypochondria in which she had colluded.

Tóibín's writing, though, finds something in Henry's state of mind beyond cowardice or guilt, a keynote softly being struck: 'When everyone else had fire in their blood, he was calm. So calm that he could neither read nor think, merely bask in the freedom that the afternoon offered, savour, as deeply as he could, this quiet and strange treachery, his own surreptitious withdrawal from the world.' It's possible to feel that the greatness of James's mind was a sort of immense littleness.

The habit of avoiding conflict was deeply ingrained in James. As Tóibín describes it, when his butler at Lamb House in Rye became a habitual drunkard, James's preferred solution was to eliminate soups and gravies from the menu, substances which betrayed lurching, and to seat his guests with their backs to the dining-room door, so that they wouldn't observe Smith's robotic progress out of the room.

The least successful passages in the book are the ones that deal with James turning anecdotes or observations into stories and novels. He observes an ambiguous child playing at innocence. What Maisie Knew! He hears about an American paying court to a great-niece of a lover of Byron, his real interest being some literary remains of Shelley. The Aspern Papers! Reading an old letter from his great friend, the invalid Minny Temple, he imagines a suitor for her, who would embody in more active form his own mixture of devotion and betrayal. The Wings of the Dove!

James's style is one of the most distinctive in the language, somehow surviving both self-parody and parody, from Beerbohm to Louis Wilkinson/ Marlow (in whose scurrilous version even an ejaculation in a gentleman's library becomes 'a devolvulently blanching stain').

Tóibín has been wise about which elements to adopt, which to jettison. He borrows James's vocabulary and register, but not the whole manner. Above all, he abstains from the long sentence, which made so many of James's effects possible - the oracular murmur, the air of paralysed scruple, the flaunted subtlety (God, how the man could badger a nuance). There was always wit in James, but the long sentence drowned it.

Those long sentences were tracts of prose in which James could play, sing and spout like a frock-coated whale, or else disappear inside a cloud of his own secreted ink like a giant squid of New England gentility. We shall not read their like again, with any luck. At the beginning of the book, Tóibín can only be at a disadvantage, since his writing is so much thinner in texture than the original, but long before its end he has achieved a triumph on his own terms.


Adam Mars-Jones

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Observre review: Absolute Friends by John le Carré

John le Carré is still unequalled as he combines the personal with the political and gives another masterclass in the thriller writer's art, Absolute Friends

Robert McCrum

07, Dec, 2003 @12:20 AM

Article image
Audio: Jan 11

Kim Bunce on Absolute Friends

Kim Bunce

11, Jan, 2004 @12:19 AM

Article image
Observer review: Supping With the Devils by Hugo Young

Hugo Young's collection of political commentary, Supping With the Devils, bears witness to the power of his journalism, says Sunder Katwala

Sunder Katwala

19, Jul, 2003 @11:51 PM

Observer review: At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill

Jamie O'Neill's fine novel about two boys in 1915, At Swim, Two Boys, audaciously revisits Ulysses

Adam Mars-Jones

16, Sep, 2001 @2:09 AM

Theatre: Krapp's Last Tape, Royal Court | The Cryptogram, Donmar | Caroline, or Change, Lyttelton | Spamalot, Palace

Theatre: Harold Pinter gives the performance of his life in Beckett's most haunting play, while Spamalot hoists high the banner for silliness, says Susannah Clapp.

Susannah Clapp

22, Oct, 2006 @10:56 PM

Jason Burke talks to young author, Faïza Guène

Faïza Guène, a Muslim teenager from a Paris housing estate, tells Jason Burke how a life struggling with two cultures translated into a surprise bestselling novel.

Jason Burke

23, Apr, 2006 @12:06 AM

JM Coetzee: The voice of Africa

Robert McCrum on Nobel Prize-winner JM Coetzee's timeless brilliance

Robert McCrum

04, Oct, 2003 @11:18 PM

Classical: Budapest Festival Orchestra | Magdelena Kozena | Macbeth

Classical: Never has there been a better time to appreciate the genius of Beethoven, says Anthony Holden.

Anthony Holden

12, Jun, 2005 @1:06 AM

Farewell to rural Ireland's voice

Sean O'Hagan recalls the day he met the celebrated Irish writer John McGahern, who died last week.

Sean O'Hagan

01, Apr, 2006 @11:52 PM

Article image
Observer review: The Short Day Dying by Peter Hobbs

Peter Hobbs's debut, The Short Day Dying, is a masterclass in less is more, says Kirsty Gunn.

Kirsty Gunn

13, Mar, 2005 @1:34 AM