Novels about famous people rarely work. More often than not, a contemporary author takes the life of a deceased-but-once-living figure, embellishes the historical record to suit their agenda, and in the process commits the hyena/biographer act of pissing on the dead.
So the first good news about Colm Toibin's novel The Master, which is "about" Henry James, is that you don't need to know a thing about Henry James to enjoy the book. The second piece of good news is that if you do know things about Henry James -- or suspect things, since he was a private man -- you're likely to be impressed enough by Toibin's skill as an author not to be angry with the liberties that he does take.
In The Master, Toibin delicately and respectfully takes the figure of the celebrated American novelist and uses his peregrinations around Europe (when he was successful) and his recollections of his childhood in New England (when he was impressionable) to illuminate the artistic process. The result may not be entirely accurate with regard to James, but it is resolutely faithful in its view of the artistic process and the chain of memories that often hauls an artist's best work into the world.
Toibin's James is a deeply caring, impressionable man who has learned to walk through life wearing the armor of manners, collecting thoughts, impressions and characters for his novels. His work is methodical but circumspect. James looks deeply at everything. The pace of a conversation tells deeply about the characters who are having it. The repeated glances that a servant makes can open a well of speculation -- or discomfort -- in James. He is deeply emotional, but only when writing, and then only with great care.
Whether this is an accurate portrait of James, it is a vivid, living portrait of some character. And Toibin appropriately fills his book with rich, shrewdly observed Jamesian details. But Toibin, with his extravagant Irishman's gift for language, casts them in an entirely unique light. When describing James' famous privacy, Toibin shows the sort of passion that solitary individuals feel when they're alone, that artists feel when they create and readers experience when they're with their books. "He could neither read nor think, merely bask in the freedom that the afternoon offered, savor, as deeply as he could, this quiet and strange treachery, his own surreptitious withdrawal from the world."
Publication date: 07/15/04