Commentary on “The Master”

Isn’t it intriguing that after reading an entire novel based on the life of Henry James one is left wondering what it was all about. That was my reaction to Colm Toibin’s, “The Master”.

Had it not been for my deep admiration of James’ work and had it not been for the fact that Toibin’s book was to be discussed by our book club, I doubt that I would have persevered with it.

I have purposely not read any reviews of “The Master” so that I can offer my gut reaction.

Toibin begins the novel in 1895 when James’ play is badly received in London and so he reverts to his other type of writing. The novel then meanders from the present to the past and back again to the present many times.

The flashback method is often an effective way of providing a background to current events, but in this work, the reader is thrust back and forth like a dinghy in a stormy sea. One minute, James is deciding whether to lease a property in Rye, and then the next minute he is back in his family home having to endure some family conflict which happened thirty years earlier.

His family life is strained but nevertheless he has a privileged position in society. The James clan is rich and Henry doesn’t have to earn a living. In fact, when the American Civil War breaks out Henry stays home with his mother who mollycoddles him. Whilst his brothers enlist, he attends Harvard but never takes his law studies seriously.

He admits that he would rather remain cloistered in his room and read. There’s a lot of fraternising with famous writers and society ladies but he hardly becomes involved in any relationship. As Toibin points out:- “All of his friends knew not to make demands on him.”

That just about sums up the theme of “The Master.” James remains aloof and unaffected by what is going on around him. His sister’s death saddens him, while his friend’s suicide upsets him because he refused to keep her company when she asked him to come.
When his brother returns home seriously wounded during the Civil War, James is strangely unaffected. For a writer who dealt less with plot than character studies, Toibin portrays a rather Narcissistic James who prefers to stand outside as an observer. Perhaps that’s what James was like, but we will never know because “The Master” is a work of fiction based on a real-life person.

This approach by Toibin bothers me somewhat because it seems to want an easy way out. If it were a genuine biography of Henry James then other critics or historians could assess the validity of Toibin’s portrayal, but if it’s in the form of a novel, then the cop-out is that it’s a work of fiction.

Perhaps Toibin wants the best of both worlds in that he is quite absorbed by James and literally wants to be him for a day, so to speak, but he also wants a poetic licence to get away with stretching the truth.

One aspect of James’ life that Toibin obsesses about is his potential, latent, perhaps, maybe, repressed, homosexual tendencies. There are about four occasions in “the Master” during which James springs to life and these are when he becomes attracted to some young man. These are very much like puppy love and they are never consummated. One of his major interests, for example, is an American sculptor, Hendrik Christian Andersen, who resembles Oscar Wilde’s sulky love interest in that he is utterly manipulative and doesn’t give a hoot about James.

In reality, however, James could write passionately about his great love for several women in his life and these details are omitted in “The Master”. One, therefore, has to wonder about Toibin’s agenda in all this.

It looks as if my suspicions about an agenda were correct. I have just googled Colm Toibin and discovered that his novels deal mainly with homosexuality because he has had to come to terms with his own sexuality- “not that there’s anything wrong with it ” as the Seinfeld Show repeated over and over again.

The point that I am making is that writers inevitably bring all their baggage to their works and it was highly suspicious that James only came to life when confronted with the smooth male torso. I don’t in any way dispute Toibin’s assertions but even he, apparently a writer who, as I have just found out, is well-known in gay circles, could find no actual proof that James was gay.

From what I surmise, James appeared to be attracted emotionally to both sexes, but was perhaps not very sexual in a physical sense. He seems to have found an outlet for any feelings in his writing.

This is only a guess, however, for we can never really know all there is to know about another person.

My chief criticism of “The Master” is that it is long-winded in parts. Its characters are one-dimensional and the plot meanders sluggishly until it peters out at the end. It was a book I could put down and should have.

“The Master” by Colm Toibin was published by Picador in 2004.


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