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Henry James:

The Master and the Master

Strether couldn't have said he had during the previous hours definitely expected it; yet when, later on, that morning - though no later indeed than for his coming forth at ten o'clock - he saw the concierge produce, on his approach, a petit bleu delivered since his letters had been sent up, he recognized the appearance as the first symptom of a sequel.

There are no sentences like the foregoing in Colm Tóibín's new novel The Master (Scribner, 2004), but its author has nevertheless atomized the Jamesian style into a convincingly atmospheric spray. Without imitating (or attempting to imitate) Henry James, Mr Tóibín writes about him in a voice that seems impressively true to its subject. Here and there he borrows a turn of phrase, or injects that most characteristic note of the Master's style - hesitation - into the narrative, but unlike the formidable novel from which I've chosen a sentence of only medium density (The Ambassadors), The Master is not at all difficult to read; it does not, as so much late James does, cry out to be read aloud. It does, however, cry out to be read, at least to those who might be curious about one of literature's most complex personalities. I am not quite sure of this novel's readership; I hope, in any case, that it is not limited to people who have worked their way through James's major novels, including the three 'late' ones, because that will mean a great many remainders. Those who haven't read James since college will find in The Master an appealing refresher, and perhaps even the inspiration to tackle James once again. (In this regard it parallels the parts of Michael Cunningham's The Hours that open up the life of Virginia Woolf.) One feels that the subject would not altogether disapprove of his portrait, or at any rate that he would have no good reason to do so. Understated as my estimate might sound, I think it's a compliment that it would be hard to top.

Writing about a man who consecrated himself to discretion inevitably puts Mr Tóibín in James's own position as a novelist, with an especially imposing mandate to show without ever telling. The pleasure of reading The Master comes in no small part from making the connections that the author so fastidiously avoids. Like James, moreover, Mr Tóibín is a master of humorous understatement. In the servant-problem intermezzo of Chapter Eight, a helpless James is beset by the collapse of Mr and Mrs Smith, his butler and cook, into extreme dissipation. James's pivotal move, from London to the seaside at Rye, has unmoored the couple and propelled Mr Smith from 'maintenance' into dysfunction. As for his wife,

He was not sure of the extent of Mrs Smith's drinking. She ran her kitchen smoothly; her cooking, as it were, did not falter. Her appearance in the morning, however, grew more slovenly and her response to the news of more visitors increasingly bellicose. Her hair hung dangerously close to where the pots and pans might be. Nor did the state of her fingernails inspire confidence. He wondered if she knew why he had suspended soup when there were visitors, and gravy, too, as well as any of the more runny sauces. Mr Smith could not be counted on to deliver them safely to the table.

The writing here nicely echoes James's style; it does not reproduce it.

Henry James was a prince of indirection. He seems never to have encountered anything that wouldn't be best approached by zigs and zags. His prose is a tapestry of muffling subordinate clauses, double negatives, pronouns of uncertain reference, and tremulous reflections. Consciousness registers in staggers, like fireworks at a slower tempo. James has a great deal to say about minute alterations of scene and mood, so that what would be given sensationalist treatment by a coarser hand becomes as haunting as any ghost story. One's ability to read James with pleasure depends in large part upon one's capacity for the prolonged sequence of unsettling creaks that is James's principal tool for increasing narrative tension. Almost all readers suffer moments of exasperation. Every once in a while, James seems to have mislaid significance altogether, leaving us with nothing but highly concentrated long-windedness. Such moments are, for the fan, rare. For the fan, reading Henry James is as fascinating as watching the controlled demolition, in slow motion, of an extraordinarily elaborate structure.

Mr Tóibín has set out to show us what kind of man would take such pains, and perhaps the most surprising thing about his portrait of the artist is the man's extreme reticence. For a writer of prodigiously wordy books, James appears to have been a man of few words, at least in conversation. He was a watcher and a listener, and he learned early to save everything for his fiction. In The Master, the touchstone of James's epiphany as a writer is the muddy, bloody, sweat-stained blanket in which his brother Wilky, severely wounded (and all but left for dead) at the charge of Fort Wagner, was returned to his parents' home. Wilky was so fragile that the doctor ordered his stretcher to be set down in the front hallway. A few days afterward, Henry quietly carried the discarded blanket away, and was overcome by its pungency. While writing a Civil War story some time later, he remembered the blanket with a transforming thrill:

When he began [to write the story], he was involved in a pure and artful invention ... He tried to work quickly so that there would be speed and flow to the narrative and, on one of these days, in the family's new rented quarters on Beacon Hill, something occurred to him which shocked him but did not cause him to stop. ... Suddenly, an image came to him and he held his breath for worry that he might lose it: "When Lizzie [the story's ingénue] was turned from John's door, she took a covering from a heap of draperies that had been hurriedly tossed down in the hall: it was an old army-blanket. She wrapped it round her and went out on to the verandah." ... The feeling of power was new to him. This raid on his own memories, this parading of an object so close to him, so deeply part of his own personal store that no one might ever know where this moment in his story came from, made him believe that he had done something daring and original. Now in the night, he wrote in this room in a rented house in the city, with his parents asleep close by, and his brother William and sister Alice and his aunt Kate also sleeping, Bob still at war, and Wilky returned once more to his regiment. And none of them, not even himself, was aware of what he had embarked upon, what he had discovered as he wrote.

James learned, according to this account, that to write compellingly he must write from experience - not in his day the literary axiom that it has become - and he was worldly enough to know that if his experiences were divulged independently of his fiction - if the people around him were to learn that he had actually seen or heard this or that - then the world would glaze over. He would not be allowed to observe it as he had to, quietly, transparently, and impassively. He learned not to betray what interested him or what caught his eye. (Mr Tóibín does suggest that James could not keep his attraction to handsome young men a secret from his more perceptive hostesses.) He became, in short, a mole. Eventually, everyone in his world knew that he was a sort of spy, but nobody knew exactly what intelligence he was gathering. Everyone knew, for example, that the Florentine house of émigré composer Francis Boott was the model for Gilbert Osmond's, in The Portrait of a Lady - as indeed the composer's physiognomy was itself borrowed for Osmond's. But there was nothing behind this patterning. Boott was a kindly, genial man, nothing like the serpentine Osmond. The source of Osmond's interior character must be looked for elsewhere - who knew where?

I don't think that Mr Tóibín's narrative scheme could be improved upon, or that one more appropriate to James could be found. Most of the eleven chapters of this novel (it seems more an active meditation than a fiction) begin at a moment in the 1890's but soon shift retrospectively to an episode from the writer's past. If the illumination becomes ever more bright, this is not because the episodes become ever more telling, burrowing ever more deeply into the core of James's character, but rather because their accumulation allows an ever more comprehensive view. The first backward glance is extremely oblique, hinting as it does at James's deliberate refusal, as a young man in Paris, to give free rein to his affectionate longings for another young man. Mr Tóibín has stated in interviews that he traces an instability in James's persona, manifested in several nervous breakdowns after the last novels were written, to sexual repression, and in The Master he so discreetly suppresses any suggestion of conscious homosexual impulse that we can feel the laboriousness of preventing one's own mind from letting dim suspicion flower into ripe awareness. The James that we're shown here had to work hard to keep his place in the dusky marches between innocence and self-deception.

James's vagueness naturally attracted a certain kind of woman - bright, independent, and unsure of her place in a changing world. On at least two occasions, he let these women down. The first was Minnie Temple, a radiant cousin who died very young of consumption, asked Henry to take her to Europe with him, but he pretended not to take her seriously, and she died feeling abandoned. In death, she became a constant muse, inspiring characters from Isabel Archer to Millie Theale. Much later, his friendship with the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson seems to have produced a disappointment that led the lady to kill herself at Venice. Learning of her death, James

now had to face the idea that he, in turn, had sent her powerful and subtle signals of his need for her. And each time it became apparent to him what effect they were having, he retreated into the locked room of himself, a place whose safety he needed as desperately as he needed her involvement with him.

One never thinks of attributing James's sexual resistance to shame. It is not a clear conscience that he sought to preserve; indeed, his conscience may never have been anything but cloudy. What James had to protect was his the secrecy of his attentiveness.  

It was a secrecy that sought to wield force at a distance by making things happen without ever saying a word. Readers who have marveled at the brilliantly silent battle that rages throughout the second half of The Golden Bowl, with Maggie and Charlotte fencing wordlessly through dozens and dozens of pages for possession of the Prince, will find a strange antecedent in the author's medical history. In 1861, with his younger brothers bounding off to war, Henry allowed his mother to make him out to be an invalid, suffering from an obscure back ailment. He said nothing about it, simply allowing himself to be confined and cosseted. Eventually, but without discussion, James and his parents realized that the condition required a positive diagnosis, and Henry, Sr took his son to see a specialist in Boston. The specialist pronounced the boy to be perfectly healthy, afflicted by nothing that a few days' hard work wouldn't cure. Father and son then came to the mutual but tacit understanding that the verdict would not be repeated to Mrs James. Worried that his father might now decide that he ought to fight the good fight (in which case he might very well sign Henry up without telling him), Henry cast about for another occupation, and hit upon law school. Good lawyers have to be able to write well, but there can never have been a good writer less destined for the law than Henry James. By the time he tired of this pretense, Wilky had been brought home, terribly wounded, and his parents' feeling about the war had soured. Henry no longer faced the danger of military misadventure.

How is one to judge so retracted a man, one so determinedly withdrawn from civil responsibility and personal intimacy? Mr Tóibín suggests no answer to this question; his interest lies in the toll that such evasion took on the private life of Henry James. But that private life was part of a larger life that comprised the composition of some of the most magnificent novels ever written in any language, and I have no compunction about offsetting James's less than admirable record for commitment with his stupendous achievement as an artist - and finding the debit quite erased. To the philistine who believes that such accounting amounts to applying special rules to artists, letting them get away with infractions not tolerated in ordinary citizens, I reply that it is the philistine who applies the special rules, in treating artistic accomplishment differently from other kinds of achievement. James may have been ruthlessly selfish, but the selfishness was in harness to the production of delight, and it is natural to forgive those who give us pleasure. And yet I saw quite clearly, as the last page of The Master got nearer, that Henry James was not somebody whom I should like to have known. Because he limited himself to an observer's role, the world became, I suspect, somewhat contemptible, and he responded to it with a brittle impatience that is not really concealed by his profuse commentary upon it.

In The Portrait of a Lady, James famously wrote that the two most beautiful words in the English language are "summer afternoon," and I was lucky enough to read The Master on two glorious summer afternoons in a remote corner of Connecticut, from which it was easy for the novel to transport me more than once to Gardencourt. A bare biography of Henry James would not have held my attention nearly so fast as Mr Tóibín's beautiful evocations of the Master's work. (September 2004)

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