Friday, May 29, 2009

Review: The Master

Written by Colm Toibin
Scribner, 2004; 338 pages
Originally published in Great Britain by Picador, 2004

"I have in mind a man who all his life believes that something dreadful will happen to him," Henry said. "He tells a woman of this unknown catastrophe and she becomes his greatest friend, but what he does not see is that his failure to believe in her, his own coldness, is the catastrophe, it has come already, it has lived within him all along." [p. 334]

I've never been a huge Henry James fan. Although two of his shorter works, The Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw are among my favorite novellas, I've generally found his longer novels hard work. I tend to agree with one of my old college professors who used to say that Henry James was "all about whether I should have broccoli for lunch, or whether I should have carrots, and who the hell cares anyway." Of course, that prof was a Medievalist, so I suppose his opinions on Victorian novelists don't carry much weight. But I always thought it sounded perfectly accurate.

However, the story of Henry James the writer and the man is something that's always intrigued me. So I was eager to read The Master, Colm Toibin's fictionalized portrait of James. The book was highly praised by critics, and honored with several awards, including the 2006 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Los Angeles Times Novel of the Year, the Stonewall Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award. It was also shortlisted for the 2004 Booker Prize, and was listed by The New York Times as one of the ten most notable books of 2004. Needless to say, my expectations were high.

And I was not disappointed. The Master is a fascinating blend of fact and invention, offering a poignant image of James and just how many sacrifices he made to become a great writer. James never married, never resolved his sexual identity; he had problems with intimacy and close friendships throughout his life. As Toibin has said, James missed out on a lot of things in life because he spent so much time working. And although the work itself gave him great satisfaction, and not doing it would have made him unhappy, there's little doubt that his private life and personal relationships suffered because of the work.

Rather than trying to portray James's complete life story in a straightforward narrative, Toibin has chosen to show us several dramatic episodes in that life – eleven episodes, set between January 1895 and October 1899: from the disastrous reception of James's stage play Guy Domville, to the acquisition of his beloved Lamb House in Rye. During this period, although many of his greatest works were completed or yet to be written, he produced The Turn of the Screw, What Maisie Knew, and The Awkward Age. And for me, one of the most interesting aspects of The Master was the way in which Toibin allows us to watch James receiving the inspiration for these works, and then doing the research and writing. I suppose there's no way of being certain that this is how the great man did what he did, but it's a terrifically absorbing speculation.

Challenges: 20 in 2009; 2009 TBR (Lite); Book Awards II; Read Your Own Books (RYOB); Winter Reading '08-'09


  1. So is it more a volume of linked short stories? Sounds like an interesting book. Nice review, Joy.

  2. The award logo is finally up, for the Heartfelt Award I gave you on my blog! Sorry for the delay in getting the pix on the post.

  3. I've had this on list tbr for ages - I am a fan of Henry James, and his life is fascinating. Does Constance Fenimore Woolson appear in this novel?

  4. Mary--
    Thanks. Well, not exactly like short stories. More like long individual scenes in a play.

    Book Bird Dog--
    Thanks very much for the award! It was so sweet of you to think of me.

    Yes, the book does a really good job of portraying James's complicated relationships with several women. Both Woolson and his cousin Minnie Temple make appearances.


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