Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Sunday Salon: Late Arrival

I know that, technically at least, it's really not Sunday anymore (well, not around here anyway). But it's Sunday somewhere, right? And since I've missed the Salon for the last few weeks, I just wanted to check in briefly – especially since I've actually done some reading today (on Sunday, that is).

Even though there were those playoff games to watch (I was kinda hoping Donovan McNabb might get another shot at winning the Big Game, but c'est la guerre, I guess). But over the years, I've learned to read while the NFL wars are raging on the TV screen in front of me. At least the Cowboys weren't involved – so M. wasn't jumping up and down and yelling things like "They're pathetic!" and "Romo, you idiot!" Today's session was really peaceful in comparison.

The book I've been immersed in today is Colm Toibin's The Master, based on the life of Henry James. In 2004, the book was short-listed for the Booker Prize and was also chosen by the New York Times as one of the ten most notable books of the year. I've had it on my TBR list since it first came out, and I'm really kicking myself now, for putting it off for so long. It's a fascinating book about a truly fascinating character. And it's making me want to do some research – I'd like to know just how close Toibin came to James's real persona.

It appears that he must have done an incredible amount of research – but then I'm no James expert. I've always loved the idea of reading Henry James more than the actual books themselves. Some of his shorter works are among my favorites – Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers, especially. But I find I lose interest in the longer novels, after a chapter or two. I used to feel guilty about that until one of my college English professors (who was a Medievalist, so I suppose he can be forgiven) said that Henry James was "all about whether I should have peas or carrots for lunch, and who the hell cares, anyway?"

Well, it's true that much of James's work is full of the trivialities of day to day life – or at least, life as lived by 19th century aristocrats. But I'm much more tolerant of that kind of writing now than I was when I was a twenty-year-old college student, just beginning to fall in love with English literature. Maybe if I read Portrait of a Lady today, the exploits and tribulations of Isabel Archer and her various suitors wouldn't bore me to tears again.

Right now, however, I'm going to get back to Toibin and his version of the Master. Henry and his brother William are studying law at Harvard and avoiding enlisting in the Union Army. And Henry has just decided that literature might be a more interesting study than the law. Right on.


  1. I'm glad to see that The Master is keeping your attention. I have it sitting here and keep intending to pick it up but am slightly afraid that I'll find it too heavy going to keep with it (especially since I seem able to stick with nothing reading-wise right now). Maybe your post will give me that extra little bit of encouragement I need to actually pick it up and dive in.

  2. I have not read the Master but it sounds interesting. I will add it to my list of must reads. Right now I'm reading Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle.

  3. I didn't care for The Portrait of a Lady but my favorite author was a close friend of James. Edith Wharton. I think their books played off each other quite a bit. But Edith was my kind of writer and Henry, well, I suppose I should give him another try. Someday.


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