The Master, Colm Tóibín’s engrossing novel about Henry James, is virtually plotless. Over the course of five years, James works, visit friends, and remembers significant events in his life and people who are important to him. At the same time he muses on how the people, tales they tell, or incidents he has observed have informed or will inform his writing.
I have often found James’s work perplexing, feeling as if there is a lot going on under the surface that I don’t understand. A novel about him, therefore, is not an intuitive choice for me. Nevertheless, I found myself extremely involved in this story about a man who appears to have always stood back and watched. In Tóibín’s view, James lived a life of “pure coldness.”
The book delicately depicts a complex man, social on the surface but always at an emotional remove from others, homosexual but so concerned about propriety and public opinion that he never acts on it (perhaps–that is not entirely clear) and avoids situations where he may be tempted. He is sometimes very cold in his inaction, such as when he deserts his best friend, Constance Fenimore Woolson, because she has been too open for his taste about their completely innocent relationship, causing some friends to blame him for her subsequent suicide.
The most fascinating part of the novel, in my opinion, is how it illuminates the way that a writer may take a situation, a sentence, thoughts about how a pair of people interact, and turn them into a complete work of fiction. For example, a tale told to him about two children alone on an estate reminds him of his relationship with his sister Alice. As children, both of them had been abandoned as their family toured Europe and have never been fully included in the events and emotions of the family. These memories finally emerge in the ghost story “The Turn of the Screw.” Similarly, his memories of his intelligent, vivacious cousin Minny Temple are brought back to life in first The Portrait of a Lady and then The Wings of a Dove.
Meticulously researched and beautifully written, The Master is an evocative novel about the inner life of an emotionally crippled writer.