Sunday, 29 May 2011

The Master

The  Master - Colm Tóibín
(Winner of the 2006 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award)

As a sheet of blotting paper is dipped in lysergic acid so the pages of this book are dipped in regret. Regret begat of the fear of failure, the fear of touch, a life lived, perhaps, too carefully.
This is a picture of a man who, in Tóibín's reading of him, chose mastery above company, above love. The book deals with Henry James in his late fifties as the nineteenth century comes to a close. It is a window into those times and allows Tóibín to explore moral hazard, homosexuality at the time and the relationship between the English and the Irish.
The novel opens with the build up to the opening of James' play Guy Domville and it's success/ failure is compared with that of the success du jour Oscar Wilde who has many plays playing simultaneously and is in many ways the antithesis of James.

"Instantly, as soon as he set foot on the pavement outside the Haymarket, he became jealous of Oscar Wilde. There was a levity about those who were entering the theatre, they looked like people who were prepared to enjoy themselves thoroughly. He had never in his life, he felt, looked like that himself."
Wilde, as we know, was consumed by his infatuation and foolhardiness while James' careful steps saw him survive and prosper. After Wilde had been sentenced James and fellow writer Edmund Gosse discuss how the Wilde case would have interested their mutual acquaintance John Addington Symonds.
"Symonds" "became an expert on another more dangerous matter, what he called a problem in Greek ethics, the love between two men."..."He sent his book on the matter to those in England whom he thought might initiate a debate. Many who received the book were infuriated and embarrassed. Symonds wanted it brought into the light, discussed openly, and this Henry remarked to Gosse at the time, was a sign of how long he had been out of England, how many years he had been basking in the Italian sunshine."
This James is certainly not someone who broadcasts his personal preferences or who attempts to change the political status quo. He tells us that he is just a storyteller and of one of his stories he says "The moral is the most pragmatic we can imagine, that life is a mystery and only sentences are beautiful, and that we must be ready for change, especially when we go to Paris, and that no one,' he said raising his glass, 'who has known the sweetness of Paris can properly return to the sweetness of the United States.'
The story is described thus:
'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."
"there is also a man in a different story who goes to Paris from New England. He is an American of middle age, with much intelligence and a sensuous nature which has remained hidden throughout his life. He sees Paris and understands, like the man in the earlier story, that it is our duty to live all we can, but it is too late, or perhaps it is not."
To paraphrase the bard, the James who emerges from this book is one for whom discretion is the greater part of honour. We are left to decide whether this book, which Tóibín tells us is peppered with lines from the work and letters of James*, is a true picture or just a discreet one. It is also to be wondered if this helped or hampered his work. A line suggests one possible answer, but this relates to a specific relationship, not his work: "He had his reasons for choosing to remain alone; his imagination, however, had stretched merely as far as his fears and not beyond."

This is a rich, stately and rewarding book that is similar in many ways to Tóibín's earlier The Heather Blazing (the only other book of his that I have read) in it's balancing of the pros and cons of how a public life is lived. 
It paints a shadow picture of a James who flowered emotionally and consummated his desires and put his  powerful intellect to the cause of homosexual freedom and was more prepared to embrace his Irish background and speak unwelcome truths to the English aristocrats in his social circle. However, Wilde remains a warning of how indiscretion could lead to tragedy. We lost one too early -  to lose both would look like carelessness. I will certainly read more of both Tóibín and James and find them richer for having read this.

*This is a book that cries out for a critical edition, with all the quotations from James and their sources marked and annotated. 

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