In 1999, the year he edited the Penguin "Book of Irish Fiction," Colm Toibin was a guest at a social hosted by the Irish Embassy in Washington. Toibin read later that evening from something "new" that he was working on, about Henry James (1843-1916), the American-born writer, who lived most of his life in Paris, Rome, Venice and London.
Five years later Toibin's fine novel, "The Master," appears. Toibin has picked up on the tone, the introspection, the muted sexuality, humor and cadences of Jamesian writing, but not its long-windedness. Readers know James' other work included "Daisy Miller," "The Portrait of a Lady," "The Bostonians," "The Ambassadors," more than 20 novels in all, and innumerable stories, including "The Turn of the Screw" and plays.
James was a gentleman, born into a family of intellectuals, uncertain of his own sexuality. Toibin is sensitive to this aspect of James, as he is himself a writer who is gay.
The plot line of "The Master" is a reprise of five years of James' life. At the start, James is cramped for money. He is living in London, finishing up his first play, "Guy Domville," a dreadful, boring piece of business. Near the end, the actor playing Domville declaims: "I am the last, my lord, of the Domvilles." Someone from the gallery shouted: "It's a damned good thing you are!"
The play is a disaster and, in counterpoint, Oscar Wilde has two hits running in London, one of which replaces James' failed attempt at maintaining his high standards, stringent artistic requirements and making money by educating the masses. No wonder James worried about money. Standards, art and education are a tough trifecta.
There are reflections by James of his early life in Boston and Newport, with his siblings, especially his younger brother, Wilky, who was wounded in the Civil War. James' own "obscure hurt" that kept him from serving in the Civil War is mentioned. Leon Edel, James' biographer, suggested it might be of a sexual nature. In "The Master," it turns out to be a backache.
Toibin does an exceptional job in describing James' friendships. There are long episodes that include William Dean Howells, the American writer, whose advice he takes in developing commissions from editors in the United States. We are treated to Lady Wolseley's "eye, the eye that misses nothing, can see how a Queen Anne chair can be restored, or a faded tapestry hung in the shadows, or a painting bought for the frame"; these things are helpful as James restores the home he chooses in England, Lamb House in Rye. Edmund Gosse, the English poet, author and critic, gives the master lessons. The importance of James' beautiful cousin, Minnie Temple, who serves as a model for women in his novels, is acknowledged. One senses that Minnie would have liked more attention from her cousin.
James' friendship with American writer Constance Fenimore Woolson is dealt with deftly, touching upon James avoidance of any responsibility when she takes her own life. All this is a raid on Jamesian memory, what critic Adam Mars-Jones calls "asymmetrical intimacies with clever women," and nicely done by Toibin.
Toibin's rendering of James' interest in men is subdued. For example, "He studied William's drawing closely -- and at some length his naked cousin's perfect gymnastic figure, his strength, and his calm sensual aura." The writing is true to James' understatement. Sculptor Hendrik Anderson's visit to James' home in the novel is another instance of sexual shadow-boxing: mostly hints and feints, no body blows.
James comes across as retreating from life. He abjures responsibility beyond observance of the passing parade and attention to his own personal comforts.
Near the end of "The Master," William, James' older brother and Harvard psychologist, asks the fictional Henry what the moral of his writing might be. Henry James replies: "The moral is the most pragmatic we can imagine, that life is a mystery and that only sentences are beautiful, and that we must be ready for change."
This prospect, while beautiful, may seem small beer. But it wasn't to James, and that's the point and, perhaps, the pity.
By Colm Toibin
338 pages, $25
Michael D. Langan is a frequent News book reviewer.