The Historical Novel, Part 2: The Master

Colm Toibin’s novel The Master is, in many ways, the opposite of Parrot and Olivier in America: it tells the story of the iconic American writer Henry James’ last years living in Britain. One of the central themes of the novel, like James’ own work, is the perception of the American abroad. I was struck, not only by Toibin’s wonderful recreation of Jamesian prose in a contemporary light, but by his ability to fully encompass the wide range of various types ex-patriots and the perception of an American viewing his other compatriots abroad.

It is hard to necessarily label James as starkly American, but the book incorporates a wide range of motifs from James’ childhood, attempting to understand why a man so thoroughly known in the American literary world would choose to exile himself in Europe. When reading one of James’ novels, as I previously described in my entries about The Portrait of the Lady, American history and culture is thrown to the background, only resurfacing when some bumbling cousin arrives newly abroad. But Toibin suggests that James is not necessarily one of his characters—his Americanism is every present as Toibin drifts between past and present, seamlessly recreating James’ life in Newport, Connecticut, with an overly intellectual father, a hyper competitive brother, and an odd sister. And yet, what seems to constantly dominate James’ thoughts are his failures, whether it be his first play, the point at which the novel begins, or his lack of social understanding while visiting “friends” in Ireland.

Toibin also explores some of the controversial aspects of James’ biography—his sexuality, his friendship with Constance Fenimore Woolson and her suicide, and his possibly homoerotic friendship with sculptor Hendrik Christian Anderson. But Toibin skirts around directly addressing any of these issues by making a blunt assertion and instead creates a portrait of a man, who is so deeply introspective and lost to us that even the fictive James cannot directly answer the questions we are dying to know.

What makes Toibin’s novel great is that he creates the interiority of Henry James and yet gives nothing away. James is so afraid to engage in anything that we, like Toibin, can only guess at what he was really like. But he also asserts that we do not need to know exactly what made James tick in order to appreciate his genius. In fact, in speculating, we are reducing the mystique of a man who himself did not need care what others perceived about his personal life. We only have to read his books to understand that the one thing he cared about was the outsider’s experience. And that outsider? Well it really could be anyone.

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