"The Master" by Colm Toibin

What made Henry James a great writer? In Colm Toibin's richly rewarding new novel about the Anglo-American literary giant, it's the same thing that made him miss his best opportunities for happiness.

Published July 7, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

One kind of writer sets out for a dinner party or other social event hoping against hope that someone there will have read his work or at least know his name. The other, more rare, wishes for the opposite. Henry James, at least as envisioned by Colm Tóibín in his new novel based on James' life, "The Master," belongs to the second category. Tóibín's novel takes place over the course of four years at the end of the 19th century, when the middle-aged James has secured his reputation. He values that reputation, yet at the dinner table of an old friend, James finds that "remaining invisible, becoming skilled in the art of self-effacement, even to someone whom he had known so long, gave him satisfaction." It is, in Tóibín's view, "not a deliberate strategy, but it was central to his very presence in a room."

James famously described the ideal writer as someone "on whom nothing is lost," and he believed that the consummate observer must avoid calling attention to himself. The Henry James imagined by Tóibín (the Irish novelist whose previous works include "The Blackwater Lightship," "The Story of the Night" and "The Heather Blazing") is just such a person. He is able to read volumes of passion, grief and guilt into briefly glimpsed scenes, and writes again and again of "figures seen from a window or a doorway, a small gesture standing for a much larger relationship, something hidden suddenly revealed." It is a powerful gift, but one only available to a man who is an expert at hiding himself. Tóibín is saying that James' unwillingness to be seen and known (in the modern, psychological sense of those words) was fundamental to the novelist's personality, not just a technique for gathering material. And this quality, Tóibín believes, leads to a sadness that sits at the center of James' life, spreading slowly outward like the wine one of his characters spills on a tablecloth.

"The Master" is a lovely novel. It has the ripe stillness that James' own fiction evokes, a remarkable accomplishment when you consider that it isn't much like a James novel at all. It is structured as a portrait rather than a story, whereas James always had a plot, and Tóibín's style is mild and clear in contrast to the complex, knotted Jamesian prose that has driven so many undergraduates batty. Nothing is puzzled out or proven, only gently and unsurprisingly revealed. Really, "The Master" makes you feel, as you are reading it, the way James' fiction makes you feel only when you are thinking about it after reading it. What James lovers love is the way his writing lends itself to our contemplation -- like human beings themselves it is unresolvable, ambiguous. "The Master" is the contemplation, Tóibín's own resolution of the ambiguity in the fiction he has made of James' life.

In other words, it is one opinion on whether or not James lived fully. (And one with which Daniel Mendelsohn, in a review for the New York Times Book Review, persuasively differs.) You don't have to agree with it entirely (I don't) to find it rewarding. For Tóibín, James' artistry arises out of a lifetime of refusals -- of his homosexuality, of his homeland, of his family and finally of the woman who was his best friend and the closest thing the novelist ever found to a soul mate, Constance Fenimore Woolson. In daily interactions, too, Tóibín's James is a virtuoso of the fade, with a Jeevesian command of strategic tact; he shimmers in and out of rooms, noticing everything and expertly evading all attempts to pin him down.

This expertise has attuned him to the secret lives of those around him. In the first chapter, James receives a visit from a Russian princess, a woman he knew in his first years in Europe, when "the men and women in the salons of literary Paris moved like players in a game of knowing and not knowing, pretense and disguise. He had learned everything from them." The princess has maneuvered herself into a complicated and miserable fate, and like a lot of the people who pass across the pages of "The Master," she will be transfigured by James' imagination into literature. The individuals who most appeal to him -- unprotected children, thwarted women, Americans about to break their fresh spirits on the rocks of European worldliness -- represent (in the real James' words) "unwritten history ... the reverse of the picture." But in studying all this, he has failed to understand himself until it is too late.

Tóibín's James is elegiac and melancholy, aware at last of all that he has missed of life in his resolve to miss nothing that was going on around him. He can conjure the thoughts and feelings of scores of invented characters, yet he can't let himself imagine what might have happened if he had accepted his one unqualified invitation to sexual love. He can only cherish people and experiences that are already lost. He has become John Marcher, the hero of "The Beast in the Jungle," James' most chilling tale of emotional impotence. Even if you suspect that anyone capable of inventing Marcher must necessarily be larger than Marcher himself, there is some truth to this, and a terrible sorrow. And even if "The Master" does justice to Marcher without quite encompassing the infinite paradoxes of Marcher's creator, that makes it at least as fine as "The Beast in the Jungle" itself. And that is a very fine thing indeed.

Our next pick: Does the world really need another novel of teen angst? We dunno -- but Stella's plan to kill herself may break your heart

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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