The master : a novel

by Colm Toibin

Paper Book, 2005

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Scribner, 2005.

Description

"Colm Toibin tells the story of Henry James, an American-born genius of the modern novel who became a connoisseur of exile, living among artists and aristocrats in Paris, Rome, Venice, and London." "In January 1895 James anticipates the opening of his first play in London. He has never been so vulnerable, nor felt so deeply unsuited to the public gaze. When the production fails, he returns, chastened, to his writing desk. The result is a string of masterpieces, but they are produced at a high personal cost." "Colm Toibin captures the exquisite anguish of a man whose artistic gifts made his career a triumph but whose private life was haunted by loneliness and longing, and whose sexual identity remained unresolved. Henry James circulated in the grand parlours and palazzos of Europe, he was lauded and admired, yet his attempts at intimacy inevitably failed him and those he tried to love."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

Media reviews

''The Master'' is sure to be greatly admired by James devotees; just as surely it will strike less ardent readers as the kind of book in which not much actually happens.
1 more
Whatever Toibin's literary-critical and ideological interest in James, ''The Master'' is unquestionably the work of a first-rate novelist -- one who has for the past decade been writing excellent novels about people cut off from their feelings or families or both.

User reviews

LibraryThing member phebj
I started this book back in March and was captivated by the beginning. Unfortunately, it slowed down about 75 pages in and I put it aside for almost a month. I’m so glad I picked it up again because I ended up loving it.

It’s a fictionalized account of the life of the writer Henry James that takes place during the last five years of the 19th century when the work James was doing would earn him the nickname “The Master.” Each chapter is marked by a month and year in that period but Henry spends so much of his time ruminating about past events that you get a good picture of the course of his life up through his mid-fifties.

Toibin paints a picture of a man that was well-liked and a sought after guest at social affairs but one that relished his solitude. This was one of my favorite passages in the book:

"He loved the glorious silence a morning brought, knowing that he had no appointments that afternoon and no engagements that evening. He had grown fat on solitude, he thought, and had learned to expect nothing from the day but at best a dull contentment. Sometimes the dullness came to the fore with a strange and insistent ache which he would entertain briefly, but learn to keep at bay. Mostly, however, it was the contentment he entertained; the slow ease and the silence could, once night had fallen, fill him with a happiness that nothing, no society nor the company of any individual, no glamour or glitter, could equal."

The case builds throughout the novel that James was very repressed, especially sexually, but it’s hard to know how much this bothered him. He never married, never had children and often distanced himself from close friends and family but for the most part I didn’t see him as an unhappy person. He was a great observer of life and was successful at conveying that in his writing which he obviously derived a lot of satisfaction from.

I would highly recommend this book even if you know nothing about Henry James. It’s a beautiful portrait of a unique life that’s not to be missed.
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LibraryThing member baswood
The Master in question is Henry James and Tóibín has written an historical fiction which blurs the borders with biography. He has attempted to put his readers into the thoughts and feelings of James when he was already a successful author, revered and loved by many. His book starts with James unsuccessful attempts at becoming a playwright in 1895 and takes us through to 1899 when the author was 57 years old and still had what many critics believe to be his major achievements in front of him.

Tóibìn examines in some detail the themes that surround the life of this author; an American exiled in Europe writing about Americans abroad, his seemingly repressed sexuality (homosexuality). his difficulties in becoming intimate with any one human being and his ambiguity about his need for his own space and order in his life. As this is Tóibín writing, expect no sensationalism, but a sympathetic portrait that I think succeeds in getting under the skin of a gentle man who was a little out of step with the society that he portrayed so brilliantly in his novels. Tóibín’s understated prose fits perfectly with the character, who he succeeds in bringing to life in this compelling biography.

Henry James moved in the upper echelons of society, he came from a respected American family and could quickly adapt to living in England and the rest of Europe, he knew how to behave and his manners were impeccable. Towards the end of his book Tóibin has the Baroness von Rabe tell Henry James some home truths and as readers we wince at her accuracy, but it does not jolt our sympathy for him. The scene is at a gathering of American exiles in Rome and the Baroness succeeds in hitting her target when she says to him:

“I remember you when you were young and all the ladies followed you, nay fought with each other to go riding with you. That Mrs Sumner and young Miss Boott and young Miss Lowe. All the young ladies and those not so young. We all liked you and I suppose you liked us as well, but you were too busy gathering material to like anyone too much. You were charming of course, but you were like a young banker collecting our savings. Or a priest listening to our sins. I remember my aunt warning me not to tell you anything”
She leaned towards him conspiratorially.
“and I think that is what you are still doing. I don’t think you have retired. I wish however you would write more clearly and i’m sure the young sculptor, who is watching you, I’m sure he wishes the same.”


We know that this is not the whole story. Tóibín while describing the significant events in the years covered by the book also fills in important details of James’ earlier life, particularly his relationship with his brothers and sister and his family background. For example in the chapter dealing with May 1896; James is finding it difficult to write, he has a sort of repetitive strain injury and this leads him to reminisce about other issues that were important in his life and we learn about his family and their involvement in the American Civil War. This background ‘filling in’ becomes part of the biography and succeeds in presenting to us a full and rounded picture of Henry James. The first chapter headed January 1985 tells us about the opening night of James’ play Guy Domville. It is a disaster and James as a nervous author cannot bear to be in the theatre and takes himself off to a production of Oscar Willde’s The importance of Being Ernest. James does not like the play and significantly cannot understand why the audience finds it so amusing. James himself understands that the life of a playwright is exciting, the social interaction with directors and actors is stimulating, it is something he wishes he could do, but realises he is more suited to the lonely life of a novelist. The comparison with Wilde’s openly gay persona is also a marked contrast with Henry James’ closet homosexuality. It all points to one of the major themes of the book which is James’ inability for intimacy and it is this which Toibin suggests both shapes and defines his art.

Tóibin surmises that James felt intense guilt about his failure to do what was expected by friends who he became particularly close to. Others accuse him of not being there for a couple of his female friends at their time of need, and it is this which pushes Tóibíns book into the realms of conjecture. We cannot know what Henry James felt, but it is the novelists job to make us think that we do and this is what makes this meta biography such an absorbing read. The period detail is lovingly described and we sense Henry James’ pride in his position in the world. It is a biography that goes further than telling a story of a life and so it would appeal to readers who have not read, or even know nothing about Henry James. It is a portrait of a man and his times and for me a four star read.
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LibraryThing member janeajones
I found The Master, Tóibín's biographical novel about Henry James both fascinating and occasionally tedious. Tóibín uses a selective omniscient narrator to get into James's head to seemingly reveal how his reactions, musings and reminiscences informed the crafting of his novels. In actuality, however, what Tóibín has done is used the novels (and undoubtedly biographies and critical studies) to craft his own portrait of James in this novel. Tóibín creates a psychological portrait of James that resembles the kind of psychological portrait of characters created by Henry James himself. If that sounds circular, it is, but it is intriguing.

The action of the novel takes place from 1895-1899 when James was in his fifties. However we learn much about James earlier in his life as he remembers incidents and people from his younger days. The major people with whom James interacts are his siblings, William and Alice; his cousin, Minnie Temple; his friend, the novelist, Constance Fenimore Woolson; and the Scandinavian-American sculptor, Hendrik Christian Andersen. But James seems unable to form deeply intimate ties with anyone -- he needs his own space and solitude. Tóibín does not judge the Master -- he seeks to understand him.

As there are many allusions to the more famous of James's novel in this book, it helps to be somewhat familar with his work.
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LibraryThing member lilithcat
Five years in the life of Henry James, the late '90's, beginning with the production and abysmal failure of his play, Guy Domville. These are the years of What Maisie Knew, The Spoils of Poynton, The Awkward Age.

It is a dangerous thing to write a novel which is a psychological portrait of Henry James, the great master of the psychological novel. Tóibín succeeds wonderfully, avoiding the temptation to imitate James' style. (There is quite an amusing passage when Henry's elder brother, William, tries to tell him what he should write about and how. "Harry, I find I have to read innumerable sentences you now write twice over to see what they could possibly mean."

He has also shunned any sort of plot, preferring instead to simply give us a picture of James through his own thoughts, memories and actions. It is a complex picture, and ultimately a sad one.

James was an observer of life, more than a participant in its passions, yet Tóibín shows us the undercurrents. His James is not the repressed New Englander so often described, but more a man who, while having emotions, and recognizing them, cannot allow himself to be vulnerable to them. As a result, he may appear cold and unfeeling,. Indeed, when he is accused by his old friend, Oliver Wendell Holmes, of failing to take their friend, Minny Temple, to Italy, an act which might have mitigated the TB that killed her, he has to hunt up her old letters to see if she really did ask him to do that.

Anyone familiar with James' work will recognize those moments and ideas which will eventually be transmuted into various stories and novels. (It is, in fact, rather fun to say to oneself, "Aha! Turn of the Screw! ") Tóibín frequently alludes to the way in which all is grist to the writer's mill. It is not only James, of course. Describing James' trip to Venice after the suicide of his friend, the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, he writes: "This, he thought, was her last novel. They all played their assigned roles. He watched as the American women stood in her bedroom afraid to approach the window to the small balcony from which she had jumped. Constance would have been able to conjure up their stricken faces and would have known, too, that Henry James would have studied the women, observing them with cold sympathy. She would have smiled to herself at his ability to keep his own feeling a a great distance from himself, careful to say nothing. Thus the scene taking place in this room, each breath they took, the very expresssions on their faces, each word they left said and unsaid, all of it belonged to Constance. It was pictured by her with wry interest during the time when she knew she would die, Henry believed. They were her characters; she had written the script for them. And she knew that Henry would recognize her art in these scenes. His very recognition was part of her dream. No matter where he looked or what he thought, he felt the sharpness of her plans and a sort of sad laughter at how easy it was to manipulate her sister and her niece and how delicious to direct the actions of her friend the novelist who, it seemed, had wished to be free of her. "

Oscar Wilde is introduced as a counter-point to James, the man who indulged his passions juxtaposed with the man who refused them. As Wilde's triumphant dramatic career turns to ashes, James observes it in a detached, yet sympathetic, manner. Tóibín does not shirk the issue of James' sexuality (which, whatever his inclinations, he seems not to have indulged), and there is much homoeroticism here. James clearly recognizes his feelings (of a night spent platonically sharing a bed with Holmes, he " wondered if he would ever again be so intensely alive"). But he cannot give in to them.

Tóibín's James is a man who prefers to look on, sympathetically, ironically, indulgently, analytically, but alone and in control. At the end, his brother and his family having left after a visit, James returns home. "Lamb House was his again. He moved around it relishing the silence and the emptiness. He welcomed the Scot, who was waiting for him to begin a day's work, but he needed more time alone first. He walked up and down the stairs, going into the rooms as though they, too, in how they yielded to him, belonged to an unrecoverable past, and would join the room with the tasseled tablecloths and the screens and the shadowed corners, and all the other rooms from whose windows he had observed the world, so that they could be remembered and captured and held."
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LibraryThing member rab1953
This is a masterful book about a masterful subject – Henry James and his writing. The book opens with an imagined nighttime awakening from which James thinks about his day and how it might go. In a few paragraphs, he condenses the tone and content that he then fills out and details in the rest of the book.
Though the book is called The Master, the title could almost be ironic. As portrayed by Tóibín, James is uncertain, often uncomprehending, self-doubting and self-deceiving. He misreads his support in London after his first and only play opens and fails on its first night, then flees to Ireland rather than face his friends. He allows a domineering acquaintance to push him into furnishing his home with items he doesn’t really want. He allows his servants to appear drunk and slovenly in front of guests rather than confront them. Most disastrously, he allows his closest friend, a woman, to fall in love with him, but rather than talk about it, he avoids her, leading or contributing to her recent suicide. (Following which, he manages to have himself appointed her literary executor, and secretly burns any compromising correspondence with her.) He has strong homoerotic feelings without even acknowledging them for what they are (understandable in the context of the times, when Oscar Wilde, whom James thinks shallow and clumsy, faces his own disgrace and imprisonment). Far from being a master, this view of James has him as a diffident, ineffectual stumbler.
Yet he observes and interprets what he sees around him as the basis for a lifetime of deeply sensitive, insightful literature. In spite of the frequent misunderstanding of his readers, his family and friends, he stays fixed to his conception of his writing. He thinks about style, themes, content for a variety of stories in the course of the novel (and it’s fascinating to see where well known stories like The Turn of the Screw come from – curious also to find out how much ghosts, both spectral and metaphorical, fit into his life and his writing). He pulls themes from his own complex relationships with his family and friends, and from what he understands, or is willing to admit, about them. Underlying much of the characterization of James is his repression of his homosexuality, which leads to his need to control and hide so much of his life from others and from himself. And yet, while struggling to repress, or at least control, his life, he somehow has enough awareness to use his observations as fodder for his stories. He is, in fact, a master in his writing. It is fitting that the book ends with James explaining to a friend that “the moral … is that life is a mystery and that only sentences are beautiful.” After which, he sends his friends home and returns to his writing.
Tóibín himself writes with a control and insight that seem equal to James’. As a skilled writer himself, and author of a previous book on James, I can see his fascination with the details of James’ life and writing process. He uses James’s own style, complex and internal, on James himself, a kind of homage to a literary master. He traces the development of James’ thinking, his development of story ideas, his resentment of other people’s misinformed views of his writing and his appreciation of the few who do understand him. In James’ interior monologues, Tóibín traces the shifting relationships and sense of control, just as James would do in his own writing. I wonder how much of this is Tóibín’s imagining of the literary process taken from his own insight as a masterful writer, and how much comes from his research into James’ thinking from James’ letters and other personal writing. I think it must be at least as much the former as the latter, for this is a work of imagination, not simply a knitting together of various stories from James. And, as always in fictions about real people, the stories are about the author’s characters, not the people they are modeled on.
In the end, the book gives me an insight, not only into James’ life, but also into his stories. It makes me want to read more James. But it also introduces me to Tóibín as a skilled novelist that I want to read more.
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LibraryThing member lucybrown
The fictionalized biography can be a vexing thing! Often focusing on the scandalous or the trivial, sadly out of tune with its inspiration. This fictionalized account of James' life, or a part of it, is lovingly in tune and seems an even better mirror of him than the straight biographies which never seem to capture the subtleties of this most subtle of men and minds. I am in awe of the way Toibin has not only captured the man but also his time. He has a rare sensibility and understanding of the nature of this deeply conflicted author.
One of the things that most caught my attention is Toibin's awareness of James' almost peculiar anxiety for the care and tending of children. It has always struck me as odd that a man who was himself childless, did not spend much time in the company of children, and indeed, seemed to never have ever been a child himself and, finally, even as a child did not have much association with children should take such a deep and anxious interest in children. In the novel, he is keenly interested and saddened by the situation of Oscar Wilde's young sons and concerned for the well-being of a young girl named Mona who is, or it seems to his mind, being unconsciously, or maybe even actually abused by the guests at a house party in Ireland. He is concerned that the child is not properly chaperoned and that she is made much of at an adults' ball and is vaguely sexualized. So often children in James' books suffer from indifferent care or are used in a most calculated way of exacting revenge. From a callow reading of his work one might think that he is using them only as the ultimate examples to highlight is theme of innocence versus corruption. However, readers of What Maise Knew can be only but painfully aware of James' deep concern and anxiety for children. Interestingly the question of the child Mona, which was highly suggestive of the adults at least unwittingly sexualizing the girl, if not actually abusing her, was never returned to. It lingered in my mind exactly what the author was trying to get at. As the tireless efforts Josephine Butler uncovered, child prostitution and the shunting of these children from one wealthy household to another was hardly a secret and seems to have been a vice endemic of the European aristocracy. I still wonder if this is what Toibin was suggesting. James is certainly unsettled by the girl and her presence at a gathering which is all adults, excepting her. In true Jamesian fashion it is left a mystery.

For the most part I find The Master a masterful portrait of a complex man, a man who had a genius for subtlety and observation. Toibin captures James as well as any biography ever has, and he has done so much in the manner of James, to wit, the Mona episode.
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LibraryThing member KrisR
I loved this book. I thought Tóibín did a beautiful job adapting his style to one that was evocative of Henry James, although more easily readable. The novel moves with James to London, Ireland, Italy, and Rye, and effectively integrates James' memories of the past in flashbacks that come as responses to his relationships, tensions, and interactions with others.

Tóibín has been described as a writer who is keenly interested in his characters' psychology and relationships, and this interest comes to the fore in The Master. James emerges very much as an isolated figure. He worries about how he appears to others, he struggles to maintain his composure, and in his zeal to maintain his privacy, he shies away from intimate relationships with others inside and outside of his family. He even (or especially) shields himself from knowledge of his true identity, particularly with regards to his sexuality. Tóibín's style, restrained and formal, beautifully (and sadly) conveys James' isolation and separation.

Finally, I also found Tóibín's depiction of James's writing process to be revealing. Through chapters that focus on James's relationships with important figures in his life, including his sister Alice, Tóibín explores ways in which James used his writing to communicate with, remember, and in some cases make amends to ghosts in his life. I was left thinking about the limitations on intimacy that this approach can lead to - the barriers a writer can erect by being an observer rather than an active participant, the instrumentality of relationships formed and experiences sought primarily to provide material for a novel or play, and the betrayal felt by friends and family when they read James's work only to see themselves appearing as characters.
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LibraryThing member m.belljackson
Even for those readers for whom Henry James is definitely not The Master, the insights into his personality, passive behavior, and precise, calculating expression of emotions
illuminate the often solitary life of a writer. The pace of the book veers into belabored, considering, as James does in his books, almost every possible angle of consideration
of many boring rich people's concerns.

Death pervades much of the mood and readers will likely wish that he had stayed with the beloved dying cousin who loved him above all others rather than taking off on a pleasure
trip to Rome, consoling her with tales of all the fun he was having. As well, it would have been welcome if the very well off James family had not made this young girl feel "penniless"
and without prospects, hastening her illness.

I sloughed through because this was the book I had chosen to fulfill the Irish Author Challenge and was near catatonic until William James came to Rye and spoke his mind!

Henry James wrote some great travelogue descriptions, but his novels can be wrenching, stilted with repression of feelings and actions.
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
This is a slightly fictionalized account of the later years of novelist Henry James’ solitary life. He struggles to balances his social life and his desire for solitude. He represses his sexuality, never allowing anyone to become too close. He lives in the sea of regrets and guilt, blaming himself for the unhappiness of so many others. He’s never happy with all the choices he has made or the number of successes and failures he’s had. He grieves the loss of friends and family members. He avoids conflict at any cost, often sacrifices his own comfort in life to avoid confrontation. The end result is a man that’s difficult to connect to.

It’s a very cold book. It reminded me a little bit of The Remains of the Day, in which an English butler reminisces about the past. But unlike that book, The Master lacked the beautiful language that made Remains so captivating. It’s a poignant reminder that refusing to live an honest life can make a person very lonely.

BOTTOM LINE: The book may be an accurate representation of how Henry James lived his life, but it’s hard for a reader to be drawn into the world of someone who keeps themselves completely separate.

** I think that having read a lot of James’ work would add to your appreciation of the book.
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LibraryThing member dczapka
I had to sit and ruminate frequently while reading The Master: it's a book that demands patience and unfolds very slowly and deliberately. In that respect, it's incredibly poetic with moments of very beautiful prose.

Unfortunately, the stylistic flourishes are in service of a book that is frankly uninteresting and not especially engaging. I suppose that's part of the risk an author takes when writing an historical novel about a real person, but Henry James rarely comes off in the novel as a person we care much about. He is mostly quiet and stoic, and the brief moments of true emotion don't reveal as much as we might expect them to.

The problem, I feel, is that the novel feels as if it is a series of portraits, drawn masterfully and in exquisite detail, but static and unmoving: little happens in the later chapters and much of the book is written without the benefit of dialogue, so that Tóibín forces the reader to trust his eye to show the truth of each scenario.

The earlier, shorter chapters, as well as the extended sequence explaining Henry's relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolson, work much better than other chapters that feel painfully plodding. Even the character sketches, though thorough, aren't especially exciting or revelatory.

Maybe I missed something, but it feels like something -- namely, perhaps, action -- is missing from The Master, and because of that it represents little more than a lesson in style rather than a truly great novel.
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LibraryThing member lucybrown
The fictionalized biography can be a vexing thing! Often focusing on the scandalous or the trivial, sadly out of tune with its inspiration. This fictionalized account of James' life, or a part of it, is lovingly in tune and seems an even better mirror of him than the straight biographies which never seem to capture the subtleties of this most subtle of men and minds. I am in awe of the way Toibin has not only captured the man but also his time. He has a rare sensibility and understanding of the nature of this deeply conflicted author.
One of the things that most caught my attention is Toibin's awareness of James' almost peculiar anxiety for the care and tending of children. It has always struck me as odd that a man who was himself childless, did not spend much time in the company of children, and indeed, seemed to never have ever been a child himself and, finally, even as a child did not have much association with children should take such a deep and anxious interest in children. In the novel, he is keenly interested and saddened by the situation of Oscar Wilde's young sons and concerned for the well-being of a young girl named Mona who is, or it seems to his mind, being unconsciously, or maybe even actually abused by the guests at a house party in Ireland. He is concerned that the child is not properly chaperoned and that she is made much of at an adults' ball and is vaguely sexualized. So often children in James' books suffer from indifferent care or are used in a most calculated way of exacting revenge. From a callow reading of his work one might think that he is using them only as the ultimate examples to highlight is theme of innocence versus corruption. However, readers of What Maise Knew can be only but painfully aware of James' deep concern and anxiety for children. Interestingly the question of the child Mona, which was highly suggestive of the adults at least unwittingly sexualizing the girl, if not actually abusing her, was never returned to. It lingered in my mind exactly what the author was trying to get at. As the tireless efforts Josephine Butler uncovered, child prostitution and the shunting of these children from one wealthy household to another was hardly a secret and seems to have been a vice endemic of the European aristocracy. I still wonder if this is what Toibin was suggesting. James is certainly unsettled by the girl and her presence at a gathering which is all adults, excepting her. In true Jamesian fashion it is left a mystery.

For the most part I find The Master a masterful portrait of a complex man, a man who had a genius for subtlety and observation. Toibin captures James as well as any biography ever has, and he has done so much in the manner of James, to wit, the Mona episode.
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LibraryThing member Niecierpek
It did not fulfill my expectations when I read it, but I am warming up to it as the time goes along. This is a creative biography of Henry James. It is as much about Henry James as about Toibin himself, I feel, and about the creative writing process.
The book shows Henry James as an acute, albeit passive, observer of life. He doesn’t express opinions or take active part in any aspect of life from politics to sexuality. His life is full of avoiding life. It seems that he solely expressed himself in writing. He is shown thriving on stories and happenings of others which he reworks into his own literary creations. Some other famous personalities of the time are dwelt on briefly in the book, among whom Oscar Wilde serves as an anti-thesis of James, and at this backdrop Toibin ventures to examine Henry James’ thoughts on writing and success.

On the whole the book did not meet my expectations, and it was its biggest fault, perhaps. Since Henry James came from a family of thinkers, I expected more philosophical discussions, witty remarks and arguments in the book, some of which could be found by the end. James himself is known for awfully convoluted speech and pompous behaviour, and there is none of it in the book. If I treat it as a novel, I am much more at peace with it, and able to appreciate its merits.
The book’s strength is its style with subtle and elegant language.
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LibraryThing member wandering_star
This is a beautifully written book - the sentences roll over you as you are reading them. And it's a sensitive examination of the way that James' life was echoed in his work, and the way his desire to observe, and write, led to a certain disengagement from the world - and made him let down the people who loved him. However, it seemed a little repetitive - the same events recur, with different protagonists. Perhaps this is meant to be cyclical - but James' approach doesn't really change, despite his guilt or shame about the events that have gone before. I agree with the comments of one of the reviewers below, that it ended up reading like an exercise in style rather than anything with real feeling.… (more)
LibraryThing member Schmerguls
I admit that I found this book easy to read, and that it held my interest. It is I take it biographically correct, and adds much to the 'record' by telling Henry James' thoughts and feelings. It starts in Januaary 1895, as James effort to be a playwright is failing, and concludes in October 1899, but there are many flashbacks and one gets a pretty full account of much of James' life from birth up to 1899--though of course disjointed, and flashbacky. But after reading the book I felt it really did not tell much and I was disappoinrted that the book did not proceed to tell of James' life after 1899..Stylistically, one is reminded of James' own writing, . But it is all rather 'precious' and makes a big deal of James' latent (usually, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., excepted) homosexuality. On balance, I found the book disappointing, considering how much it was hyped when it came out.… (more)
LibraryThing member southpaw
Enjoyed reading this, although as a newcomer to Henry James and his life, I had to approach this as a work concerning a fictional character to avoid feeling left behind. The tone and style of Toibin's writing is impressive and understated.
LibraryThing member DieFledermaus
A Jamesian novel about Henry James - what could be better? Toibin does an excellent job recreating the tragic past and tightly controlled feelings of the author. He opens in 1895, with James' youthful successes behind him and his more challenging later novels ahead. Having read many of his books, I recognized the influences that Toibin subtly or overtly mentioned, but a knowledge of James is not necessary to enjoy the author's masterful prose and characterizations. At the time, James was working on his play, Guy Domville, which turned out to be a spectacular failure. Throughout the novel, Henry is always haunted by memories - of his dead parents and sister, a lost opportunity with his friend Paul. Eventually, the recollection of his humiliation on stage joined those as something that had to be controlled and kept away.

Toibin writes about James' sister Alice. Fiercely intelligent and individualistic, she also had a bevy of illnesses and problems, finally dying young. She was always a little different. She found a close friend in Miss Loring and they develop a relationship similar to the one depicted in James' novel The Bostonians. Alice also served as inspiration for Henry's novel The Princess Casamassima.

The Wilde trial captivated James, as it did everyone else. His fears over homosexuality lead him to remember a night in the same bed with Oliver Wendell Holmes, which in turn brings back memories of when the pair spent much time with James' cousin Minny Temple. Minny had provided material for some of Henry's writings and her death hit him hard - more so when Holmes later accused him of contributing to her death. She'd wanted Henry to take her to Italy, but he remained oblivious to her hints. The obvious inspiration for Milly Theale, the heroine of The Wings of the Dove, when she'd turned to the wall upon learning he had abandoned her.

His emotional avoidance is shown even in his younger years, when he remained only an observer as his brothers went off to fight in the Civil War. In the present, he has to repress the discomfort he feels around his servants, the Smiths, whose shoddy service becomes increasingly worse. James' parallel memories are of the discomfort he feels in his relationship with his friend, Constance Fenimore Woolson. He couldn't tolerate the idea of his family believing there was a romantic relationship there or her being too close. His desertion this time wasn't youthful carelessness, as in Minny's case, but his deep-seated neuroticism and emotional avoidance. He can't easily disperse the oblique accusations and his own guilt towards her.

Almost all of James' relationships lead to nothing, intentionally so. Toibin creates a realistic portrait of an artist who reluctantly accepts his painful, solitary life because he can never stay in society for long either. He feels every sting - from a sly insult at his Irish background to multiple deaths - acutely, so he diligently works to avoid the situations.

One scene had Henry's niece reading Portrait of a Lady and upset at the ending - she got to ask him why he wrote what he did. That would be sweet!
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LibraryThing member lizchris
As a fan of Colm Toibin but not of Henry James, I found this quite hard work. The novel imagines Henry James as the central character in one of his own novels. Neither a biography nor fiction, I found his mostly-repressed yearning for intimacy and love the strongest part of the novel.
LibraryThing member zyclist
This is a masterly fiction about the life of Henry James, including some of its little known aspects. The inherent tragedy of his life is told through the timeless conundrum of life versus art. Henry James was acknowledged in his lifetime as an exemplar of literary gracefulness, and yet his social awkwardness which was less recognised blighted his own and the lives of others.… (more)
LibraryThing member stephenmurphy
Deliciously detailed and slow this is almost more biography than novel. As baroque and subtle as James but perhaps more honest.
LibraryThing member rayette
I was impressed by this fictional bio of Henry James. Very subtle, very quiet, and well-executed. I really liked how we wove in various people and incidents that inspired James' work.
LibraryThing member Matsar
A wonderful book, especially for people who are as fascinated with Henry James the man as much as they are his stories. A touching novel about this complex, lonely and brilliant man.
LibraryThing member LaurieRKing
If you're going to write a fictionalized biography, why not make the subject Henry James rather than that Frey fellow?
LibraryThing member siri51
This was my ‘between bookclub books ‘read, borrowed from the GVRL. I don’t usually like novels about real characters as it is hard to know where fact and fiction meet. Perhaps because I didn’t know anything about the life of the author Henry James, I thoroughly enjoyed this. I have only ever read one ghost story of Henry James but the book seemed to capture the tone of the late 1890’s in Europe. On the last page of acknowledgments, Toibin says he ‘peppered the text with phrases and sentences from the writings of Henry James and his family” – he has done a fine job.… (more)
LibraryThing member snash
A meticulous exploration of a sensitive but very guarded person, only able to deal with his feeling (and then not all of them) by writing fictional accounts. The fact that the subject, Henry James, and his family are well known real people added to the enjoyment.
LibraryThing member hvhay
I just read all my Henry James books this year so this was a natural follow-up. Many, many scenes from the novels and stories are echoed in this book and it was fun to try to identify them. However, while I found the book well-written as far as style goes, in my opinion it suffers from the fact that the lives of real people don’t typically follow a narrative arc that translates well to a novel. But overall, a nice alternative to a traditional biography.… (more)

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