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Book Review: The Master by Colm Toibin

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In The Master, Colm Toibin offers the reader a style and content quite different from his other novels. In a sense, the book is an act of homage to Henry James, a recognition of a creative debt, perhaps, owed by Colm Toibin to the great American writer. On another level, like Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes, it is an attempt to enter an iconic writer’s own creativity to highlight its insecurity and doubt. Current writers know full well that their offerings are rightly subject to critical analysis and comparison, with some critics apparently taking delight in automatically belittling contemporary efforts. But when we read a book that has achieved ‘classic’ status, we often forget that in its own time it was treated no more reverently than current new issues. In The Master Colm Toibin manages to penetrate the creativity of Henry James, bringing his character to life via the creative process that seems to be at his very core.

Thus The Master is part biography, part family history, part observation of late nineteenth century society in England, America, and in expatriate enclaves in Europe. It remains a novel, however, and its main character a fiction, despite the historical reality of both the setting and the achievement. And this becomes one of the book’s strengths.

The story is a series of reflections from the past married with often apparently mundane family or personal events. Chapters are dated, beginning in 1895 and ending in 1899, but there is no linearity of plot, no story, as such, apart from the development of the writer as he responds to reflections on his family, life and relationships.

At the start, a play of his has just failed. Oscar Wilde’s trial is in the news, commented upon alongside reports of London society and its opinions. It is here that Henry James laments the death of his sister, before soon describing his brother’s participation in the American Civil War, a war that he, himself, declined to fight.

A suicide, that of a fellow writer, Constance Fennimore Woolson, has a profound effect on him. She was in Venice, a city that James then visits to assist her relatives with the necessary details. As ever, he is less than effective. In a later encounter with a sculptor called Andersen, James again comes close to standing idly by as events run past him.

The author is always on the outside, it seems, an apparently uninvolved, disinterested observer, always apart from experience he could potentially share. He prefers to retain this role, the observer, the listener, making as few comments as possible. He sees life as a mystery, with only sentences capable of beauty.

Ultimately, Henry James is cast as a selfish absorber of other’s experience, the raw material he stores to regurgitate later as plot and content. He lives his own rather self-centered life through the recording and later embroidery of other’s experience, others’ emotion. His psyche is a writer’s notebook, with human contacts neatly entered and filed for later literary use, his own emotions not revealed, or perhaps suppressed, his presence predatory. The Master is a remarkable achievement, a book whose writing mimics Henry James’s own literal but complex style, itself a discipline.

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