Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Master by Colm Toibin

I grew up in Newport and Portsmouth, Rhode Island, places where Henry James lived and walked a century earlier during the Civil War. It puts my native place in a larger context. Perhaps I have a particular affinity for James’ work that I wouldn’t have without this proximity in common. Toibin’s novel is a wonderful mixture of James the boy and man; James the writer and artist. I never felt that Toibin tried to craft a message that this is the definitive portrait of James. The writing maintains a just distance from the protagonist that allows the reader to make inferences about the man and his work. Certainly, there are moments when direct parallels are drawn between characters in his life and characters in his novels. His relationship with his siblings, his cousin Minnie Temple, and his jealousy of Oscar Wilde find a way in his writing. But Toibin does not do this in a way that reduces James’ fiction to merely elaborated real life experiences. In fact, Toibin’s novel offers a close focus on a very complex boy and sensitive man; one who surmised that women enjoyed his company more than men, one whose compassion for infected and sick Civil War soldiers aroused within him a sense of guilt and the disparity between them as he was soon to enter Harvard University to pursue law. This novel is a deeply imagined work that flows with ease and yet hints at James’ restrained prose. The emotional nuance that James translated so well in his art is turned on the man himself, the angles and turns of the prism through which he experienced life. I am familiar with Toibin’s short stories, not his novels. I recall a more muscular approach to writing found in his stories than found in this novel, which clearly speaks to the range of Toibin’s art. Revisit the world of Henry James with Colm Toibin.

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