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The Master

     I interviewed the Irish writer Colm Toibin in the Cambridge Cemetery on the chance that we might hear voices from the James family grave.

     We knew that the psychologist William James and his brother Henry, the novelist, were the sort of people who’d oblige us, if they could.  On William’s death in 1910, Henry actually stayed his return to England and lingered for six weeks in his brother’s house in Cambridge, with some hope that William’s spirit would make contact.  Henry was disappointed by the ghost.  So were we.  Yet Colm Toibin’s spookily Jamesian novel The Master very nearly brings Henry alive, as convincingly as a seance or a dream.

    The Master pictures James between 1895 and 1900, in his late fifties, at the far turn of his unflaggingly  productive life.  In January, 1895, in the dark prelude of Toibin’s story, the determined playwright Henry James is being hooted off a stage on the opening night of his ignominious and final theatrical flop, Guy Domville.  Far from crushing him, Guy Domville turned James toward the last three towering home-runs of his career in fiction–in three years, three immortal masterpieces: The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) and
The Golden Bowl (1904). 

    Toibin catches James precisely in the early autumn that generated also the perfect novella,
“The Beast in the Jungle” (1903), a scathing reflection on the price a man pays for casting off life and love.  John Marcher, the pitiable anti-hero of “The Beast,” is a man who talked himself out of a good woman’s love, arguing that he must reserve himself for a mysterious catastrophe, a lethal beast of prey lurking in his future.  Years later the catastrophe turns out to be nothing but the self-absorption that blinded Marcher to love’s redemption.  Is this the lament of closeted homosexuality?  Is it James’ calculation of his own sacrifice for art?  Is it, as I suppose, a lesson about the power of fear to teach us the wrong stories about who we are and what we can do in life?  “The Beast” marks in any event the mood and the moment in which Colm Toibin tries to penetrate the mist of Henry James’ invention.

    Colm Toibin grew up, as we all do, with the notion that Henry James was an artist without a life–the far opposite in his own time of Oscar Wilde, who was said to have committed his talent to his art, but his genius to his life!  In The Master Colm Toibin is respinning the web of emotional filaments that tied James in every moment of his consciousness to his rich, rampaging, free-thinking father and his extravagantly indulgent mother; to brothers Wilky and Bob who were sacrificed to the Civil War; to his miserably clever and indiscreet sister Alice; and to the brilliant, beloved William James, the elder brother who scorned Henry’s late prose style.

    In The Master and in our
gab at the graveside Colm Toibin takes up the modern charge that two other woman suffered painfully, perhaps fatally, for Henry James’ monomania.  His doomed but radiant cousin Minny Temple was always known as the inspiration for Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady and for Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove.  But  in her brief tubercular real life Minny Temple was the fragile young woman who begged Henry to take her with him on his first trip to Rome.  Henry refused her. Minny died.  In The Master, it is James’ friend, by then a famous judge, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who blames Henry for abandoning Minny:  “When she did not hear from you,” says Holmes to James, “she turned her face to the wall.”  Many years later Constance Fenimore Woolson, an expatriate American novelist who’d confided, traveled and commiserated with Henry James over many years, committed suicide in Venice, not long after he’d rebuffed her invitations to join him there.  

Too late to save her, he rushed to commandeer her apartment and destroy all evidence of their connection.  The Woolson story–so close to the agony of “The Beast in the Jungle”–was a topic that Henry James assiduously avoided with his friends, one that Toibin pursues in gruesome detail but with no condemnation.

    It’s the astonishing body of work that redeems Henry James in the end, no matter what.  But Colm Toibin’s subtle portrait of an infinitely subtle man is a pleasure in its own right.  I’ve come to imagine that inside the puffy cartoon of James as a marshmallow mountain of effete logorrhea there was a man of steel.  Colm Toibin has found him.  I hope the movie part goes to Sean Connery.  Listen in

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