Monday, November 05, 2012

'The Master' - Colm Toibin

Not the current film about cults; not the Henry Miller of 'Tropic of Cancer' fame. This is instead the story of the Victorian/Edwardian novelist Henry James.

Henry James was born into a rich and intellectual New England family two decades before the Civil War. He left America as a young man and lived in London, Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome. There he tended to hang out with the local literary-inclined aristos and, if present, the American colony: but always as a solitary, detached observer.

James is the author of novels such as 'Portrait of a Lady' and 'Wings of the Dove', both of which fictionalised his femme fatale cousin, Minnie Temple. Henry James - smart, educated, gay - befriended smart, feminist, somewhat-neurotic women and pleasantly accomplished young men.

He was more yearned after than yearning, selectively blind to the needs of those closest to him when to accede would threaten his independence.

An ailing Minnie Temple pleaded - as much as her dignity permitted - for his help in moving from New England to the sunnier climes of Rome. Henry 'failed' to notice. Minnie died shortly afterwards.

His dearest friend, the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, in the depths of her depression begged him to join her in Italy. Feeling claustrophobic, he ignored her, receiving news of her suicide in Venice shortly after.

His reaction to such tragedies was to novelise them; many of his acclaimed works were reflections on such personal disasters.

How do we know this? Through Toibin's novel which purports to illuminate Henry James' inner life. What I think Toibin has done is immerse himself in James' life and works, and then 'reverse-engineer' his character and temperament. The result is a singular portrayal.

Clare said she ended up not liking Henry James at all (because of the selfishness, the betrayals). I felt a curious affinity with someone desperate to retain freedom against the cloying expectations and impositions of others, no matter how close and sympathique.

James was always the detached observer whose safest place was in his study, wielding his pen.