The Master

by Colm Tóibín

Published by Picador

360 pages, 2004



Heaving the Past Into the Present

Reviewed by Tristan Mulholland


"SOMETIMES IN THE NIGHT he dreamed about the dead -- familiar faces and the others, half-forgotten ones, fleetingly summoned up."

The opening line of The Master offers the reader a tantalizing taster of what is to come. Tóibín's prose is wonderfully precise and crisp, subtle yet incisive. It is also highly engaging and establishes a conversational and intimate rapport with the reader from the outset. However, early on it becomes apparent that the The Master enacts a kind of tug of war between the figure of the novelist Tóibín is seeking to bring to life and the factual character of Henry James himself. This conflict is ultimately left unresolved and consequently it's hard to know what The Master sets out to do.

In Tóibín's defense, any attempt to portray factual experience through fiction is a difficult and perilous business. Henry openly states that he views "the historical novel as tainted by a fatal cheapness..." and at various points throughout the book, I found myself questioning the accuracy of Tóibín's account of a very private man. Other writers have managed to pull this off; Truman Capote's In Cold Blood for example, somehow manages to convince the reader that the narrator is omniscient despite the knowledge that he is fictionalizing the true account of a murder case. I don't think the same can be said of The Master. Tóibín's third person narrator is both credible and slick -- up to a point -- and doesn't so much seek to imitate James' style but to parallel it. Ultimately, however, the narrator takes on the significance of a character in The Master which is at odds with the character of Henry James to the extent that we're not quite sure whether we can trust him.

The Master opens with James waking from a recurrent nightmare swiftly followed by his intense anxiety before the opening night of his play, Guy Domville, in London's West End. The play is panned by the public and critics alike. This sense of foreboding and failure hangs over the novel until James can become able to understand failure as an integral element of success, that "wry sense of satisfaction that he knew about difficulty and the shame of failure." Yet the moment itself is like a waking nightmare and is powerfully dramatized by Tóibín:

The worst part was now -- when he did not know what to do, when he could not control the expression on his own face, the look of panic he could not prevent. ... Nothing had prepared him for this. Slowly he moved off the stage. ... Now he would walk home and keep his head down like a man who has committed a crime and is in imminent danger of apprehension.

A very public failure by a man accustomed to success affects James deeply and it is from this vantage point that we view Henry James during a period of self-doubt and regret. The Master is set across a five-year period from 1895 to 1900, with chapters split into months and years. This ostensible timeframe is merely a device whereby the chronological sequence of events can be employed to trigger memories, reflections and flashbacks. Fittingly for a writer such as Henry James, so preoccupied with the supernatural, Tóibín peppers the narrative with spectral figures from the past such as James's beloved sister Alice, his cousin Minny Temple and fellow novelist, Constance Fenimore Woolson whose tragic suicide James somehow feels that he is to blame for. Their memories flood back to him with a sense of reproach and heavy guilt, haunting his work. What Tóibín does best in The Master is to illustrate the great extent to which James used the characters in his own life to populate his fiction resulting in some of his best work such as Daisy Miller, The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove. From a critical perspective, it's clear that Tóibín has thoroughly researched this book, often directly transcribing phrases taken from James's letters and notebook.

Despite this, we don't really get any closer to the man and only ever seem able to view him through his fiction, which is, by its nature, at best limited, and at worst, misleading. The overall image of James, as portrayed here by Tóibín, is one of a coldly detached, emotionally stunted man who seems willing, yet incapable of love, barely likable. Tóibín paints a portrait of an individual who has chosen art over passion at great cost that amounts to a strong sense of criticism for a life observed, yet never truly experienced. Yet Tóibín doesn't show us enough of James as a person to warrant this kind of criticism. As a result, the reader is acutely aware of a great sense of subjectivity from Tóibín that undermines the credibility of the figure of James he hopes to portray.

The Master is Tóibín's fifth novel and marks his second shortlisted entry for the Booker prize, following on from the success of The Blackwater Lightship. He is the author of a number of works of fiction and non-fiction and won the Irish Times Irish Literature Prize for his debut novel, The South. | November 2004


Tristan Mulholland lives in London and works in publishing.