Wednesday, November 16, 2011

THE MASTER by Colm Toibin

The term "Jamesian" has been used to refer to anything related to William James, philosopher/psychologist, or to things related to his brother, author Henry James. I would have liked Toibin to have explored more fully the relationship between these two brilliant men, but instead he focused on Henry James and his other relationships. He depicts James as a conflicted homosexual who attracts women as well, one of whom may have committed suicide over him. Toibin writes in a Jamesian style here—stilted and formal. In fact, I think the book would have been more effective if it had been written in first person. However, the third person narrative has one distinct advantage: it further imitates James's style by using real people—in this case, Henry James himself—as inspiration for fiction. Several of James's friends recognized themselves in his novels and were more likely to feel flattered than offended, even if their doppelganger was an unsavory character. To me, though, this period in James's life, between the huge failure of his play Guy Domville and the publishing of his novels The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, is quite boring. Toibin does describe the events that James may have seized for the plots of his later novels, but nothing much at all happened in this time period, except that he bought an old house in Rye, where his drunken staff members embarrassed him in front of his occasional guests. In fact, the major events, particularly the deaths of friends and family, did not occur during this time period and are presented as retrospective ruminations, triggered by various accusations and implications. Henry James seemed to have a lot of friends and was supposed to have been very good company, but his reticence with regard to his relationships, both male and female, made him seem standoffish, self-centered, and quite dull.

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