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The Master by Colm Toibin
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The Master (original 2004; edition 2005)

by Colm Toibin

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Member:mynote1
Title:The Master
Authors:Colm Toibin
Info:Picador (2005), Paperback, 368 pages
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The Master by Colm Tóibín (2004)

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English (64)  Swedish (2)  All languages (66)
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This is a fictional biography of the American writer, Henry James, who is sometimes called the father of the psychological novel. What Tóibín does is to present a psychological portrait of the man, imaginatively inventing James’ thoughts and feelings over a five-year period when he is in his 50s (between January 1895 and October 1899).

There are numerous flashbacks to crucial events in James’ past so the reader learns of his relationship with his parents and siblings (especially his elder brother William and his sister Alice), his evasion of the American Civil War, his love for his cousin Minnie Temple, and his friendship with Constance Fenimore Woolson.

One of the aspects of his life that Tóibín explores is James’ repressed homosexuality. His attraction to men is shown in his relationships with Oliver Wendell Holmes, a manservant in Ireland, and the sculptor Hendrick Andersen, yet he chooses to deny these feelings. After the trial of Oscar Wilde, one of James’ friends suggests that because of the moral climate, anyone else who might face charges of indecency would be wise to leave England. He tells James, “’I wondered if you, if perhaps . . .’” and James replies sharply, “’No. . . . You do not wonder. There is nothing to wonder about’” (72).

In fact, James seems to totally cut himself off from his feelings. At one point, he thinks about being glad he “preserved his own thick shell” (295). There is a constant tension between his attraction to people and his desperate need to withhold himself from them. For example, he loves his sister but when she becomes ill and could use more of his attention, he withdraws and leaves her in the care of a friend. The same thing happens with his beloved cousin Minnie Temple; after her death, a friend asks, “’Do you ever regret not taking her to Italy when she was ill? . . . a winter in Rome might have saved her. . . . You were her cousin and could have traveled with her. You were free, in fact you were already in Rome. It would have cost you nothing’” (112). James also develops a very strong friendship with Constance Fenimore Woolson, but when she seems to make demands on his time, he avoids her because her plans “would interfere crucially with his inviolable need to make his own arrangements and do as he pleased” (236). Only after her death does he realize, “He had let her down” (241).

Of course there is a price to be paid for continually avoiding emotional involvement and observing the world rather than participating. In the end he is alone, as the final image of the novel emphasizes: he wanders alone the rooms of his home “from whose windows he had observed the world, so that they could be remembered and captured and held” (338). When he speaks of the “stories of disappointment” which he is writing, with one character who realizes too late that “his failure, . . . his own coldness, is the catastrophe” and another who recognizes that “it is our duty to live all we can, but it is too late’” (334), James is describing himself. One of the most memorable images in the novel has James facing a large bookcase of his books and his eyes filling with tears (292). There is such a powerful note of sadness at the thought that his concentration on writing, not life, has meant he has missed so much though he has worked so hard.

One of Tóibín’s accomplishments is to show how incidents and memories are the genesis of James’ writing. He speaks about raiding his own memories (183), and an acquaintance tells him, “’We all liked you, and I suppose you liked us as well, but you were too busy gathering material to like anyone too much. You were charming, of course, but you were like a young banker collecting our savings. Or a priest listening to our sins. I remember my aunt warning us not to tell you anything’” (265). One of James’ saddest observations concerns the death of Minnie: “he felt a sharp and unbearable idea staring at him, like something alive and fierce and predatory in the air, whispering to him that he had preferred her dead rather than alive, that he had known what to do with her once life was taken from her” (115). What he did is to make her the heroine of his novel The Portrait of a Lady.

The style of the book with its elegant vocabulary is evocative of James’ style though it is much more easily readable because Tóibín avoids the overly long sentences which are James’ trademark. The restrained and formal tone conveys James’ personality.

As are Tóibín’s other novels, this one is complex and moving. It portrays a writer confronting his failures and inadequacies as a human being. The reader may be shocked at James’ ruthlessness, but also feel sympathy for someone so filled with self-reproach. The book has been much-honoured and understandably so.

Please check out my reader's blog (http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/) and follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski). ( )
  Schatje | Apr 15, 2016 |
“Life is a mystery and…only sentences are beautiful,” Colm Tóibín’s Henry James observes when asked, toward the end of The Master, the moral of his stories. And to be sure, there is no want of beautiful sentences in this novel of five years in Henry James’ life. It begins with his disastrous play, “Guy Domville”, in 1895 and ends with a rapprochement of sorts between Henry and his older brother, William, the noted psychologist. Through a series of studies of crucial events in James’ life over this period, Tóibín paints the portrait of an artist at peace with his life-choices, dedicated to his subtle art, always seeming to stand at the entrance to a room observing sensitively without ever giving away too much of himself.

The prose is wonderfully evocative. Not so much an imitation of James’ style as a worthy homage. It is richly dense, enough so that you will linger in reading it. But it is never ponderous. Tóibín’s love for James, both author and man, comes through clearly. It may indeed be Tóibín’s finest work.

The only hesitation I have in recommending it whole-heartedly is that I don’t understand why a writer of Tóibín’s talents would undertake such a work of fiction. This is a general bemusement not confined to this work in particular. Such a work of hagiographic historical fiction always, it seems to me, trades upon the reader’s often malformed assumptions about the historical figure or the historical period. In some ways this frees the author to concentrate on the portrait and ignore the frame. But it also constrains the meaning that might be conveyed. Of course this is merely a limitation on the form and not a comment on its execution, which here is done about as well as I could ever imagine it. And on that ground I feel confident in recommending it. ( )
  RandyMetcalfe | Mar 25, 2016 |
Absolutely worth a read - not for its literary value (in my view) but because of the cement and flavor it gives to one's understanding of the time period. Henry James crossed paths with so many interesting people. And I learned a lot about expat culture of the time - everyone worth talking about was tromping around Italy. Learned a lot - keep wiki nearby to get the most out if this book. Look up the people as he comes across them. Cool! And visit the Hendrick Andersen museum in Rome after reading this if possible :) it might blow your mind. ( )
  ahovde01 | Feb 28, 2016 |
Fun if frustrating because in a way it represents so much that is repressed [in all of us]. Also about sublimation. Venice. ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
The Master by Colm Tóibín


The Master is a fictionalized biography of Henry James. Tóibín captures the essence of James as being a man who is the constant observer of human emotion and behavior and never the participant. It is subtle, beautifully written, and a slow-moving tale. The book follows five years of James’ life beginning shortly after the failure of his play, Guy Domville, through his self-imposed exile in Europe.

I enjoyed this book immensely and yet I have a hard time explaining why. The story itself is more a reflection of the great writer’s life and the plot is not a central piece. Reading this book is like taking a meandering walk where the emphasis isn’t on getting from point A to B, but rather about stopping along the way and noticing all the small moments of beauty. Normally, I hate books like this. I find my attention wanders and I get bored. But, there was something about this book that kept me engaged. It was a quiet and beautiful read. Although a fictionalized account of the author’s life, it captures his character and brings it to life in a vividly believable way. The style of writing in some ways mimics James’ style of capturing complex human emotions and raw experience. The sentences were wonderfully rich and fully of vivid imagery and emotion. I especially enjoyed some of the references to James’ work and Toibin’s speculation on how James arrived at his characters and stories. I would recommend this book to anyone who has read and enjoyed James’ works.

Quotes I enjoyed:
“His consolation was that at least he had known her as the world had not, and the pain of living without her was no more than a penalty he paid for the privilege of having been young with her.”

“He loved walking up and down the room, beginning a new sentence, letting it snake ahead, stopping it for a moment, adding a phrase, a brief pause, and then allowing the sentence to gallop to an elegant and fitting conclusion.”

“She had always been, he added, a women so little formed for positive happiness that half one’s affection for her was, in its essence, a kind of anxiety.

“We all liked you, and I suppose you liked us as well, but you were too busy gathering material to like anyone too much. You were like a young banker collecting our savings. Or a priest listening to our sins. I remember my aunt warning us not to tell you anything.”

“Harry, I find I have to read innumerable sentences you now write twice over to see what they could possibly mean. In this crowded and hurried reading age you will remain unread and neglected as long as you continue to indulge in this style and these subjects.”
( )
1 vote JenPrim | Jan 15, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 64 (next | show all)
''The Master'' is sure to be greatly admired by James devotees; just as surely it will strike less ardent readers as the kind of book in which not much actually happens.
 
Whatever Toibin's literary-critical and ideological interest in James, ''The Master'' is unquestionably the work of a first-rate novelist -- one who has for the past decade been writing excellent novels about people cut off from their feelings or families or both.
 

» Add other authors (11 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Colm Tóibínprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bandini, DitteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bandini, GiovanniTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hope, WilliamNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0743250419, Paperback)

Like Michael Cunningham in The Hours, Colm Tóibín captures the extraordinary mind and heart of a great writer. Beautiful and profoundly moving, The Master tells the story of a man born into one of America's first intellectual families who leaves his country in the late nineteenth century to live in Paris, Rome, Venice, and London among privileged artists and writers.

In stunningly resonant prose, Tóibín captures the loneliness and the hope of a master of psychological subtlety whose forays into intimacy inevitably failed those he tried to love. The emotional intensity of this portrait is riveting.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:03 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

In 'The master', his brilliant and profoundly moving fifth novel, Colm To?ibi?n tells the story of Henry James, an American-born genius of the modern novel who became a connoisseur of exile, living among artists and aristocrats in Paris, Rome, Venice and London.… (more)

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