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

by Colm Toibin

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2,141543,055 (3.85)275
Member:Rosareads
Title:Master
Authors:Colm Toibin
Info:Picador (2005), Paperback, 368 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:*****
Tags:Henry James, Historical Fiction

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The Master by Colm Tóibín (2004)

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In contemporary 21st c. writing, it is a High Crime not to acknowledge that the historical, such as an actual subject, the novelist Henry James of PORTRAIT OF A LADY, is separated from fiction, such as THE MASTER by COLM TOIBIN, for "never the twain meets." Now we know from Toibin that the art of writing, as a matter of survival, in the truth-telling business of every day life, like that of high science, must follow other rules, which change, for the survival of the species involved. The realization of each and both -- literature and biographical/auto-biographical history -- together consists of tissue thin sensitivities of the physical and the nonphysical (non-material to our five senses but not to the sixth). Nevertheless, independantly and together, the knowable through scientfic observations, testings, and theories,that have independently been come together is a rather fresh if not new kind of literary and historical fact of life in Toibinʻs hands. THE MASTER, as Colm Toibin crafts the novel, is a literary testament to Sir Cyril Burtʻs late 19th and early 20th c. understanding of the unseen forces of physics and psychology (conceived then as science and meta-physics (suggesting a kind of factual voodooism?) such as "the Ghost in the Machine" (as Arthur Koestler reported it in his modern scientific physics, chemistry theory and experimental historyical account, THE ROOTS OF COINCIDENCE (1972.). Actuality, by common sense perception of the world as subject, like the human reflections upon the nature of Nature, of which is Henry Jamesʻ studied perception of the people around him is merely one instance of the case -- is more lie than truth, but far from worthless. When literary characters are presented in their psychological forms -- Henry James in a cocoon of stolid, formidable disciplined New England characteristic reserve and his family memories in his and Aliceʻs and othesʻ lettered memories, and through the intervention of author Toibinʻs researched information long after, we onlookers have very little to say for we are captives of the traced memories that weave in, out, through, over and everywhere of the footnoted histories and our impressions of the subject and his world. So we are left to register responses rather than review Toibinʻs Book. it is experienced phenomena on multiple levels, spaces, and times more than as categorical literary fare, like a straightforward narrative. We are given a fiction that is also non-fiction, true or false and both. What falls between and around their connections is also tenable, yet firmly not dismissable because unclassified with certainty. It is not phantasy, not dream, not art, not science but a groping for what is there, if clear as well as confusing in parts. Because the subject, Henry James, known to the author Toibin in his own special relationship to James, is unknown to us except as some other person, independently, we think, of what Toibin brings to us as his experience of Henry James, Fact And Fiction.

Everything Toibin says is Possible as meaningful idea and experience. The verified facts, like those of his birth and non-marriage, are trite. But the verified facts of his time, like the end of the 19th c. and first part of the 20th, are not. The context of Henry Jamesʻ social life, from sheer repetition of other lives like his having been Possibly gay and suffering, is temptingly verifiable; yet we cannot actually affirm that categorically. Toibin combines the Possible with the verified trite to the suspected Implied or the understandably Inferred --in a way that makes us hold our opinion or judgement because they are of no consequence. Delectably, they are real. The surprise gives pleasure because honest, among other things that might be said about it -- half truth, seductively, merely, but enough not to be a abandoned. There are few enough pleasures in life, proferred by art, literary being only one, and not second to biographical and auto-biographical, one is tempted to dismiss criticisms that warn because what is at the end of the rainbow is the dreamed pot of gold. Possibly.

So we are seductively led to infer (that is. short of believing? but not quite) that Henry James was closer to the women in his life than to the men. For he, too, like the women of the time, suffered the personal outrages that the assumption of male superiority clamped down upon them -- his sister Alice, for example, repressed from being the unseen person in the family of four boys; his cousin Minny, because, like Alice, she is presumed to be "inferior" to all males, regardless of her demonstrated greater intelligence than theirs; the noble born woman friend whose husband, a British military officer of somewhat high rank, has in her employ a soldier-manservant named Hammond, perfect to the sensibilities of the famous writer Henry James himself, one and contentiously the same in life and in fiction, a male/female/male -- the only true gender, as the biological African EVE of modern anthropology proposes . . . .Toibin masterfully binds one to his artful telling so that there is little resistance to the marriage of fiction and history but rather a willingly acquiescense to both as not only inseparable but the only true Possible, in his depiction of Henry James, the preserver of virtues the chiefest of which is his integrity of person, i.e. his body, mind, and spirit, which was/is gay. Possibly.

All fiction owes its truth-telling to the reality that is supposedly non-fiction. But the body is not merely skin, bones, organs, in movement in time, we do know, but how do we account for what we are not sure we know or do not know of half-knowing states and conditions? Henry James is less of an enigma than before Toibin begins his artful exposition of the inside realizations of the man as he encounters different persons (Toibinʻs Possibles) -- it is a kind of make-believe truth-like telling biography, helped by autobiographical elements like Jamesʻ letters to and from relatives and friends. We are led to encounter forms of a famous writer at his sparest moments of responding to persons intent on insulting him (like Mr. Webster, the high government official that he is introduced to at a British military officerʻs party in Ireland who reveals he knows the Jamesʻ Irish origins as so humble, they migrated) or connecting with him without a single word uttered (Hammond, the soldier-manservant) or his brother William, who, with him, the last of the surviving James Senior family gives advice that younger brother Henry finally rejects for advice of his own devising. In that, he is a free person, finally, coldly rational and (at last) resentful -- in self-defense. In writing. Which is a kind of silence, unspoken but plainly indicative of the person Henry Jamesʻ displeasure, manifest, for certain, for once.

An LT viewer named V.V.Harding thought the fictionalized Henry "tame" considering his A London Life. I have not read a London Life. I would say Henry James is never tame, not even by comparison with other writings, and Toibin never mistakes Jamesʻ long suffering withholding of committed responses for meaning nothing at all. He shows James at his most deeply troubled -- a descendant of the Puritans, famous for their formidable coldness in society, developed out of bitter, long winters, originally in (as they conceived) hostile Indian territory, and a life build out of a wilderness, far beyond anything that their former civilized life had ever allowed as Possible . . .which fact did not, notwithstanding, prevent them from converting the Indians even if they did not, as the pilgrims, amicably befriend them. Jamesʻ sense of person was carried by an indomitable Will, and formidable Harvard education, at the time represented by Ralph Waldo Emerson, his outer ego Henry Thoreauʻs show casing the simple life in less than simple Walden Pond, not far from bustling Concord, Oliver Wendell Holmes . . .for which background there had already risen in a kind of simple majestic purity of voice a Nathaniel Hawthorne and sensitive Longfellow . . . . Henry James was gifted, rightly by culture, also through the impenetrable self-righteousness of the
tight-lipped migrated religious Englishman who loved freedom to worship so much his love turned to a passion for political justice that settled an indomitable will known to the world since as American Puritan. Toibin, who is Irish, as James, both of whom knew suffering subjections by demand of Powers greater than they, understands the temperament: its signature is Silence with a Will to Freedom to life as their need demanded, despite ridiculed, as by the official Webster, or charmed and encouraged, as by calm, focussed, friendly soldier-manservant Hammond.

Toibin introduces a new genre: the combination of fiction, biography, autobiography, and history, often enough inseparable in the narrative of Henry James, Person who is Writer. He does so more openly than the Russian Bulgakov of THE MASTER AND MARGARITA. But James is very much an American at his best, as Toibin proves is Possible to understand, as Bulgakov, infinitely more repressed and utterly oppressed as well also shows of a later succeeding generation from two very different national and personal histories about which we gain an inside viewing late, but grateful.

THE MASTER was short-listed title for the Booker Prize. In my mind, it is a Booker Prize winner,
excellences being always, to me, incomparable. Only the unreality of practicality presumes that art that is excellent is comparable -- which no one believes, as I, emphatically, do not. ( )
  leialoha | Jun 7, 2015 |
Colm Tóibín's Henry James seems a tame chap compared to the author who imagined and wrote A London Life, which it inspired me to read immediately following The Master. It raises the question: should novels be about actual people? since they are bound to disappoint, and seem like a short-cut, a way of not having to imagine everything. So while The Master was very much a pleasure to read (hence so many stars), it might have been a better book had it been about an imaginary author, one more exactly shaped to Colm Tóibín's needs.

One potential problem appeared but didn't materialize: Colm Tóibín works around the question of homosexuality and finally lets it remain as inconclusive as James himself did -- a blessing. The possibility that James might be seen as both a homosexual and an Irish novelist was rather tantalizing, especially in the scenes in Ireland, but having a single Irish grandfather apparently wasn't claim enough, and if James considered himself at all Irish, it seems he didn't record the fact, or not tellingly enough to be included here.

So, a lot of reasons not to like this book going in, and now upon reflection it seems very likely Colm Tóibín's view is just wrong on several counts. But it doesn't matter once the issues of identity and engagement take center stage. And while the narrative voice could never be confused with James's own, it is careful and introspective and quite suitable for a book -- ostensibly -- about him.
  V.V.Harding | Apr 21, 2015 |
This is a masterful book about a masterful subject – Henry James and his writing. The book opens with an imagined nighttime awakening from which James thinks about his day and how it might go. In a few paragraphs, he condenses the tone and content that he then fills out and details in the rest of the book.
Though the book is called The Master, the title could almost be ironic. As portrayed by Tóibín, James is uncertain, often uncomprehending, self-doubting and self-deceiving. He misreads his support in London after his first and only play opens and fails on its first night, then flees to Ireland rather than face his friends. He allows a domineering acquaintance to push him into furnishing his home with items he doesn’t really want. He allows his servants to appear drunk and slovenly in front of guests rather than confront them. Most disastrously, he allows his closest friend, a woman, to fall in love with him, but rather than talk about it, he avoids her, leading or contributing to her recent suicide. (Following which, he manages to have himself appointed her literary executor, and secretly burns any compromising correspondence with her.) He has strong homoerotic feelings without even acknowledging them for what they are (understandable in the context of the times, when Oscar Wilde, whom James thinks shallow and clumsy, faces his own disgrace and imprisonment). Far from being a master, this view of James has him as a diffident, ineffectual stumbler.
Yet he observes and interprets what he sees around him as the basis for a lifetime of deeply sensitive, insightful literature. In spite of the frequent misunderstanding of his readers, his family and friends, he stays fixed to his conception of his writing. He thinks about style, themes, content for a variety of stories in the course of the novel (and it’s fascinating to see where well known stories like The Turn of the Screw come from – curious also to find out how much ghosts, both spectral and metaphorical, fit into his life and his writing). He pulls themes from his own complex relationships with his family and friends, and from what he understands, or is willing to admit, about them. Underlying much of the characterization of James is his repression of his homosexuality, which leads to his need to control and hide so much of his life from others and from himself. And yet, while struggling to repress, or at least control, his life, he somehow has enough awareness to use his observations as fodder for his stories. He is, in fact, a master in his writing. It is fitting that the book ends with James explaining to a friend that “the moral … is that life is a mystery and that only sentences are beautiful.” After which, he sends his friends home and returns to his writing.
Tóibín himself writes with a control and insight that seem equal to James’. As a skilled writer himself, and author of a previous book on James, I can see his fascination with the details of James’ life and writing process. He uses James’s own style, complex and internal, on James himself, a kind of homage to a literary master. He traces the development of James’ thinking, his development of story ideas, his resentment of other people’s misinformed views of his writing and his appreciation of the few who do understand him. In James’ interior monologues, Tóibín traces the shifting relationships and sense of control, just as James would do in his own writing. I wonder how much of this is Tóibín’s imagining of the literary process taken from his own insight as a masterful writer, and how much comes from his research into James’ thinking from James’ letters and other personal writing. I think it must be at least as much the former as the latter, for this is a work of imagination, not simply a knitting together of various stories from James. And, as always in fictions about real people, the stories are about the author’s characters, not the people they are modeled on.
In the end, the book gives me an insight, not only into James’ life, but also into his stories. It makes me want to read more James. But it also introduces me to Tóibín as a skilled novelist that I want to read more. ( )
1 vote rab1953 | Jan 26, 2015 |
I just finished listening to The Master. It was wonderfully well read by Geoffrey Howard. He is a fluent reader and vanishes behind the words. (So many reader of Audible books perform altogether too much!) I have never read any James but this book interests me in reading his novels and, for that matter, going back to more 19th C writers--both those I have and haven't read.

Perhaps I should say that this novel is a fictionalized version of Henry James' life. I don't know how biographically accurate it is. I imagined throughout that Toibin was adopting James' writing style and beforehand wondered if it would be too ponderous. But no, no, no! I thought it was riveting, and it involved me deeply in the life, so reticent and observant, of its protagonist, Henry James.

I have also not previously read anything by Colm Toibin but I thought the whole book was an immersion--in the language, in the characters, and in the passing events of James' life.

Toward the end, James is reunited with his brother William, his sister-in-law Alice. The portrayal of the sibling relationship, the ebb and flow of feelings, tolerance, irritation, understanding and incomprehension was, I thought, completely brilliant and so true to some strand of shared humanity that continues from generation to generation.

Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote jdukuray | Dec 31, 2014 |
A complex man is portrayed in a complex narrative. Toibin takes us inside the mind of Henry James. Through flashbacks, we grow to understand how Henry James's childhood in America, his experiences during the Civil War, and his family relationships shaped his life and led him to live in England and write some of the most influential novels of the era. Some of my favorite passages were the ones that shed light on James's writing process and helped us understand the multiple influences on a novelist. This is incredibly well-written. I wish I had read it at a calmer time. I felt like it deserved even more attention. ( )
  porch_reader | Dec 15, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 54 (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.
 

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Colm Tóibínprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bandini, DitteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bandini, GiovanniTranslatorsecondary 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)

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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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