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Master by Colm Toibin

Master (original 2004; edition 2005)

by Colm Toibin

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2,128533,084 (3.85)271
Authors:Colm Toibin
Info:Picador (2005), Paperback, 368 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Henry James, Historical Fiction

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The Master by Colm Tóibín (2004)

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Showing 1-5 of 53 (next | show all)
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 |
I have just finished reading [The Master] a second time, which we did for bookclub. I really enjoyed the first reading, whilst finding it a little dense - however in the second reading I found it just delightful and a book to savour.

I enjoyed it because of the writing (manicured), the story (5 years with flashbacks over 50), the stifling manners and sensibilities (self-contained, protective), the tensions (sibling, sexual, obligations of friendship), the motivations (creativity and self-protection), the reveals (particularly the final section of the final chapter).

There is an excellent review in the NYT, which helped my understanding and placement of the characters as the book altered reality to complete the fiction.


I read the book with wikipedia by my side to place the characters not only in the relationship with Henry James, but in their broader context. ( )
  tandah | Jul 5, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 53 (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
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Sometimes in the night he dreamed about the dead--familiar faces and the others, half-forgotten ones, fleetingly summoned up.
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:20:21 -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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