What Henry Knew

The Master

by Colm Tóibín
Scribner, 338 pp., $25.00

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín; drawing by David Levine

Originally one of the Cinque Ports of South England, the old town of Rye organizes a festival every summer which usually includes a talk on Henry James, who for some years lived in, and finally owned, Lamb House, a dignified eighteenth-century residence of modest size near the church. When invited to give such a talk some years ago, I took as a topic the contrast between Henry James’s “ghostly” stories and those of M.R. James, provost of Eton College and later of Kings College, Cambridge. The pair were in no way related and probably never met. M.R. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, works of art in their own way, deal in very solid horrors, apparitions made of sheets or conjured out of the pages of an old book. By contrast, Henry James’s ghosts, notably those in The Turn of the Screw, have their being in the mind, the mind and imagination of a master writer.

The Henry James lecturer was housed for the night in Lamb House, and while I cannot pretend that anything in the least ghostly happened to us there, that is to me and my wife, Iris Murdoch, we both had a disquieting sense—we slept badly—of being aware of the Jamesian mind when it was, so to speak, domiciled in Lamb House. The character of the Master, his fears, hopes, and depressions, his anxieties and his solitudes—his solitudes above all, and the unending process of creation which all these inspired.

It is the mind of the Master in all these different aspects that makes a subtle subject for Colm Tóibín’s fifth novel. All his previous novels have had their own sort of distinction, particularly the last, The Blackwater Lightship, shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, which tells the moving story of a woman who leaves Dublin for her grandmother’s seaside house to care for a brother dying of AIDS.

Of course, Tóibín does not make the mistake in this latest book of using a Jamesian style and manner of writing as if from the Master’s mind as well as from his pen. As a novelist he has his own, complete, individuality. He takes James’s mind and life as a subject, but for a novel that is all his own. He begins with the great crisis of James’s later life: his total failure as a man of the stage. From our perspective, we can see that James was doomed to failure here and yet he longed for success as a popular playwright. Money and popularity were what he was hoping for, and a well-made play, such as he used to see in Paris when he was young, could be a work of art as well as a popular success.

The result, Guy Domville, was a historical drama with a reasonably subtle Jamesian plot—the hero has to choose between family duty and his own personal and spiritual inclinations. Unfortunately James’s…

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