I don’t know why I picked up this book and I still can’t figure out why I even liked it since I have absolutely no interest in Henry James but it turned out to be mildly enjoyable. (okay I know that’s not an overwhelming endorsement but it was about a 6.5/10).
The Master by Colm Toibin is a fictional portrayal of the life of Henry James from 1895 to 1899. Apparently James was a great American fiction writer, but what I gleaned from this book was that he was a very lonely, compulsive man with sexual identity issues.
The book meanders through various periods in his life starting in London where a play that he wrote not only fails miserably, but he is further humiliated by the concurrent success of playwright, Oscar Wilde. From there his travels take him to Ireland and then later in the book to Rome and Venice. I loved reading Toibin’s descriptions of the landscape and settings where James stayed. He writes in this beautiful almost languid fashion and it made me feel like strolling along the banks of a Venetian canal with a parasol in hand.
There were some interesting themes in the book such as James obsession with young men – a servant in Ireland, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and a hulking, Swedish sculptor. At the same time, there is a lot of exploration of James’ relationships relationships with highly intelligent yet sickly women; most importantly his best friend/love, Constantine Fenimore Woolson, who ends up killing herself when James doesn’t move the relationship from friendship to romance. Toibin flips back and forth between James’ feelings for men and women and since James never had a long-term relationship with either sex during his lifetime, I imagine that to this day, this is an open-ended question about his life.
I was also fascinated with the dichotomy between James’ concern for how he appeared to society and then his complete lack of concern for social mores of the time. He would want to shun himself from all social gatherings in London or Venice but then when he moved to the English countryside, he was very concerned with his society friends visiting him and the impression that his house and servants would make on them.
If you are a Henry James fan, you would probably really enjoy the book (and then let me know if it brings it all together). I am somewhat motivated to pick up The Portrait of a Lady or Daisy Miller so for that I would vote that Toibin succeeded in creating significant interest in his main character.