The Master by Colm Tóibín begins following episodes in the life of Henry James in January 1885 and goes through October 1899. There is no plot or drama or attempt to prove anything about James. Its tone is calm and steady throughout. And while nothing in particular happens, all kinds of things happen. Tóibín has managed to successfully write a novel about Henry James, not in the style of James, because that would just be too much, but more like and echo. Tóibín’s sentences feel very Jamesian yet they are not long and rambling with clause upon clause going on for an entire page or two. They are more succinct yet somehow he manages to convey the same sense building, or rather tearing down, that James does, reaching ever deeper inside the character to bring out what is hidden there.
James is 42 when the book begins with his ill fated attempt at playwriting. James at this point had already written his more famous novels. He is feeling old and worries that he has no more novels in him. The flop that was his play Guy Domville was devastating. But, as the novel progresses we see creativity and confidence return though they are always accompanied by the sad understanding that he will never be a popular widely read author.
Even though the book goes forward in time we get flashbacks to other times in Henry’s life. Childhood in the James family was not easy for any of the children. James’s mother was a bit of a hypochondriac and fabricated for James a back injury that provided an honorable out from fighting in the Civil War. James’s move to England to live is portrayed as more of an escape from his family than as a dissatisfaction with American life or a particular love of England.
Throughout the book we are treated to seeing James put his stories together, where they came from and watching him as the idea builds and eventually spills out onto paper. In 1897 James’s right hand hurt so badly that he could no longer hold a pen. He resorted to using a dictation machine and a typist and then foregoing the machine to dictate directly to the typist. It worked so well that even when James’s hand stopped hurting he continued to use a secretary to write his books. In the beginning though James was worried about people finding out he was no longer actually writing with his own hands:
At the beginning he was careful not to broadcast his new method too freely, but soon he regretted telling anyone at all, as those who learned that he was now talking his words into a machine, that the art of fiction had become industrialized, took a dim view of his decision and, indeed, of his future. He assured them that he could be trusted not to be simplified by any shortcut, or falsified by any facility, that, in short, his commerce with the muse had been in fact assisted by the arrival of the machine and the Scot.
I suppose you could update it today and James may have used a speech to text program on a computer, though I don’t think anyone would have accused him of endangering the art of fiction by doing so.
Along with creativity, the book, in the guise of Henry James, attempts to see behind the masks we wear in the world, the ones that say everything is fine when they aren’t; the ones that say this is the person I am when the person has unplumbed depths that even s/he isn’t fully aware of.
It is, as I said, a book that is very Jamesian. It can be read on the surface as fictionalized biography or it can be read with an eye on the psychological delving into a life and what it all might mean. This is the only book by Tóibín I have read but I will definitely be reading more of his work.