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The Master (2005)

The Master (2005)

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3.83 of 5 Votes: 3
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0743250419 (ISBN13: 9780743250412)

About book The Master (2005)

In "The Art of Fiction," Henry James advises the beginning novelist, "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" Unfortunately, much of James's insight is now lost on us. He grows more revered and unread with each passing decade. Shifting tastes, including a century of sensory overload, have rendered his social and emotional precision almost invisible. Students still struggle through his ghost story, "Turn of the Screw," but he's otherwise drifted off high school reading lists. When forced to confront "Portrait of a Lady" or "The Ambassadors," college students find him effete, boring, obsessed with irrelevant issues of class structure and manners. It doesn't help that we pretend there is no class structure in America; there are certainly no manners.James was not unaware of the problem of finding an audience. His older brother William, the legendary psychologist at Harvard, suggested that his novels were insipid and priggish. His effort to take London by storm led to one of the most disastrous opening nights in theatrical history. He depended on the family fortune to sustain him when - frequently - writing couldn't.Whatever his struggles for an audience, he enjoyed particularly good fortune in attracting a biographer. Leon Edel spent the better part of his career chronicling James's life in five volumes, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.And now James has seduced a novelist commensurate with his own sensibilities. "The Master," a new biographical novel by Irishman Colm Tóibín, reflects all the brilliance and challenge of Henry James's work, sweeping through the author's life and mind with a scope that's both broad and precise. It's not likely to win any new fans for James, but lapsed ones should feel roused by it, and members of the cult will embrace "The Master" as a new testament.Tóibín narrates in the omniscient third person, focused on James's perspective, a kind of "What Henry Knew." The carefully labeled chapters, starting with "January 1895" through "October 1899," belie the novel's extraordinarily complex and fluid structure.Tóibín seems to have memorized the voluminous journals, letters, and published works of the whole eccentric James clan, allowing him to re-create conversations and interior monologues with remarkable fidelity. He enjoys total command of the decades that were the foundation for these five years, and tends to refer to events and people long before they've been clearly identified for us. Indeed, anyone less familiar with James's life, which is likely to include everyone but Leon Edel, will experience periods of bewilderment, but for those with the stamina to persevere, the rewards here are extraordinary.The novel opens in London during preparations for "Guy Domville," a play James wrote when he sensed (incorrectly) that his days as a novelist were over. "He awaited the opening night," Tóibín writes, "with a mixture of pure optimism - an absolute certainty that the play would hit home - and a deep anxiety, a sense that worldly glamour and universal praise would never be offered him."Too nervous to watch his own opening, he attends Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" nearby and loathes it. "The writing, line by line, was a mockery of writing," he thinks, "an appeal for cheap laughs, cheap responses." Leaving Wilde's smashing success, he walks back to his own theater in time to receive a torrent of boos and catcalls.The experience - with its particularly public dimension - devastates him and throws him back into fiction with grim expectations. But Tóibín catches in James's response a mingled sense of humiliation and superiority: "He had failed, he realized, to take the measure of the great flat foot of the public."Meanwhile, Wilde's spectacular success aggravates his disappointment and envy further (another one of Wilde's plays opens in the theater that "Guy Domville" exits). It also introduces a major theme in "The Master": James's ambiguous sexual orientation, treated here, like everything else in this story, with exquisite subtlety.James listens hungrily to news of the playwright's outrageous behavior with a strictly enforced air of casual detachment. He's too elegant to gloat over Wilde's trial, too terrified to pant over Wilde's exploits. This portrayal of intense but unarticulated desire is a triumph of wit and psychological precision. Another scene of James lying awake all night next to a naked and presumably straight Oliver Wendell Holmes is even funnier and just as brilliant.As the novel moves through James's relationships with his sister, his cousin, a friend's butler, and a young sculptor, we see again and again the same tension between his attraction to these people and a desperate need to withhold himself from them. "He found the waiting for them, the sense of expectation before a visit, the most blissful time of all," Tóibín writes. "He also relished the days after the guest had departed, he enjoyed the peace of the house, as though the visit had been nothing except a battle for solitude which he had finally won."What's most touching, even heart-wrenching, is the way those closest to James accommodate his detachment as the price of his friendship. He and the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, for instance, enjoy a passionate meeting of minds in Italy. But as she sinks deeper into depression, she never dares to ask outright for his help, and he never stoops to answer her veiled cries. In every case, the people who desperately need him allow him to perpetuate the illusion that they're as self-sufficient as he is.Only as the casualties mount and a few friends have the nerve to confront him with his own ruthlessness is he willing to consider the fear of entanglement that cauterizes his affections.Tóibín's work displays the kind of depth and sensitivity that few authors can offer - or demand. After all, writing a novel that captures Henry James is like deriving an equation that calculates Albert Einstein. It's an audacious attempt that manages to beat the master at his own game, while avoiding the perils of parody or sycophancy. The result is a beautiful, haunting portrayal that measures the amplitude of silence and the trajectory of a glance in the life of one of the world's most astute social observers.

This has been the perfect book for me, never once a disappointment over my slow months of reading it, and I am so grateful. My gratitude is enhanced by its unpredictability: Henry James has never become very readable for me, as I tried to do when I was very young. Now I see that I had been misled by a teacher who had too small a concept of the age and patience reading James requires. So I had led myself to open The Ambassadors, never quite figuring out a word of it, thinking at times it had been written through thick gauze and then translated from some other language.As a result, James has always stood as the embodiment of high sensibility, a lofty poshness of bloodless prose, hardly an American writer at all. Not Dreiser or Howells, certainly not Whitman, not Emerson. Not that kind of mastery or sensuality. How my affection for a novel about Henry James has occurred is a mystery. A mystery: I think that is the purpose reading, to find a mystery at its heart. Any reading, newspaper, diary, garden book. Why does this happen? What must happen next? How does this engender thought? What are these unprecedented thoughts?The Master was an experience of slow, interrupted reading, always in the background as I struggled to write a long chapter about the aesthetics of fiction, and how that art works within us as we read and live it. Toward the end, the essay uses the words of Mark Edmundson. "“The test of a book lies in its power to map or transform a life. The question we would ultimately ask of any work of art is this: Can you live it?” (Why Read?, p. 129) I lived this book and experienced the qualities of light in its English and Italian rooms. I noted its extraordinary feelings: the interior longing for confidence in love; the complexity and doubt of human relationships, doubling and folding over with age and memory; and the immeasurable distances between persons seated in the same room, gazing at the same sculpture, or grieving the same loss. Reading slowly, I lived Henry's thinking, lived at Henry's pace.The novel begins in 1895 and ends in 1899, just as the year turns into a new age. Henry, born in 1843, will die in 1916, outliving his siblings. William James and his wife Alice are strongly present in the final chapter; their parents, sister Alice and two brothers are present in flashbacks as well. (The mother sends a message from the grave, in fact.) This period includes a catastrophic writing failure; finding a home away from London; a retrospective view of the Civil War, inspired by a visit from Oliver Wendell Holmes; travel to Italy; surviving the loss of a beloved woman; a passionate but unconsummated friendship with a young sculptor; a family reconciliation with a view toward death. A book, therefore, about loneliness and silence; about exile and about being American; about a complicated family of genius; about responsibility and guilt; about creating a place for oneself; about sleeping alone for a long lifetime.At the end of the book, speaking about writing with the visiting Edmund Gosse (who is about to write about his own conflicted life in Father and Son) Henry is asked to tell "the moral" of planned stories he has begun to write. One story is about a man who anticipates something dreadful for all his life, not seeing until it is too late that "his own coldness" is the catastrophe. Another is about an intelligent man with a suppressed "sensuous nature." Toibin writes, "'The Moral?' Henry thought for a moment. 'The moral is the most pragmatic we can imagine, that life is a mystery and that only sentences are beautiful, and that we must be ready for change ..." The moment is celebratory and light, in fact, but it closes with these truths: Henry embodies human resonance in all its unclarity, and sentences are beautiful.Toibin is himself a master of the telling, knifepoint sentence. In a recent interview he says he once told a class, “You have to be a terrible monster to write." That is, you must be willing to cut out and thieve the intimacies of others for your fiction and coldly put them on display. And yet here, Henry James has had five years of his life, and all the ruminations in it, stolen for these pages in a way that softens his monstrosity for me, and elevates the writer's heartlessness to a form of exquisite art. It helps me to revise my thinking, and to understand the irony that the failed writer fails because he has not been heartless enough.This is a book that I will not recommend because my joy as its reader cannot be trusted or assumed to transfer, though I think it is a rare and unpredictably moving masterpiece. I am now a decade older than Henry James was in 1899 and I too am far from where I started. I understand his distances from others; his disappointments with himself; the definitive Jamesian quality of restraint and longing; the desire and captivity of words. But I can just barely imagine the density of the tapestries of James's perceptions, their great weight; the continuities traced among lives and settings; nor can I fully grasp the rooms, the images in those mindful tapestries. However, I think with great admiration that they have been beautifully taken from the master and threaded here by Toibin's hand.

Do You like book The Master (2005)?

It's pretty audacious to make Henry James the hero of a book. Tóibín starts by showing us this deeply closeted, repressed guy, the James we know. But then he goes deeper, writing him as not just closeted but a coward, and a selfish guy. And then he goes even deeper and shows the terrible damage he's inflicted on everyone around him through his cowardice and selfishness, and you realize Tóibín hasn't made James the hero of his book; he's made him the villain. That's audacious.Or something. This is a subtle book, and like the best books it acts as a mirror. Many of us have caused damage to some of those around us, in the course of being our shitty selves. We have varying amounts of angst about it. I have a lot of angst about my damage, and I'm not inclined to forgive Henry James. Tóibín has talked about his "pure admiration for figures who, unlike myself, weren’t afraid (Oscar Wilde, Bacon, Almodóvar)," naming three more or less openly gay artists. I think he identifies with James, and I think there's some self-flagellation going on here. (Not that I know anything about Colm Tóibín (Cull 'em Toe-BEAN); I'm going entirely by the quote above.) do you feel about your damage?There's an ambush spoiler for Portrait of a Lady in the boring last chapter, be aware.

I loved this book by the wonderful Irish writer Colm Toibin. His prose is a pleasure to read and bask in. This novel, a fictionalized life of 19th Century writer Henry James - his "Portrait of a Lady" is one of my favorite novels - is moving and detailed. Toibin's Henry James is a lonely, sexually repressed man who seemed to have an attraction to both men and women. His great and most intimate friend was a woman, and her suicide in Venice strongly disturbed him. Throughout the novel, however, James remained celibate. Though he had an obvious attraction to two men, his greatest pleasure - and escape - came from being alone in a room and writing. He craved that aloneness. (Incidentally, James was a contemporary of Oscar Wilde, but didn't care much for his life style or his writing.)This novel nicely details the times and the places where he lived: His growing up in New York and New England, his travels to Paris and Italy - especially to Rome and Venice - and living out most of his life in England. (His comparison to two visits to Rome, I think they were twenty or thirty years apart, was interesting to read.) Though James came across as a lonely man, he had a family that he was close to: especially to a sister that died and a famous brother, William James, the philosopher and psychologist, with whom he had a complex relationship. He also had many friends and acquaintances and socialized wherever he happened to be. I also liked the way Toibin depicted James' writing process - how an idea, a fragment of an experience, developed into a story.I did not want this beautifully-written novel to end.
—Joseph Longo

usually i get frustrated and bogged down when the pace of a book is as slow as this one, and when the plot isn't really the point. but i loved loved loved this book, and loved its carefully crafted, meditative prose style. i found myself reading much more slowly than i usually do and thinking more about what was being said, so for me it was more of an interactive experience than reading usually is, and i loved that. the sentence structure was more challenging than the books i guess i've been reading recently. i found myself much more aware of myself reading somehow, and this added to my enjoyment of the book. usually i get absorbed in a book and am passively taking it in, and three hours later i finish and look up and move back into my life (kind of like sleeping). because of my awareness that i was reading, i could enjoy this book more.this is coming from someone who has never read a lick of james, though i now want to read as much as possible, as quickly as possible. also I will be reading much more of toibin.

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