In stunningly resonant prose, Tóibín captures the loneliness and longing, the hope and despair of a man who never married, never resolved his sexual identity, and whose forays into intimacy inevitably failed him and those he tried to love. The emotional intensity of Tóibín's portrait of James is riveting. Time and again, James, a master of psychological subtlety in his fiction, proves blind to his own heart and incapable of reconciling his dreams of passion with his own fragility.
Tóibín is "a great and humanizing writer" who describes complex relationships in "supple, beautifully modulated prose" (The Washington Post Book World). In The Master, he has written his most ambitious and heartbreaking novel, an extraordinarily inventive encounter with a character at the cusp of the modern age, elusive to his own friends and even family, yet astonishingly vivid in these pages.
Topics: Paris, Victorian Era, Midlife Crisis, Writers, Expat Life, Sexuality, Writing, Creativity, Love, Death, Family, France, Venice, Boston, Florence, Ireland, London, Rome, Italy, England, Inspirational, Poignant, Based on a True Story, and Irish Author
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That very objective that Tóibín has James setting for himself is what Tóibín accomplished to perfection in “The Master”. Tóibín gives us Henry James’ voice, believable and trustworthy, in a style “redolent” of the writing style both of James and of the late XIX Century.
Indeed, Tóibín soars in my mind precisely because he accomplishes that goal in all of his fictional works. His narrators are real people of flesh and blood whom we do trust and believe in even in the depth of their struggles and conflicts. And they are set effortlessly in their time and space, fully integrated with a language that is rooted in a real time, a time absolutely authentic for the protagonists.
“The Master” is a novelistic recreation of four years of Henry James life: the period from 1895 through 1899, before he writes several of his more definitive novels and during the time he moves into Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, England. As Tóibín moves James through those four years, he sweeps the reader back through James own personal history, discussing the events, people, family and friends who enlaced the writer’s life up to his middle 50s. By the end of the novel, the reader has an enriched understanding of one of the key literary figures of the XIX Century.
For me, Tóibín is one of the most effective and skillful writers of our age. “The Master” is certainly a product of Tóibín at the heights of his talents. It was not, however, my preferred of his works. I prefer the contemporary voices of the people whom Tóibín moves through such novels as “The Story of the Night”, Brooklyn” and “The Blackwater Lightship”. But that is merely my own personal preference, not a negative criticism of “The Master”.
Tóibín has been described as a writer who is keenly interested in his characters' psychology and relationships, and this interest comes to the fore in The Master. James emerges very much as an isolated figure. He worries about how he appears to others, he struggles to maintain his composure, and in his zeal to maintain his privacy, he shies away from intimate relationships with others inside and outside of his family. He even (or especially) shields himself from knowledge of his true identity, particularly with regards to his sexuality. Tóibín's style, restrained and formal, beautifully (and sadly) conveys James' isolation and separation.
Finally, I also found Tóibín's depiction of James's writing process to be revealing. Through chapters that focus on James's relationships with important figures in his life, including his sister Alice, Tóibín explores ways in which James used his writing to communicate with, remember, and in some cases make amends to ghosts in his life. I was left thinking about the limitations on intimacy that this approach can lead to - the barriers a writer can erect by being an observer rather than an active participant, the instrumentality of relationships formed and experiences sought primarily to provide material for a novel or play, and the betrayal felt by friends and family when they read James's work only to see themselves appearing as characters.more