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Gorgeously written and meticulous in its detail, Colm ToÃbÃn’s The Master is a thoughtful exploration of the life of one of America’s great writers: Henry James. Author of classic novels including The Portrait of A Lady and Washington Square, James is best known for his nuanced recreations of the privileged lives and (often dissolute) lifestyles of Americans and Europeans in the late 1800’s. He is also often bemoaned for his extreme dedication to detail, and for his regular tendency to go on and on. The Master, while thoroughly modern, also certainly drags.
Episodic and lyrical, The Master limits itself to a few years in James’ life in the very late 19th Century. The largest portion of each chapter (and hence, the entire novel), however, is devoted to lengthy memories and ruminations as a mature, aging Henry revisits key moments in his life. The structure works, highlighting key moments and bringing James’ memories brilliantly to life. Rome, Venice, London and New England all shimmer with beauty and decay, and in these moments readers will be invested in discovering who Henry James truly is.
Possibly gay, certainly aloof, and entirely unwilling to engage with other human beings on any emotional or personal level, James, by his own admission, worked hard to keep everyone at a safe and proper distance, unequivocally putting aside any and all inquiries as to his heart and mind.
Accordingly, ToÃbÃn has set himself a daunting task. How to create a character (in a novel that is almost a biography) when that character is a real-life person who, with all his might, resisted being truly known?
Luckily, ToÃbÃn lets his readers more deeply inside. Without announcing James’ deepest thoughts, he demonstrates them through razor-fine, incisive descriptions of people, places and sensations in time. Hammond, a warmly attentive servant with whom James shares a number of quiet, intimate moments in Ireland, is lovingly described, and when they part, Henry’s loss is palpable:
“Already he missed the glow of pleasure which Hammond’s calm face had given him. Soon, it would be lost to him, and this made him feel that he was a great stranger, with nothing to match his own longings, a man away from his own country, observing the world as a mere watcher from a window. ”
Henry lived far removed from his own heart, and most of his relationships are studiously kept to the bare surface of things. A few people do affect him greatly — his sister Alice, an idiosyncratic cousin, and Henrik Andersen, an earnest, handsome young sculptor whom Henry meets while in Rome. While each shines during their brief time on the page, it is still as justification for Henry’s melancholic worldview that they seem to appear. Probably the most significant relationship explored in The Master is his long, tender friendship with Constance Fenimore Woolson, an American novelist also living in Europe. Woolson was as steely and untouchable as Henry, and yet their need for each other, and the quiet, undemanding ways in which it is expressed, form some of the richest and sweetest sections of the book.
Henry is reunited with his surviving family — stern older brother William, his generous wife Alice, and their daughter — during a period of sickness near the novel’s end. William and Alice are wonderful characters: cranky, strong-willed, and as fundamentally a unit as Henry is an isolated soul. The forced intimacy begets genuine closeness, allowing James to open up to emotions in a way that, sadly, he never has before. Into this mix reappear two of the novel’s earliest characters (warmly welcome), and in those moments readers will hope — will yearn — for Henry to grab at this chance for happiness, come what may.
He won’t, of course, but the novel does finally end on a very sweet note of remembrances and longing, and the cherishing of every moment as it will never come again.