The Magazine

The Author as Character

What happens when you put Henry James in a novel?

Aug 9, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 45 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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The Master

by Colm Tóibín

Scribner, 352 pp., $25

HENRY JAMES is, of course, not everybody's cup of chamomile. He happens, though, to be mine. In case you are uncertain about whether he might also be yours, here, by way of a quick test, from the middle of his novel What Maisie Knew, is a Jamesian sentence for you to contemplate: "The immensity didn't include them; but if he had an idea at the back of his head she had also one in a recess as deep, and for a time, while they sat together, there was an extraordinary mute passage between her vision of this vision of his, and her vision of his vision of her vision." You cannot hope to comprehend that sentence with a ballgame, or perhaps even an air conditioner, on in the background.

The writing of Henry James, who admitted to glorying in complexity in every form (to the extent of wishing his own name were more complicated), requires that his reader be, as he said, a "person on whom nothing is lost." He requires the maximum attention--so imagine, then, the attention required not merely to read Henry James but to pretend you can think as he thought, get into his mind, thence to understand the wellsprings of his motives and the way his imagination worked. This, and no less, is what Colm Tóibín attempts in The Master, his biographical novel about Henry James.

Henry James has been the subject of many biographies, the most magisterial and voluminous (five volumes, in fact) of which is that by Leon Edel. Meanwhile, studies of James's work, in books and articles, are numerous beyond mere googling. The Henry James Review, considering all aspects of his life and work, is going into its twenty-sixth year.

Finally, there are those devoted to him in a manner whose fealty is perhaps best described in an account of the life of a writer named Ray Limbert in a Henry James short story called "The Next Time" and of whom the narrator, one of the devotees, remarks: "We are a numerous band, partakers of the same repose, who sit together in the shade of the tree, by the plash of the fountain, with the glare of the desert all around us and no greater vice that I know of but the habit of perhaps estimating people a little too much by what they think of a certain style."

As for that style, those of us who have come to admire it inevitably find ourselves at some point having to defend it. James's writing, let it be acknowledged, isn't easy. It has proven untranslatable in any other language: An excellent prison sentence for aesthetes convicted of major crimes might be to require them to translate The Golden Bowl into German.

The arrangement of James's sentences, especially in what is known sometimes as his "late style," sometimes as his "major phase," is lavish in its subordinations, qualifications, and circumambulations. The extreme complexity of this late style is often attributed to his taking on a secretary--owing to a problem with the wrist of his writing hand--to whom he dictated his later novels. But it is just as possible that it was owing to James's seeing the world in even greater complication than ever before. He once told his brother that he wished he could write as he spoke; and in the end, the typist in his study clacking away, causing what he called "an embroidered veil of sound," he did exactly that.

STYLE, it is good to remember, is only superficially a matter of syntax, diction, and rhythm; in a great writer, style is a manner of seeing the world. Perhaps the best way to work one's way through James's late style is to recall The American Scene, the book he wrote about his return to the United States in 1904, where he referred to himself as "the restless analyst" and as someone "hag-ridden by the twin demons of observation and imagination." He was assailed by perception, all but overtaken by impressions; simply put, he saw more than the rest of us. James thought as he wrote; and each of his sentences is best read and understood as an act of cerebration of a hyper-subtle mind trying to get things just right, or, as they say in gymnastics, to nail it. And nail it he did, an astonishingly high percentage of the time.

The other difficulty Henry James presents to the uninitiated reader is that he may at first sometimes seem to have chewed a lot more than he bit off and that he tended to go mountain climbing, in full gear, on molehills. But, then, his subject by choice was the social one: Within his novels and stories the puzzles of the universe and the relation of man to God are not featured, or even considered; what he quarried was the proper relations of human beings as they work out conflicting wills and are called upon to make (invariably) complex moral decisions. As Desmond MacCarthy put it in a splendid memoir-essay on James, what fascinated Henry James is "whatever in life fascinates by being hidden, ambiguous, illusive, and hard to understand."

James was possibly the most careful scrutinizer of human motive that the world has ever known, and his own motives (apart from the desire, as he put it when a young man, "to produce some little exemplary works of art") have been endlessly gone into, but not yet, in my view, impressively captured. Was James too brilliantly elusive to be pinned to the velvet, splendid literary butterfly that he was, by the biographer's art? My own sense is that he may well have been. Biographers can capture his days, show us this being organized for literature through his letters and notebooks, but can they genuinely know what caused him to thrum and vibrate and create the amazing works he did?

Every biography is under the obligation to tell a story about its subject: to find a pattern (the term "the figure in the carpet" is the title of a Henry James story), bring coherence, create drama, and, above all, offer an explanation of the true meaning of the life under investigation. Leon Edel's biography of James was in part a Freudian story, featuring sibling rivalry between Henry and his equally famous brother, the philosopher William. Henry James: The Imagination of Genius by Fred Kaplan is instead the story of homosexuality thwarted and sublimated into art. Lyndall Gordon's A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and His Art is feminist in impulse and portrays James as (symbolically if not actually) a killer of two women through deliberately ignoring their calls for his attention and help. These and other biographies add to the body of information about Henry James, but my sense is that no biography--such is the subtlety of James--has finally laid a glove on him.

Might fiction achieve what biography cannot? In The Master, Colm Tóibín, an Irish novelist, uses the methods of fiction, James's own favorite instrument of truth-telling. Tóibín has handled his self-imposed assignment with considerable art; his novel has been widely praised; but it is a work that, presenting more problems than solutions, does not finally persuade, at least not this reader and admirer of James.

HISTORICAL FICTION, which Henry James himself called "humbug," is laced with landmines. Chief among them is that, despite one's best efforts, the present has a way of leaking in, in ways large and small. In the realm of the small, in his novel Tóibín uses the cant words "parenting" and "scenario," neither of which was available in the late (and linguistically lucky) nineteenth century. But the greater danger is that, try to prevent it though one may, the psychology of the current day will seep into the thinking of the historical novelist's characters and deeply corrupt the story itself. Colm Tóibín does not quite escape this pitfall either.

The Master is set between the years 1895 and 1899, with frequent returns to James's past to pick up, as the screenwriters say, backstory. James's remarkable family is introduced, his civilian years during the American Civil War, his relationships with his contemporaries among the remarkable young men and women in his Brahminish Boston social set, his London life and later days in his house in Rye, in Sussex.

T IB N HAS WRITTEN a work of great skill and ingenuity. The art in this novel derives from the style he has devised to observe Henry James's own thoughts and observations in a manner that seems in every way but one fitting. The only absence is James's comic sense, which was pervasive in his life and writing and is missed by too many of his impatient readers. What is remarkable about Tóibín's invention is that it is not in any way a copy of James's own style, but one that, at the level of sensibility, is nonetheless believably Jamesian. Here, in a characteristic passage, is a description of James at work:

He loved walking up and down the room, beginning a new sentence, letting it snake ahead, stopping it for a moment, adding a phrase, a brief pause, and then allowing the sentence to gallop to an elegant and fitting conclusion. He looked forward to starting in the morning, his typist punctual, uncomplaining, seemingly indifferent as though the words uttered by the novelist equaled in interest and importance his previous work in the commercial sector.

Tóibín begins his novel at Henry James's period of recovery after the bruising theatrical failure of his play Guy Domville. His increasingly complex novels never having found a wide readership, his relations with magazine editors growing drearier and drearier--the Atlantic had recently rejected his fine story "The Pupil"--James initially turned to the theater in the hope of making a serious financial score, to win, as he put it, "fame and shekels."

Guy Domville opened the same night as did Oscar Wilde's Ideal Husband, which James went to see, as Tóibín records, in the hope of relieving the tension of watching his own play. Unimpressed by the Wilde play, James returned to the theater in which his own play had been mounted in time for its ending. In the wings at the close, he was pushed by the stage-manager out before the curtain, there presumably to receive plaudits. Instead, along with intermittent applause, he was hooted and jeered. This man who had long kept himself detached from the public, had now met it straight on, and neither showed much taste for the other. James was devastated. "Produce again--produce; produce better than ever," he told himself, "and all will be well." And so it would be, though I'm not sure Colm Tóibín would agree.

For a true writer, little is ever wasted, nothing a total loss. From his theatrical defeat, James acquired what he called the "scenic method of composition," by which one builds to crucial dramatic scenes and which he now put to use in the novels of his major phase. Colm Tóibín uses this method, too, in The Master, by taking up a limited number of carefully chosen scenes in Henry James's life that are intended to stand for the whole. Everything, in such a method, hangs on finding exactly the right scenes to highlight.

Among the scenes Tóibín chooses are the Guy Domville defeat, a summer month during James's youth spent at Newport, Rhode Island, his avoiding service in the Civil War with (Tóibín believes) a bogus back injury, his complex relationship with his invalid sister Alice, his acquiring his house in Rye, a number of meetings with the American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, his relationship with an ambitious young sculptor named Hendrik Andersen, and a visit from his brother William and his family. Using material gleaned in James's letters and notebooks and even his criticism, Tóibín also cleverly shows James acquiring the kernels of information on which he would base many of his great stories and novels.

One could, of course, just as easily have chosen other scenes to emphasize: James's many meetings with Edith Wharton, for instance. Or his relationship with a rogue journalist named Morton Fullerton and his burning of a vast number of his own letters to protect his privacy. Equally, one could have chosen his preparation of the New York Edition of his novels (which was commercially disappointing), or his final return to the United States to write The American Scene, or his lingering death by a series of small strokes.

A reviewer of The Master in the Los Angeles Times remarked that "the more one already knows about James, the more rewarding this novel will seem." I found quite the reverse to be true: The more one knows, the more seems missing. Part of the power of a strong novel is the novelist's allowing us to imagine what we do not know. But in the case of Tóibín's hero, Henry James, we already know; we need not imagine. And herein lies the ultimate weakness of a novel based on a famous personage.

Tóibín chose the scenes he did because they tell the story he wants to tell. The Master begins with James staying at the Irish estate of his high-born English friends, Sir Garnet and Lady Wolseley, the former then commander in chief of the English forces in Dublin. While there, James remembers an unfulfilled encounter, when he was young, with a young man named Paul Joukowsky, below whose window in Paris he awaits in the rain, yearningly, for hours for some signal from the third-floor apartment to come up and consummate what Tóibín paints as a patently homoerotic friendship. But no signal is given. In Tóibín's novel, James returns home to write a story in which Paul does come down for him, "and they had walked up the stairs together in silence. And it was very clear--Paul had made it clear--what would happen." The rest of the story, Tóibín writes, "could never be written. . . . The rest of the story was imaginary and it was something he would never allow himself to put into words."

WITH THIS SCENE early in the novel, Tóibín announces his theme for The Master and begins pulling together the threads that are to form what he must believe is the figure in Henry James's own carpet. Capacious though that carpet is shown to be in The Master--the theme does not dominate everything--repressed homosexuality is the figure that plays over its rich surface.

One wonders if Colm Tóibín's own openly declared homosexuality does not make this theme more attractive to him than it might otherwise be. The one previous novel of Tóibín's I've read, The Story of the Night, though set in Buenos Aires, is chiefly about the difficulties and dangers of homosexual life even now. He has also written a study of homosexual writers.

IN HENRY JAMES'S DAY, of course, these difficulties and dangers were much more intense, the stakes set much higher. In James's day, too, thoughts of sex were not so dominant. One could be considered perfectly unexceptional living out one's days as a bachelor uncle or a spinster--a person who was not domineered by sexual drive--without being thought twisted and tortured by one's repression. We owe to Sigmund Freud the notion, still standing long after most of his other doctrines have tumbled down, that nothing defines us as much as the little pile of our dirty secrets, sexual secrets above all.

In various scenes in The Master, Tóibín has James go up to the line of confronting what he takes to be his homosexual nature, but, unable to confront it to the point of acting upon it, has him back away. Hostesses assign handsome young servants to James when he is their house guest, but he cannot make his move. An American sculptor very much on the artistic make at first appeals to him, but he is put off by the young man's vulgar ambition. At one point, Tóibín, taking his material from Sheldon Novick's Henry James: The Young Master, even tosses the naked James in the sack with a naked Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (they are staying in a summer boarding house with a shortage of beds), though again to no conclusion other than longing and restive sleep.

Truth, the old cliché has it, is stranger than fiction; and the reason is that, unlike fiction, truth needn't be consistent. Truth can also be much more ambiguous than fiction. What is the truth about Henry James in the realm of sex? Leon Edel, himself an earnest Freudian and a man who had devoted more of his life than anyone else to James, felt that there was no "technical" evidence that Henry James had ever made physical love to another human being, and no one has since ever discovered otherwise.

Although many of James's novels and stories are not without their subtly erotic charge, he was supremely the artist who knew it was best to leave erotic detail to the imagination of the reader. James was the master of not telling all--of knowing precisely what it is important not to tell, and this certainly included what he once called "the basely erotic." Writing to Paul Bourget, he remarks that "your out-and-out eroticism displeases me as well as this exposition of dirty linens and dirty towels. In a word, all this is far from being life as I feel it, as I see it, as I know it, as I wish to know it."

The novelist Hugh Walpole, who claimed once to have offered himself sexually to James (offer refused), wrote that "he was curious about everything, he knew everything, but his Puritan taste would shiver with apprehension. There was no crudity of which he was unaware but he did not wish that crudity to be named."

Early in life, James declared himself happiest as a bachelor, and, as Leon Edel writes, "he saw no reason why he should change his pleasant celibate status for one that might prove a threat to his art and his personal sovereignty." The notion of Henry James entering into a homosexual, or indeed a heterosexual, relationship with another human being is, not to put too fine a point on it, unthinkable. Henry James, happily bonking away, would not be Henry James. Besides, he was already uxoriously married to his art.

THAT MARRIAGE required the most perfect detachment imaginable. In his essay on James, Desmond MacCarthy wrote: "There is a kind of detachment (it is to be felt in the deeply religious, in some artists, in some imaginative men of action), which seems to bring the possessor of it at once nearer to his fellow beings than others get, and at the same time to remove him into a kind of solitude. I think Henry James was aware of that solitude to an extraordinary degree." For James, as MacCarthy also wrote, "to appreciate exquisitely was to live intensely. . . . His art was a refuge to him as well as the purpose of his life."

At the same time, James knew there was a steep price to pay for this arrangement. When Desmond MacCarthy told James he loved participation in life too much to devote himself to writing, James said to him: "Yes, it is solitude. If [the artistic life] runs after you and catches you, well and good. But for heaven's sake don't run after it. It is absolute solitude."

"The port from which I set out was, I think, the essential loneliness of my life," James wrote to Morton Fullerton, "and it seems to be the port also, in sooth, to which my course finally directs itself! This loneliness (since I mention it)--what is it still but the deepest thing about one"? Through this loneliness, the solitude forced upon him by his art, which also required a concomitant detachment from all other human beings, James became the great artist that he was.

There were other compensations. Writing about his own unending appetite for life to a soured and disappointed Henry Adams, James credited his continued pleasure at the spectacle of life to the fact that he was himself "that queer monster, the artist, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility," which gave his days a perpetual bloom of interest and promise. Henry James long before had made with himself a deal--he would draw his passion more from the observation than the living of life--which in his particular case paid off handsomely.

Colm Tóibín grasps this only partially. Henry James, I think, would have loathed this book, not only for its coarse invasion of his privacy but for its telling the story of his life in a way that he would have found untrue and therefore unacceptable. Just as biography cannot be a form of fiction, he would likely have informed Colm Tóibín, neither can fiction finally succeed as biography.

In a normal novel, the novelist has omniscience, and, unless he is inept, knows everything about his characters. In a novel based on true, or once-living, characters, he loses that omniscience and the necessary authority based upon it. Henry James, a brilliant critic of fiction, would have had no hesitation in informing Tóibín that what he was attempting in The Master couldn't be done.

Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.