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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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."