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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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.