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."