For almost a week, I’ve been savoring each page of The Master, Colm Tóibín’s 2005 novel about the life of Henry James. When reading James, I’m often forced to slow down and read like a woman of one hundred years ago, someone with time, a quiet place, organized thoughts, and a more formal vocabulary. This is an exercise in delight for me, as Henry pays huge dividends for the expenditures in reading him. Tóibín taps directly into this vein of understanding about James and those who enjoy him. The pace of The Master is distinct, leisurely, and very nuanced. All week long, I’ve been allowed to think about Henry James, and even more so, about the development of his life as a writer, a life devoted to his craft and set apart from all else. That’s an extraordinary thing, as most writers find a way to function within their art and within more intimate realms as well. Not so Henry.
Another aspect of this story that has surprised me is how Tóibín does no small bit of imagining and supposing regarding the appropriation of persons from Henry’s life into his literature. Just this week, an online book group I belong to skirted this topic when a member raised the question “Are you a fictional character?” Turns out that no one as yet has ‘fessed to being written. But it seems that James, in Tóibín, fairly nakedly borrowed from the lives of his family members and acquaintances, enriching them by his vast imagination and placing them in settings of his own choosing, but in each case, retaining something essential and ultimately identifiable in the people who live in his novels and stories. I love this technique, not so much the strict notion of borrowing, but what Tóibín is doing, confidently attributing characteristics and writerly devices to Henry. And all in a novel about the ultimate observer. Fabulous stuff with its own brand of energy, and I’m eager to fluff the pillows tonight and read late with the alarm turned off.
One thing I’m almost certain is true about James: his empathy knew no limit. He was able to imagine how other people were feeling and to trace the complex paths of burgeoning emotions. When he wrote, there was no hesitancy in hitting the mark of his characters. He knew them thoroughly and spent countless hours imagining every thing about them. Reading The Master, James’ empathy and understanding comes through so vividly; Tóibín’s novel could be the finest preparation ever for reading more James.