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Colm Tóibín: The Master

January 5, 2011

Henry James carefully controlled the characters in his fiction, but sometimes they got away from him. The governess in his ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, worked on him so that he allowed her “a freedom which he had never intended for her … to wallow in the danger, to want it to come towards her, to motion it close, signal to it.”


He recognised this longing in himself. When the garden door creaked, “his first thought would be to welcome what was coming now to break the sad, helpless monotony of the self, to feel a moment of desperate hope that it was to come at last, whatever it was.”


This is the fictional Henry James in Colm Tóibín’s novel The Master, and I am grateful to have known him so intimately. Getting close to the real Henry was not so easy. As with his fiction, he carefully controlled his own life, holding people at a distance to allow him the space to write. Tóibín imagines the effects of this choice of art over intimacy: the sadness of what he has foregone, of what his “wall of books” has cost him; and the longing for something to smash his controlled, complacent life, the “beast in the jungle”, perhaps something analogous to the momentous spiritual crisis his father had experienced.


This is a book to savour – to read slowly, to stop and meditate on its insights and subtleties, and to reread. There is so much: Henry’s connivance with his mother in promoting his hypochondria so that he could begin writing rather than enlist to fight in the Civil War; the way he constructed his stories using his memories and friends; the effects on him of the sexual attraction he felt for other men and how he managed it; his use of close friends to satisfy his own needs while ignoring their need for him, and the shock of insight when he realised what he had done, as he did after the suicide of Constance Fenimore Woolson.


Henry James is not the only person to struggle between the desire for intimacy and the fear of it – it is a central life struggle for many of us. In his book Distraction, the philosopher Damon Young writes about “this subtle threat at the heart of our battles with distraction: that attention to ourselves, to our private pursuits, often involves sacrificing our intimate relationships.”


At the start of The Master, Henry’s need for privacy overrules his need for closeness, but during the period covered in the book there are hints of a changing balance between the two forces. Perhaps this is partly prompted by grief and regret – the loss of Constance and the realisation of his complicity in her death. The main sign of change is the closeness he allows with the young sculptor Hendrik Andersen. There is a sexual element (in feeling, not deed), but it is much more than that. He is more giving of himself, less protective of his privacy, less likely to resort to avoidance strategies. Even in Henry’s difficult relationship with his brother William, there are signs of a reduced need to hold him and his family at a distance. We get the sense of Henry feeling his way towards a more even balance between art and intimacy, towards embracing a fuller version of life.


The Master is the best novel I’ve read in years, and makes me uneasy about my praise of other novels in previous blog posts. It will continue to percolate through my mind, and further posts may trickle out. It was a wonderful conclusion to my 2010 reading year.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 6, 2011 3:37 pm

    I agree, it took me ages to read this book because I lingered over it, journalled my thoughts about it, fiddled about chasing up allusions and generally had a most enjoyable, self-indulgent time savouring this book.
    The Master, by a Master, eh?

  2. Bryce permalink*
    January 7, 2011 9:19 am

    Yes, Tóibín’s mastery is what gives the reader such pleasure. I feel I’ve joined a privileged world-wide group – those who have had a ‘self-indulgent time’ lost in this book.

  3. Jacinta Arnold permalink
    January 7, 2011 11:17 am

    Hello Bryce. A discussion with Hazel about Truth prompted us to look at your blog. I told Hazel I read it, then immediately ran for a pen and paper and started rereading whilst noting the characters and their connections. Hazel said you did that too! Have you read Pers Pettersen “Out Stealing Horses”? An unappealing title but my book of the year for 2010 (even though it was published before this). Am in New York with H and went to The Strand bookshop today !!! and purchased his latest book. I would be so please to hear what you had to say on “Out Stealing Horses”. Hope you are not too soggy with all the rain. Jacinta

  4. Bryce permalink*
    January 7, 2011 5:47 pm

    Hi Jacinta. I did use pen and paper to keep track of the 40+ significant characters in Truth. Demanding – but rewarding. Thanks for the Petterson recommendation – it sounds like my type of book, so will track it down. I’m turning green thinking of you and Hazel in NY, especially in the paradise of the Strand book shop. I’d also be checking the Chelsea and other traces of the sixties/seventies cultural explosion.

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