Politics and Society

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Master, (2004), by Colm Toibin: A Review

    Colm Toibin, the contemporary Irish author of four previous novels and various other writings, has produced a very interesting and enjoyable study of personality, character and Art in The Master. A portrait of the artist – the great American novelist, Henry James - as a middle-aged man, a biographical essay on sensibility and emotional and aesthetic distance, an historical fiction of life informing Art (and vise-versa); it is all of these and more. The 'more' is a wonderful story. For all my doubts going in, I have to say, this seems an unqualified success, and an excellent novel.   My initial hesitation concerned what I take to be a growing trend among novelists to stuff their novels full of actual (i.e. historical) personages as a sign that they are dealing with the real world in their Art. Personally, and generally, I find it aesthetically unconvincing, though the portraits of J. Edgar and Lenny Bruce, for instance, were technical highlights of descriptive fiction in DeLillo’s Underworld. The presence of actual people in fiction is far too often a red flag signaling rather an insecurity, if not an outright capitulation, of imagination.

   But Henry James is not an aspect of collage in this novel. He is the main character and the narrative focus. The third-person format privileges his perspective and sensibility, so that we understand the events - from the opening night debacle of his over-wrought play, "Guy Domville," in January, 1895 to the final parting from his brother William (the great American pragmatist philosopher) and his family at Henry’s home in Sussex in 1899 – as they are, (might have been) experienced by Henry, the fastidious connoisseur of manners and mores, but not morals. These events comprise the wonderful story I referred to earlier. We see the events of his mid-life, and this middle period of his career, as he might have witnessed and experienced them; we get to see the artist and the man coming finally to terms with himself, his family history, and his place in the world, as an expatriate and an artist –but all this at some remove. For Henry James is fastidious about nothing so much as about the artistic and emotional distance he maintains, as a matter of discipline and conviction, from both his work and from his own emotional life.
   Although Henry James wrote in the grand tradition of social realism (a la Flaubert, Zola and Gaskill), his focus and attention were never primarily on the dynamics of social forces, writ large – like poverty or wealth, conservatism or liberalism - so much as on the clash of internalized social priorities; i.e. the socialization of virtues (and their opposites), writ small –like innocence and ambition, cultivation and impulse- in the lives of and interactions among individuals, as individuals. You will look long and hard in Henry James to find “types”, regardless of what the book-blurbs (and survey courses) would have us believe. His characters are single individuals, first and last; and though they might be Americans abroad or the hangers-on of faded European aristocracy, they are not so by type, but by motive and opportunity. Insofar as they may be considered types, James has no interest in them, as he has no interest in categories as such. They can be classified, if at all, the way criminals are classified; by individual motives, like curiosity, pride, greed, duty, and willfulness, by opportunities like proximity, wealth or family ties. It hardly needs to be said then that their destinies are rendered like the histories of crimes.

   Henry James developed a literary style to meet the need of these individually calibrated descriptions which became increasingly intricate and ornate. He wrote sentences which became increasingly baroque, often employing qualifications of elaborations in subordinate clauses which spread themselves out to an elaborate verbal filigree, always in the effort to more completely capture the finesse and fine tuning of a moment, a scene or a personality. But always in description, never in explanation, or justification. His editorial censor was like a mesh so fine, nothing as gross as moral judgment could get through it. T.S. Eliot famously (and ambiguously) said of James, “He had a mind so fine no idea could penetrate it.” He settled his descriptive mind on surfaces, like a soft-white light, and rendered all the details with the subtlety of nuance.
   What a fine and fascinating figure for Toibin  to pick as his subject!
   James must have been a difficult man to write about because he was, personally, so reserved, as a natural function of his personality and his cultivated vantage as an artist. James viewed his role as an artist as one of exact observation of significant detail and forbearance of judgment. His job, as he saw it, was to render the social world visible to his readers, simply to tell the truth; not to judge the events. As a consequence his writing-style - and his life-style also, as it turns out (?) - suffered an austere editorial constraint. The result was a style of obsessively finicky precision of description, filtered through an equally fastidious non chalance, or, as we might say, an emotional distance. Edmund Wilson had this to say about James:
           One would be in a position to appreciate James better if one compared
         him with the dramatists of the seventeenth century—Racine and Molière
         . . . These poets are not, like Dickens and Hardy, writers of melodrama—
         either humorous or pessimistic, nor secretaries of society like Balzac, nor
         prophets like Tolstoy: they are occupied simply with the presentation of
         conflicts of moral character, which they do not concern them-selves about
         softening or averting. They do not indict society for these situations: they
         regard them as universal and inevitable. They do not even blame God for
         allowing them: they accept them as the conditions of life.

      Among the conditions of life with which Henry James had to contend, was his precocious artistic sensibility, his presumptive latent homosexuality, his middle child status in a wealthy home of oversized personalities and egos, a doting mother, and an American heritage of moral and intellectual independence. (His father, Henry James, Sr., was a very prominent intellectual figure in 19th century America, as well known in his day as Emerson or Thoreau.) How many of these factors formed or informed his personality and work is, of course, the real issue in this historical fiction. The danger is that the rendition offered up will do an injustice to our appreciation of the actual man. But Toibin seems to have done the research, and if he suggests too much of one influence and not enough of the other, the fault is never egregious, for he does not invent motives for which there is no actual historical evidence. More importantly, he avoids completely, as Henry James would, every easy suggestion that conditions of personality or social station account for the man or his work. Instead, he renders a nuanced portrait of the man and the artist at a particularly important time in his life, when who he is, and who he has been to others, is put to a test. His ordeal and resolution is as finely described and presented as any character’s ordeal in the works of ‘the master.’

   In the episodic course of this narrative, we witness Henry (as he is usually referred to by Toibin) in middle age, at a time of modest financial success, at an artistic and critical crossroad in his career. In the wake of the mediocre reception of his play ("Guy Domville") in London, he is taking stock of his private material ambition for a household in Sussex, his social connections among the literati of London, Florence, Paris and Rome and his family relations, past and present. The collection of big names, like Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau, Henry Sr. and William James, and the lesser known novelists and writers of the time, along with the intimate portrayal of James’s fascinating siblings, especially Lucy and Wilky, provide a context or milieu for his ruminations and reminiscences. Toibin introduces these secondary characters who constitute his milieu with a casual and graceful familiarity. It is a unique and distinct pleasure of this book that we get to brush up against their greatness with such nonchalance and observe familial intimacy with such tact, however second-hand the experience actually is.
   I was, from the get go, on guard against a depiction of Henry James that over-simply reduced him or his works to the influence or effect of any one, or combination, of his original conditions. Such things do (too often) happen. This would be anathema to James’s own understanding of character and destiny. For he saw the world as a place essentially hostile to individual innocence, peopled as it was, naturally and even necessarily, by predatory ideologies and ambitions always scheming for a foothold of power in the individual’s life, by dominance, alliance, blackmail, or mendacity. And he was right, wasn’t he? In fact, isn’t this exactly what has happened to his own legacy? Taking the clue from Mark Twain’s travel-book, Innocents Abroad (1868), generations of scholars and critics have unfairly co-opted the writings of Henry James as a literary adjunct to the creation of an American mythology of ‘new world’ cultural innocence and vitality, as contrasted with the effete and decadent culture of ‘old world’ Europe. Isabelle Archer (from Portrait of a Lady, 1881) and Daisy Miller (the eponymous heroine of a novella from 1878) have been repeatedly, and almost exclusively, cast as ‘types’ in this social reordering of literary history. Unfortunately, this latter-day ‘narrative’ has had a chilling effect on the appreciation of, and even the general interest in, the great writer’s actual legacy.
   Imagine my surprise then, and relief and gratitude as well, when I realized that Toibin had done the exactly opposite thing. Far from co-opting James legacy to an old, false mythology, or even harnessing him to a new one (‘the triumph and tragedy of the homosexual’ was honestly the one I feared most), by deftly avoiding reductionism, Toibin's The Master liberates Henry James from the clutches of reductive ideologues and puts him back in his own milieu, his own life and times, his own peculiar individuality. What results is a fresh perspective, cleaner and wiser, less fusty and prim, more fastidious and subtle. In a word, more artistic.  

   I was put completely at ease, finally, by seeing Toibin’s portrait of ‘the master’ emerge much as it, or such a one, would have emerged under the hand of the Master himself. After a few days of mulling it over, I was even more impressed by the effort and the result. It is a subtle portrait, full of suggestion and intimation, without any determinative emphasis on conditions or cause and effect. As Henry James himself would have been the first to say, conditions don’t make a person behave, thus and so. Individual personality does that. Whether Isabelle Archer (the heroine in Portrait of a Lady) had the courage to be willful and headstrong a third time, after two headstrong disasters, says nothing about her being innocent or American, but everything about the transformation of her real naivete and her completely personal and individual reserves of courage.
    So also with Henry James. Toibin does not try to propound that he wrote in a stilted style, out of pompous aristocratic conviction or Brahmin pretense, was a malingerer (or a coward!) during the American Civil War, or that he was a closeted homosexual whose stinted passions coerced his literary subject or style. He presents the character of the man, his sensibilities (chthonic and adoptive) and his convictions, natural and national, through a description of his actions and their contexts (as Henry saw them) and lets the drama unfold. It is the story of one man facing challenges, making decisions and making do with the results. He explores the surface, the events, of the great mystery, as James did, and presents the moments of quiet agony (in the ancient sense of the term) and decision. It is still for us to decide what part courage and ambition, or pride and Art played in the story.
   Not only is The Master an excellent novel, in and for itself, it is also a welcome and corrective – restorative - portrait of a great writer and an interesting man.

No comments:

Post a Comment