A Subtle Play of Relations Reveals Henry James in Full

The Master , by Colm Tóibín. Scribner, 352 pages, $25.

In his new novel, The Master , the Irish writer Colm Tóibín has undertaken a triply difficult task. Historical fiction poses one set of challenges, fiction about fiction-writers poses another. To attempt a novel about no less a figure than Henry James might be seen as foolhardy. Yet Mr. Tóibín has stared the nearly impossible in the face and achieved a quiet tour de force: a work of deep seriousness and sympathy that gives us a genius in his full human dimensions.

James is an inconvenient colossus of American literature: essential, monumental, more respected than liked. This was true in his own time as now. At the turn of the century-the period in which Mr. Tóibín’s novel finds him-James was an international celebrity of sorts, an American who had been living as an expatriate in Europe for 30 years, and a famously difficult man: arrogant, bloated, prickly and magisterial, his personal impenetrability of a piece with his infamously ornate prose. Early works like Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady , in which energetic and idealistic young Americans encountered and ultimately outshone cynical and devious Europeans, were clearly and forcefully written, and attracted a large audience. But as his style grew rococo, and his characters more ambivalent, James’ books ceased to sell. Accordingly, he decided to become-as though such a thing were possible to decide-a successful playwright.

The memorably disastrous London premiere of his play Guy Domville , in January 1895 (taking the stage at the curtain call, James was booed), nearly destroyed him. Instead, it led him to the peak of his artistic career.

The Master covers five years in James’ life, from Guy Domville to the fall of 1899, when, newly established in his beloved English-seacoast retreat Lamb House, James has just begun the first great novel of his major phase, The Ambassadors . The “arc” of The Master , then, is from failure to triumph, but true to its subject, nothing so vulgar as an arc is evident in the narrative, which closely follows the events of James’ real life and, much like a Henry James novel (but strictly in the style of Colm Tóibín), is carried forward by the endlessly subtle play of human relations.

Early in the novel, James flees England and the Domville debacle to accept an invitation to a noblewoman’s Irish estate-and, not surprisingly, finds himself surrounded by the boorishly rich and powerful. A wealthy woman shows up with her 10-year-old daughter, the only child on the premises. James takes acute notice of little Mona’s elaborately concealed discomfort at her surroundings:

“He pulled himself back from the doorway just as Lady Wolseley let out another shrill laugh at some remark of Mr. Webster’s. In his last glimpse of Mona she was smiling as though the joke had been a pleasantry to amuse her, everything about her an effort to disguise the fact that she was clearly in a place where she should not be, listening to words or insinuations she should not have to hear. He went back to his rooms.”

There he speaks with a servant he has befriended, a handsome ex-military man named Hammond who, it turns out, has a sister just Mona’s age. James asks:

“‘Does Mona put her in your mind when you see her?’

“‘My sister does not roam freely, sir, she is a real treasure.’

“‘Surely Mona is protected by her nanny and, indeed, her mother?’

“‘I’m sure she is, sir.’

“Hammond cast his eyes down, looking troubled as though he wished to say something and was being prevented. He turned his head towards the window and remained still. The light caught half his face while half stayed in shadow; the room was quiet enough for Henry to hear his breathing. Neither of them moved or spoke. Henry appreciated that if anyone could see them now, if others were to stand in the doorway as he had done earlier, or manage to see in through the window, they would presume that something momentous had occurred between them, that their silence had merely arisen because so much had been said. Suddenly, Hammond let out a quick breath and smiled at him softly and benignly before taking a tray from the table and leaving the room.”

The Mona incident prefigures What Maisie Knew . But equally to the point, the scenes with Hammond are laden with sexual tension-tension which is, of course, never resolved.

Anyone who has even traipsed lightly through Leon Edel’s magnificent biography of James knows that the novelist was a man of more than many parts-an infinitely fine sensibility, a wounded soul, a profound lifelong capacity for friendship, a sly and subtle sense of humor, and a tormented sexuality. It’s all too easy to surmise that James’ textual thickets are a metaphoric screen. By all evidence, he seems never to have had a heterosexual experience, though he had deep if conflicted relationships with a number of women, most notably his cousin Minny Temple and the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, both of whom served him as models for fictional heroines (and both of whom we meet, in flashback, in The Master ). And while there’s ample documentation that he had strong erotic feelings for men (including his doting and domineering older brother, the writer and philosopher William James), it appears doubtful he ever acted on his impulses-and in any case, in the end, it’s impossible to know.

It’s emblematic of the many generous pleasures of The Master that Mr. Tóibín, a gay man and a writer in whose fiction and nonfiction male homosexuality has figured strongly, has depicted with utter persuasiveness a genius who insistently, and to a certain extent tragically, sublimated his own sexuality. The great love of his life was a handsome Norwegian-American sculptor named Hendrik Andersen, 27 years old to the Master’s 56 when they met. James lavished the young man with attention and affectionate letters, entertained him at Lamb House.

But in a scene of delicious ambivalence near the end of the novel, it becomes clear, as Andersen describes to James his great artistic dream, “a genuine world city, a place of great buildings and monuments,” that though Andersen’s form and youthful enthusiasm are magnetic, he’s also a bit of a pompous bore:

“Henry’s mind was half-filled with the work of the morning …. Compared to the city which Andersen was inventing, it was both nothing and everything. In its detail and its dialogue, its slow movement and its mystery, it stood against abstraction, against the grayness and foolishness of large concepts. But it stood singly and small and unprotected, barely present; it would take up a small space in a great and monumental library in a city where reading in solitude would not be part of his friend’s magnificent dream.”

This small space is precisely the space of literature, described by a writer who understands it deeply. And his quiet but profound novel is-dare one say it?-masterly.

James Kaplan, the author of Two Guys from Verona (Grove Press), is at work on a new novel.