I am generally ambivalent about Henry James, and so approached this novel, which is a fictional biography of the writer, with mixed feelings. I do love the plots behind James’s novels, and start each new one with great enthusiasm. The real problem is that the three sentence plot synopsis which sounded so engaging is inevitably obscured and evaded thanks to James’s trademark obscuring and evasive writing style. When he keeps to the point, such as in the incredible ‘What Maisie Knew’, I can see the genius of his technique. With his later, and longer, works it sometimes all gets too much for me.
What a joy then, to find that Tóibín chose to open his book with a description of James’s preparations for his play ‘Guy Domville’. Convinced the play will make his name, but unable to face the tension of the first night, he instead goes in search of distraction, planning to return to his own theatre in time for the curtain calls. In the end, James goes to see Oscar Wilde’s ‘An Ideal Husband’. He hates it. Leaving the theatre amidst the rapturous audience ‘he wondered what he could have done with such a story. The writing, line by line, was a mockery of writing, an appeal for cheap laughs, cheap response’. The humiliating conclusion of the chapter (and James’s career as a playwright) is inevitable, but, as with ironic quotation above, also sympathetic. Tóibín clearly respect Henry James, even if his novel’s title is somewhat tongue in cheek. James is desperate to avoid ‘cheap laughs, cheap response’ and yet his life is full of them. The master is brought fully down to earth, but he is allowed to keep hold of his ideals.
The rest of the novel maintains the slightly hysterical balance of the opening chapter. James’s writing methods are explored and there is enough period detail to make you feel like a minor expert on the late Victorian literary world. Even for those who, like me, find Henry James’s famously long sentences a barrier to enjoying his later works, there is pleasure in reading how ‘he loved walking up and down the room, beginning a new sentence, letting it snake ahead, stopping it for a moment, adding a phrase, a brief pause, and then allowing the sentence to gallop to an elegant and fitting conclusion.’ These passages however are interwoven with the darkly comic vignettes, sometimes farcical, sometimes social, sometimes bordering on the grotesque. From his trouble with drunken servants to the almost surreal difficulties he has disposing of a dead friend’s wardrobe, Tóibín exposes the petty and human tribulations of ‘The Master’, showing how these act as a counterpoint to his undeniable artistic achievements. This is a book which must appeal to Henry James lovers and will work as a great introduction for anyone who has not read any of his works. For readers who detest James, follow my example, and give it a try – remember, it’s also got some great descriptions of Wilde.