Colm Toibin’s The Master must be one of the most widely discussed books of June. The reviews are popping up like dandelions. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m finding the reviews fascinating. Everyone admires it, most critics without reservation, but this week a few interesting exceptions have surfaced. In this week’s New York Times Book Review, Daniel Mendelsohn agrees with other reviewers about the novel’s stylistic beauty and imaginative power:
[W]hile [Toibin’s] dazzling embedding of bona fide Jamesian nuggets throughout his narrative will delight James scholars, they never obtrude into the smooth and elegant flow of the novel’s movement.
But he goes on to wonder whether the novelist underestimates how much authentic “living” James did. He questions an overly easy but commonly held idea about James: that he sacrificed “living” for his art. According to Mendelsohn, Toibin goes even further, suggesting that, like an “artistic vampire living off the lifeblood of his innocent and truly suffering victims,” James leeched off of the lives of others. Mendelsohn thinks this an unfair assessment, and calls into question the assumptions on which it rests: a narrow understanding of “life” and a dubious, simplistic opposition of it with “art.” He raises these questions eloquently and even passionately:
”The Master” is, of course, a novel, and Toibin isn’t bound by the facts; but the way that he’s loaded the dice against James here suggests what is, to my mind, a larger failure of sympathy.
This is strange, because sympathy is something Toibin the critic, the chronicler of gay lives, has thought a great deal about. ”The gay past is not pure,” he writes in ”Love in a Dark Time,” referring to the way in which the homosexuals of an earlier generation were forced to lead double, lying lives. ”It is duplicitous and slippery, and it requires a great deal of sympathy and understanding.” But ”The Master,” Toibin’s fifth novel, made me wonder whether he fully understands only a certain kind of suffering, and has only a certain kind of sympathy. For Oscar Wilde, with his extravagant public sufferings and real physical abasement, for the scholar F. O. Matthiessen, with his tortured closetedness and eventual suicide, Toibin–who has acknowledged what he feels is the ”abiding fascination of sadness . . . and, indeed, tragedy”–clearly has great sympathy in his essays. And it is for this 19th-century, operatic sympathy that he has sympathy in the new novel, too: Minny and Constance and Alice James, with their Pucciniesque sufferings, their illnesses, premature death and suicide.
But it may be that Toibin’s very nature, his own fascination with high tragedy and his admirably fierce moral objection to the kind of secretiveness and closetedness that once ravaged him, as it did so many of us, makes him unable to get to the deep opaque heart of Henry James–the elusive and frustrating thing that got him going about James in the first place. It’s possible that James just didn’t suffer in the way Toibin understands suffering. From everything we know, he was indeed quite a happy person (by his own standards, rather than ours) for most of his life–productive, sociable, well loved and remarkably kind. And, of course, a very great artist for whom art was the highest satisfaction. Yet Toibin never explores what it might feel like to be satisfied by art alone in the way that most of us want to be satisfied by love and sex; he just keeps showing you the damage that art causes without really suggesting what its compensatory value might be–for James or, indeed, for us. There is an early story of James’s in which a young American asks himself whether ”it is better to cultivate an art than to cultivate a passion”; for James in real life, at least, it seems clear what the answer was–just as it seems clear what Toibin thinks, too. The last page of ”The Master” provides one final memory, one final illumination of why James was ”cold,” why for him there was a kind of emotion in art that nothing in ”life” could match. A closing image of the lone artist, anxiously culling moments from life to be preserved in art, is meant, I suspect, to come off as melancholy, if not tragic.
But what if James wasn’t tragic? That a life without passion as we think of it could still be a fulfilled life is one paradox that Toibin’s artful, moving and very beautiful novel doesn’t seem to have considered; and so he does not dramatize it because it isn’t clear to him. What we get in ”The Master” is, instead, the intricate and wrenching drama of James’s ”victims.” The Master himself remains, ultimately, unknowable–a problem that perhaps no artist could ever solve.
In a perfect world we’d get more book reviews like this one: judicious, eloquent, and animated by a compelling Big Idea.
In this week’s New Yorker, John Updike has the same Idea:
We sorely miss in the novel, and find abundantly in the biographies, the sound of James’s voice, as it is heard in [Leon] Edel’s and [Fred] Kaplan’s frequent quotation of onrolling sentences and stabbing, mischievous phrases culled from his letters. T