EPS Review #107 - The Master

The Master, by Colm Tóibín, Picador 2004, 359 pp.

We just read "The Master" in our book club. It is what a book club book should be: something interesting that you would not read on your own. As a student I marvelled at the nuances and long sentences in "Daisy Miller" and "The Turn of the Screw". But ultimately Henry James left me cold, though the phrase from DM -- "she would have appreciated one's esteem" -- runs through my head from time to time. I left the book till the last minute, and had to force myself to plough through long boring sections, though some incidents flowed easily, like the death of poor Constance Fenimore Woolson, and Henry releasing her billowing clothes into the Venice lagoon. I was pretty pleased when I finished the book after hours sitting in the British Library, and could go look at the Hans Christian Andersen exhibit.

One of us, married to a literature prof, denied that James was gay, or ever slept naked with Oliver Wendell Holmes, or was sexually inexperienced. At least, I think I heard that from his end of the table (we were at the Groucho Club, which was fun.) That would throw a lot of the book's interpretation into doubt. But I enjoyed learning about the rivalry with Oscar Wilde, about the James' Harvard set, about Henry's failure to volunteer for the Civil War, and about Lamb House in Rye, which I now plan to visit. (It is an interesting link that Rumer Godden lived there as well...speaking of links I may as well wander totally off topic and remark that the British Library has Beethoven's tuning fork, which passed through a long line of British composers including Vaughan Williams). I wonder if A Chance Meeting would give similar information with fewer boring bits.

It is interesting to read about a society where hints and reticence were the norm -- so unlike today. It reminded me of that old antique, Patrick O'Brian: "Question and answer is not civilised conversation."

Joe wrote: I am struggling through The Ambassadors, and I have to say that never have so many words revealed so little. I mean, if he was gay, he probably never admitted it to himself or anyone else. He seems to allude to the possibility of a gay lover keeping Chad in Paris, but so far-- I am less than halfway through this tomb, er, tome-- he has made nothing clear. I guess I am a yahoo in that for me you have to call a spade a steam shovel or I do not get the point. So why am I reading James? It is a penance. Il est une punition.

Bill wrote: Like James, only funnier, and out

Have you read Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty? It is a "Jamesian" novel without the boring bits. The main character is even a James scholar. Strong psychological story line, not a lot of action, most of the action takes place in "drawing rooms." Beautifully written, funny, sad. Story revolves around a hanger-on to the fringes of wealth and power in 1980s Thatcherite Britain. This wanna-be wants to belong so badly he doesn't realize how precarious his hold is on the dazzling, powerful, genteel world he clings to.

Hollinghurst is a crossover gay writer whose work has done well among straight readers. He is explicit enough that the straight reader sometimes finds himself murmuring "yuck." (This reader's trick for getting through Hollinghurst's sex scenes: Lay back and think of something you DO like.") If you can get past the love scenes you'll appreciate why he is such a standout writer in his generation.

Also by Hollinghurst is The Folding Star, which brings Mann's Death in Venice to mind --- obsessive, irrational infatuation with a 17 year old boy. Also, The Spell, which is a kind of gay situation comedy/ comedy of gay manners -- a mild-mannered professional man comes out into a roaring gay world. I think Hollinghurst has another novel or some stories but I haven't read them. There's a Booker prize or nomination somewhere in his career, can't recall which book.

Giovanni wrote: Glad to have had you vet this. I ran out and bought a signed copy when it was first published -- and got a good notice in the Times Bk Rev. But I haven't been able to bring myself to pick it up -- more a subconscious reaction to James, I think, than to Tóibín.