Leon Edel's magisterial 5-volume biography brought the literary lion to book. After the Life, Henry James could no longer be slighted as the scowling patrician of the Sargent portrait, the waistcoated Great Pretender who conjured from society gossip the unreadable late novels with their stylistic density and spiritual listlessness. The high seriousness seemed always a soft target for lampoon. Now, we know of Henry James Senior the Swedenborgian visionary, the suicide of Constance Fenimore Woolson, the cultural transit conducted by the son between the Old and the New Worlds, even James's tussle with 'the distinguished thing'. Cynthia Ozick, with her customary absolutist ardour, is downright on the subject of James's relevance: “As the years accumulate, James becomes, more and more compellingly, our contemporary, our urgency.” Literary taste has tended of late toward the glib, the meretricious, the flagrantly clever; by rights, pace Ozick, the Jamesian aesthetic should long have been eclipsed.
But seeded in James's fiction – the figure in the carpet, indeed – are precisely those ethical issues that still solicit our attention at the outset of the 21st century: the corrosive agonies of solitude and loneliness, what it means to live the virtuous life, the competing claims of self-fulfillment and self-renunciation, the semaphore of the self adrift in society. Edel's biography, on a rather grander scale than Auden's 'shilling life', certainly gave us all the facts. But it has taken another novelist to reimagine James with penetration and sympathy, to permit us to take the measure of the leviathan.
Colm Toibin is drawn to that in James which obdurately resists simple paraphrase. But it's difficult to avoid a sense, standing in its portico, that the book is no more than a paraphrase of the last volume of Edel's biography, itself entitled 'The Master'. With the fiction itself, James's notebooks and letters, the suspicion of redundancy clings somewhat to Toibin's enterprise. It isn't so much that realising such intense inwardness, or the unapproachable semi-divinity of genius, should pose significant problems to a novelist of such accredited literary power. Rather, we intuit a certain risk in any bid to decode the charged ellipses and psychological ambiguities of James's work. It might savour of sprezzatura on Toibin's part, it might even seem brazen. A literary game, another instance of which perhaps we don't really need. Yet it becomes clear that Toibin understands how necessarily he must defer to authority and precedent. He absents himself with discretion, and acquits himself on the score of literary tact, working faithfully, in John Keats's phrase, in 'the shadow of a magnitude'. (The silent, humourless Scots amanuensis engaged by James – who received dictation of his final works – stands, in this respect, as an apt figure of the role Toibin himself adopts: spectral representative of the Celtic fringe, watchful, recording all.)
The keynote moments of James's life and career are patiently revisited in The Master, chapter by chapter, year by year. The novel's first set-piece is a public humiliation the author endured on the opening night of his play Guy Domville, that creative experimentum crucis that brought James - by its fatal misjudgement of the mood of an audience then feasting on the languid sorceries of Oscar Wilde - to his knees and forever damaged his reputation. Toibin gives us the catcalls from the galleries as James was ushered onto the stage, “the crescendo of loud, rude disapproval which came from the people who had never read his books.” And this at a moment when James was preoccupied by his waning powers, by the perishability of his renown:
He also felt that as a novelist he had fallen upon evil times, any indication of his being hugely wanted by any editor or publisher was declining. A new generation, writers he did not know and did not prize, had taken universal possession. The sense of being almost finished weighed him down; he had been producing little, and publication in periodicals, once so lucrative and useful, was becoming closed to him.
Toibin concerns himself with the years of professional unsuccess that James was compelled by changing fashions to live through, and the surrender of public celebrity to the private consolations of retrospect. (Yet it was in this period that he composed his great tales - 'The Turn of the Screw', 'The Altar of the Dead', 'The Beast in the Jungle', not to mention the trinity of masterpieces, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl. We might take from this the claustral nature of creativity.)
In The Master we become James's secret sharer, an intimate silent confederate. (As his letters finely illustrate, he had a gift for friendship – the correspondence is almost symphonic in its solicitude for young writers and acquaintances in need.) The muffled ecstatic shivers of homoerotic desire – James's sexuality has always been a closed matter – raise Toibin's fiction to a rare, saddened delicacy. We are party to the yearning, just as to the fearful insomniac vigils, but Toibin doesn't coarsen proceedings by resort to crass psychologism. Nor will he libel James by too great an emphasis on this or that psychic freak in the shaping of his gift. Toibin confers on him the dignity of final elusiveness as a human being. Edel's Life told us of the Napoleonic delusions and ravings occasioned by a stroke – Toibin concludes his novel before these last ugly scenes; in the pages of The Master at least, Henry James does not die.
James committed to print, in book after book, tale after tale, a deep, exacting study into the hydraulics of human interaction. Colm Toibin, in a prose as still and spare as James's could be luxuriant and exorbitant, brings to bear on the figure of James the same steady regard. The novelist, James had it, was one on whom nothing is lost; and in Toibin's rendering, James exercises a perceptual avidity, a hyperaesthesia that seizes hungrily on the merest emotional shifts and cues. For that is precisely what lay at the heart of his creativity: a famished craving for Life, Life! And yet, in spite of this affirmative credo, Toibin's James is quite literally death-haunted - “Sometimes in the night he dreamed about the dead..” (a first sentence that seems to shadow suggestively and curiously that of a book equally obsessed with the debatable lands of the past : “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure...”). Each progressive novel was a memento mori, even when they affected to be unflappably urbane. Toibin cites death as the elephant in James's plush, musty parlour. That James's characters step around it as if around some vulgar social betîse somehow intensifies its omnipresence in so much of his work.
But whatever the terminal struggles, the art remains. Monolithic, forbidding – each novel seems to announce another raid on the inarticulate, another few furlongs of the field of human experience painstakingly mapped. 'Master of nuance and scruple,' Auden called him. The novelist Henry St George, in James's story 'The Lesson of the Master', has the honorific qualified to 'the pardonable master', and this might have stood as the title of Toibin's book. Lovable, perhaps not – almost certainly pardonable. Mastery of life itself – and the attainment thereof – is the thing, and the heresy of making death meaningless by living in fullness of spirit right now. James achieved this, Toibin seems to be saying, through the steel glass of literature – by showing us how the past could be 'remembered and captured and held.' That, and a sublime reticence and exemplary self-discipline that could distinguish any of our lives.