Colm Toibin is the Irish author of Brooklyn, a One Book One Chicago pick from a couple of years back. I liked it enough to pick up a couple more of his novels. The Master is a fictional study of several years in the later life of Henry James, the American author from a prominent New England family that spent much of his adult life in England.
The book opens with James’ new play bombing and being bumped for an Oscar Wilde piece. Then there was a brief sideshow with Wilde’s personal life and I was a bit afraid the novel would continue with an imagined rivalry. But Toibin is better than that.
Front and center are James’ relationships with friends and family, in which he is occasionally accused of being cold and aloof. Oliver Wendall Holmes himself seems to have called out James for being an ass as a beloved cousin lay dying. Some time later, his good friend Constance kills herself in Venice and James is left to wonder if his blowing off a visit to her might have contributed to her despair near the end. There is a suggestion – very subtle, but it shows up more than once – that James is a closeted homosexual that uses work as an excuse for solitude.
Toibin also illustrates James’ somewhat complicated relationship with his brother, the writer/philosopher William James. I could have read an entire book about that. But the most interesting aspect for me was the description of James writing Turn of the Screw, a novella that I saw on stage at Writers’ Theatre and subsequently read. Toibin asserts that it was developed as James’ response to his sister’s death. Alice had never married, had long been ill and was very tight with James. Her was the first (perhaps only) deathbed he attended.
This book is hardly action-packed, but Toibin does a heckuva job imagining and illustrating scenes from the life of a great writer.