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The portrait of a writer

The Master A Novel Colm Toibin Scribner: 342 pp., $25

June 06, 2004|Michael Gorra | Michael Gorra is the author of several books, including "The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany" and "The English Novel at Mid-Century: From the Leaning Tower."

The biographer is bound by fact, but the historical novelist need only be plausible. His characters may bear the names of those who once actually lived, but he enjoys a liberty that the biographer does not. Even the most amply documented of lives contained moments in which important words went unsaid, scenes determined by a level, all-knowing stare or the way one pair of eyes avoided another. That's the kind of unspoken communication in which the fiction of Henry James delights, and no biographer can possibly treat James' inner experience with the kind of freedom he brought to his characters. That is precisely what the Irish writer Colm Toibin has achieved in this deeply engrossing novel.

"The Master" follows James through what have been called the most treacherous years of his life. It begins in 1895, when his bid for popular success as a playwright had failed, and ends in 1899, with his purchase of a house in the English coastal town of Rye. They were the years in which he wrote "The Turn of the Screw" and in which the involutions of his late style took shape -- the years that made him into the figure of Toibin's title. Much of the novel takes the form of reverie. Sometimes we watch as "Henry" crafts a new story, lingering "softly over the fresh fright he was causing to the governess." More often, we catch him in the act of remembrance, recalling "the strange mixture of rot and human sweat" of which his brother Wilky's army uniform had smelled, or his sense of his sister Alice suffering the dilemma of "a woman brought up in a free-thinking family which confined its free thought to conversation."

In every case, those memories are keyed to events in the novel's present. In 1896, for example, James had a brief visit from Oliver Wendell Holmes, whom he described in a letter as having a precious "faculty of uncritical enjoyment and seeing and imagining those he meets in no relation but their relation to himself." Toibin uses that visit to send his hero back to the summer of 1865 and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. James' first stories had just appeared, and Holmes had returned from the Civil War that the young writer himself had avoided. Both competed for the attention of James' consumptive cousin Minny Temple, who after her death would achieve immortality as the "American girl" of her relative's fiction. By summer's end, she was in love with Holmes -- and so, perhaps, Toibin suggests, was Henry himself.

In a 1996 biography, Sheldon M. Novick claimed that James and the future Supreme Court justice had become lovers that spring. Nobody now doubts the direction of James' sexual leanings. But nobody really knows whether he ever acted on a physical desire, and Novick's own claim is at best speculative, based on a tendentious reading of a French phrase in a journal entry of 1905. Still, the idea is clearly on Toibin's mind -- only he's shrewd enough not to draw on it directly. Instead, he imagines a scene in New Hampshire where, as the letters of the period describe, the farmhouse lodging the young men shared could have provided them with but one bed. So, Toibin's Henry remembers watching Holmes undress "in the quivering, shadowy light

I don't for a moment believe that these historical figures had an affair. But Toibin's characters are another matter, and it's entirely plausible that the young Henry, so conscious of having gone untouched by his generation's ordeal of fire, might have looked at Holmes in just this way; plausible too that Holmes' 1896 visit might have brought back an unrecorded hour. That episode is typical of the way this novel works. Each chapter shows us a Henry who has been brushed by the wings of the past. He begins "The Turn of the Screw" and thinks of his sister Alice, for whom sickness was an art and whose masterpiece was her own slow death; he receives a visit from a New England spinster and remembers the suicide in Venice of his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson. And though Toibin's sense of the past offers fully dramatized scenes and dialogue that make it look as though the novel's present has dropped away, his best pages nevertheless recall that famous chapter in "The Portrait of a Lady" in which Isabel Archer sits alone before a fire and thinks, does nothing, and learns everything.

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