It is a risky undertaking to write a novel about one of the greatest novelists of all time, riskier still to do so by emulating the singular literary style of that genius. This is exactly the task that Irish writer Colm T—ib’n has set for himself in The Master, and the result is a captivating book that delivers a penetrating portrait of the American expatriate writer Henry James. In choosing Henry James as a subject, T—ib’n whose last novel, The Blackwater Lightship, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize certainly faced a challenge. Though his books are filled with extraordinarily deft psychological portraits of his characters' lives and motivations, James was famously private and elusive about the details of his own life. Though he traveled in eminent society in his adopted city of London, he relished solitude. He never married, and while the assumption is that he was homosexual, there is no evidence that he ever consummated his desires.
James left behind letters and papers and, of course, the great novels and stories, and T—ib’n has used the chronology of the writer's public life to shape his narrative. But he had free rein in creating James' interior life, and what he has imagined is convincing and compelling. The Master is set during just five years, from 1895 to 1899, but the story moves across all of James' life up to that time, as the aging writer ruminates on past events, much as one of his own characters might. Most of these concern "affairs of the heart," unrequited relationships of great emotional power and sexual yearning. James recalls a stifled passion for a man 20 years before in Paris, and also for Hendrick Andersen, a sculptor whom he meets in Rome. Yet there is also a marriage of true minds between James and a woman, American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson. Though he recognizes her as a soulmate, James maintains a distance because of his unresolved sexuality, and is later haunted by his own culpability in her suicide.
James was a member of a pre-eminent New England clan, and the dynamics of familial interrelationships play a huge role in the novel. Raised in the shadow of his philosopher father and his older brother William, the pioneering psychologist, Henry feels most connected to his sister, Alice. Yet while Alice shares his sensitivities (and, perhaps, his homosexuality), she does not channel them into great art as Henry does. Instead she spends the last years of her life in bed. Henry's two younger brothers, on the other hand, fight in the Civil War, and their robust physical risks and accomplishments leave the writer with a nagging sense of his own inadequacies.
One of T—ib’n's finest achievements is his exploration of how James may have taken the raw material of his experience and transformed it into the stuff of his transcendent novels. His beloved cousin Minny Temple another woman for whom Henry felt an abiding spiritual, if not sexual, attraction becomes Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady. Sister Alice and Henry himself are the models for the children in the enigmatic novella The Turn of the Screw. As The Master opens, Henry, craving the camaraderie of the theater, is attempting to launch a new career as a playwright. His play, Guy Domville, is an unqualified failure, and the perceived fiasco sets the tone for what follows, as James settles into a melancholy period of his life, feeling he has become "history." He would, of course, go on to write some of his greatest works.
James believed every sentence in a literary work should strive to be a work of art in itself. Happily, T—ib’n's own version of Jamesian prose, which could easily have lapsed into parody, is exquisite. "And there was silence now in Kensington, not a sound in the house, except the sound, like a vague cry in the distance, of his own great solitude, and his memory working like grief, the past coming to him with its arm outstretched looking for comfort," he writes at the close of one chapter. Certainly a sentence worthy of a novel about Henry James, a novel that is itself a marvelous literary achievement.