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The Master

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“Colm Tóibín’s beautiful, subtle illumination of Henry James’s inner life” (The New York Times) captures the loneliness and hope of a master of psychological subtlety whose forays into intimacy inevitably fail those he tried to love.

Beautiful and profoundly moving, The Master tells the story of Henry James, a man born into one of America’s first intellectual families who leaves his country in the late nineteenth century to live in Paris, Rome, Venice, and London among privileged artists and writers. With stunningly resonant prose, “The Master is unquestionably the work of a first-rate novelist: artful, moving, and very beautiful” (The New York Times Book Review). The emotional intensity of this portrait is riveting.

339 pages, Paperback

First published May 25, 2004

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About the author

Colm Tóibín

186 books3,294 followers
Colm Tóibín FRSL, is an Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, journalist, critic, and poet. Tóibín is currently Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University in Manhattan and succeeded Martin Amis as professor of creative writing at the University of Manchester.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,236 reviews
Profile Image for Fabian.
956 reviews1,623 followers
May 26, 2020
What a year I've had (2014)! Perhaps 20 books of the 80 or so have been Phenomenal (thanks, 1001 Books to Read Before You Die List). Seriously, the majority of these are at least above average, some of them are true essentials that you mustmust MUST absolutely experience). In that vein, "The Master" reigns supreme.

Novels about novel-writing are a hit because they embody the "perfect package": it's drama about drama, prose about prose, what the unfictitious writer had to do to ultimately get his fiction out there... even whole sets of poetics and stylistic inclinations have a TRUE (dare I add: educational) purpose in these exciting, intrepid endeavors. Yeah, Cunningham hit a home run with "The Hours"--his trying to explain a writer's madness somehow allowed it transcendence of the boundaries of time and space. And in Joyce Carol Oates "Blonde" (my favorite novel all year), there is a sincere and Godly effort to portray the ARTIST in all her bright and dark dimensions. THE MASTER is a work about the restraint felt by the artist, in this case, the incomparable Henry James, and how every small moment is erected in his mind with hints of feeling and memory. He feels sadness for children--for their future lives that seem so distant and so full of possibility, including, of course, the possibility of demise. For his sister, for mortality; for the new form of novel which could (and in my very humble opinion DID) surpass his own brand of the same.

Like Woolf, James is a victim of his age, his society--we all are. But Woolf was intrepid; James was insistent on the PROPER way to write a novel (see also, "The Art of Fiction"). His ideas went into his refined and sophisticated art; indeed with so many tuggings and distractions, & clashes with historical events, acquaintances, social gatherings, etc., James became diverted from his clear literary tasks. He is a master of his element, in his element; a brilliant man of unexpected colors.

This one, to me, is PERFECT. Yes, a book about the contemplative nature of one of the greatest writers in the English language is, not boring or dull, but magnificent in its courage to properly give the Master back his due. This is one of the greatest of tributes imaginable.

It must be said that this stands as a clear example of apprentice beating master. I will read Colm Toibin in the future with enormous expectation.
Profile Image for Ahmad Sharabiani.
9,564 reviews44 followers
February 1, 2022
(Book 9 from 1001 books) - The Master (2004), Colm Tóibín (Toibin)

The novel starts with a portrait of Henry as a public figure who feels humiliated in an unexpected way, not just in the public side of his writing career but also in a more personal way, in which all the precautions he had taken to carry on with his life as he wished it to be, come to a crisis. Henry resolves to reduce his public life by buying a house in Rye and there he nurses his loneliness and is haunted by all the consequences his need to maintain a protected space in which to live and write has generated all through his life.

He's in his fifties and he's very much aware of how he had to refuse the company of his ill sister, whom he adored, at some point, how he chose to stay away from his country and his family, how he felt to turn cold with a writer friend he had been very close to previously and becomes a bachelor with an unresolved sexuality, certainly close to homosexuality, living in a house with servants in the South of England and a daily visit of the stenographer to whom he dictates. The portrait of Henry, a man appalled by the Oscar Wilde case while repressing his self and his sexuality, shows a complex and ambiguous man. He copes with life by exerting control over how much he'd reveal, even to himself, and choosing to be a writer in order to achieve precisely that.

تاریخ نخستین خوانش: پانزدهم ماه می سال2011میلادی

عنوان: استاد؛ نویسنده: کالم تویبین؛ موضوع: داستانهای نویسندگان ایرلند - سده21م

کتاب «استاد» نهمین کتاب از فهرست1001کتابی که پیش از پرواز باید خواند؛ رمانی تحسین شده است که با پرتره ای از «هنری» به عنوان یک شخصیت آغاز میشود «هنری» احساس کوچکی میکند، نه در جنبه ی کار نویسندگی خویش، بلکه به شیوه ای شخصی، که در آن همگی کارهای زندگی اش همانگونه که میخواسته به یک بحران میرسند؛ «هنری» میخواهد با خریدن خانه ای در «رای» از زندگی و تنهایی خود دیدبانی کند و...؛

تاریخ بهنگام رسانی 11/01/1400هجری خورشیدی؛ 11/11/1400هجری خورشیدی؛ ا. شربیانی
Profile Image for Jim Fonseca.
1,100 reviews7,191 followers
September 7, 2015
The Master is the story of the key life-shaping experiences of Henry James. While we learn a lot about James' life, the book is not at all structured as a traditional biography. It begins late in James' life when he was settled in England and it has him reflect back on these experiences. In particular, three women, very close to him -- an invalid sister, a brilliant favorite cousin, and an author friend died relatively young. Another life-forming event was a summer camp experience with a large group of young people - siblings, friends and cousins, so formative, that in a sense James learned everything he needed to know about people to write his novels from this one experience.

James had a lifelong love-hate relationship with his domineering older brother, the psychologists and scholar, William James. Growing up, James lived with his family in Cambridge in Boston and summered among the elite in Newport, Rhode Island. In this insular New England literary culture, James mentions one day he would like to meet Nathaniel Hawthorne. His father had talked with him last week; James, mother and aunt knew all the women in Hawthorne's family, and James' younger sibling went to school with Hawthorne's children. So, a small world in literary Boston.

The author, who has written other gay-themed works (Blackwater Lightship) assumes James was a closet gay who never consummated a relationship with man or woman. Thus Toibin focuses many of James' formative experiences along this theme - sharing a bed as a youth with Oliver Wendell Holms, or enduring the inquiries of a good friend who, when names of customers of Oscar Wilde's "rent boys" were going to be made public during that affair, pressed James in so many words: "Well, will you be leaving for France like the others?" And the criticism, including that by his brother, why a MAN would want to write stories about WOMEN.

James did have a love affair -- with a house -- now the Lamb House, open to the public in Rye on England's south coast. There is humor, such as James' drawn-out effort to fire an elderly husband and wife butler-cook team who had become alcoholics. It's a great book; like most of James' work, it is much more interesting than it sounds; indeed it's a fascinating read, and James comes off as aloof but likeable.
Profile Image for Fionnuala.
791 reviews
December 26, 2017
I first read this book in 2004. I had chosen to read it because it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, not because it was about Henry James. Thirteen years on, I rarely read books in the Booker shortlist but I'm definitely interested in Henry James so it was with a certain curiosity that I picked this book out of a box I was unpacking and opened up its yellow-tinged pages.

In the years since my first reading, I'd always maintained in any discussion about Toibin's books that The Master was the best of his I'd read, partly because of a powerful scene that has remained vivid in my memory, and partly because his book seemed so much better than David Lodge's version of Henry James's life, Author, Author, which I read around the same time (again not because I was particularly interested in Henry James but because I was a fan of David Lodge (though I failed to finish a later book of his so I should probably now call myself an ex fan)).

Tóibín chose the year 1895 as his starting point for this fictionalised account of the Master's life. James was fifty-three at the time, and living more or less permanently in England. Tóibín describes the next four years in great detail, and while the the book is mostly concerned with those years, Tóibín also roams back in time to what he clearly regards as significant moments in his subject's experience. He doesn't project forward however even though James lived on until 1916, and wrote what I think of as his best work during that later period: The Wings of the Dove, 1902, The Ambassadors, 1903, and The Golden Bowl, 1904. I'm conscious now of a certain relief that Tóibín didn't visit those years in James's life.

If I'm giving the impression that I liked Tóibín's fictionalised biography less second time round, that is only partly true. The book is sprinkled with excellent paragraphs and it's clear that Tóibín has done a lot of research, some of which I was grateful to discover. 1895 to 1898 was the period when James wrote What Maisie Knew, and as I'd just finished reading that book when I picked up this one, finding out what inspired it was interesting. Tóibín describes a house party James attended in 1895 where he came across a little girl who seemed to be exposed by her neglectful mother to all sorts of adult occupations and preoccupations. The detailed descriptions Tóibín gives of this episode recall certain scenes from The Turn of the Screw which James wrote around the same time as the Maisie book. Since I found those two books quite different from the rest of James's work, and since I was curious about why he picked those themes, Tóibín's scenarios helped to satisfy my curiosity. They also underline what seems to be one of the main rationales of Tóibín's project: searching for exact parallels between James's life and his books. As I read, I found myself wondering if James would have appreciated such a close investigation of his motivations and inspirations. And apart from my curiosity about the oddity that is What Maisie Knew, I'm not very interested in knowing who or what inspired this or that aspect of James's work.

I'm also less interested than I expected to be in the details of his life, who he might have loved, who he might have regretted not loving enough. If he told no one while he was alive, if he carefully edited his letters and papers, and destroyed many of them, it is surely because he wished to guard his privacy. Tóibín frequently stresses James's desire for privacy yet he tries to uncover his innermost feelings at every turn. Take the following episode, for example, in which his friends tried to reserve holiday accommodation for James although he'd indicated he hadn't yet made up his mind to travel and would in any case make his own arrangements:
Slowly, in the weeks after he received the news that she and Mrs Curtis had been searching for an apartment on his behalf, he felt a powerlessness that he had not felt since he was a child.
When I read a sentence like that, I find myself exclaiming, How can you possibly know the strength of his feelings or what they even were in the first place! And why give such banal arrangements so much consequence? I exclaimed more and more frequently as I read on. Here, for instance:
In the months that followed neither William nor Henry ever mentioned the name Gus Barker to each other. Each of them felt, Henry guessed, a guilt that they did not wish to admit to, or discuss.
So Tóibín is guessing at what Henry James might have been guessing about what he himself might have felt. Such pointless speculation really irks me. And the repetitions of 'he felt' and 'he thought' ruin some otherwise good passages, as for example:
She came from a distinguished family of alluders, he thought; her mother and her aunt and her uncle the novelist usually succeeded in breaking silence on most matters and did not have many unspoken thoughts. The raised eyebrow and the pointed remark ran in the family, he thought...
That passage is otherwise so very like James's writing that it could be directly out of one of his novels. There were other passages that reminded me of James's turns of phrase:
Her manners too were brilliant...It was as though a thunder and lightening storm of the happiest kind had arrived by carriage at Lamb House in plenty of time for lunch and was playing itself out cheerfully in the drawing room.
In the Afterword, I found this statement from Tóibín: I wish to acknowledge that I have peppered the text with phrases and sentences from the writings of Henry James and his family. It would have been nice if those pepperings had been in italics or otherwise signaled but of course that would interfere with the notion that this is a fiction. I asked myself as I read through the book if there was perhaps another way to fictionalise this 'life'. Tóibín doesn't give us all of James's thoughts so why give us any? Why not take example from the Master himself - I can think of several characters in his books whose thoughts are never revealed. The characters move about, they speak, they act, but they remain essentially private. I would have liked more of that privacy for Henry James.
So not only have I become an ex fan of David Lodge, I also seem to have become an ex fan of Colm Tóibín. However, the vivid scene that had stayed in my mind from the first time I read this book was still as good as I remembered it. So not quite an ex fan - more like a vexed fan.
Profile Image for Kris.
175 reviews1,467 followers
April 13, 2012
I loved this book. I thought Tóibín did a beautiful job adapting his style to one that was evocative of Henry James, although more easily readable. The novel moves with James to London, Ireland, Italy, and Rye, and effectively integrates James' memories of the past in flashbacks that come as responses to his relationships, tensions, and interactions with others.

Tóibín has been described as a writer who is keenly interested in his characters' psychology and relationships, and this interest comes to the fore in The Master. James emerges very much as an isolated figure. He worries about how he appears to others, he struggles to maintain his composure, and in his zeal to maintain his privacy, he shies away from intimate relationships with others inside and outside of his family. He even (or especially) shields himself from knowledge of his true identity, particularly with regards to his sexuality. Tóibín's style, restrained and formal, beautifully (and sadly) conveys James' isolation and separation.

Finally, I also found Tóibín's depiction of James's writing process to be revealing. Through chapters that focus on James's relationships with important figures in his life, including his sister Alice, Tóibín explores ways in which James used his writing to communicate with, remember, and in some cases make amends to ghosts in his life. I was left thinking about the limitations on intimacy that this approach can lead to - the barriers a writer can erect by being an observer rather than an active participant, the instrumentality of relationships formed and experiences sought primarily to provide material for a novel or play, and the betrayal felt by friends and family when they read James's work only to see themselves appearing as characters.
Profile Image for Kalliope.
691 reviews22 followers
February 8, 2018


Coming out of a cinema having watched a film, one often feels, for a very short moment, somewhat astray. But very quickly one’s consciousness grapples to take hold of its position and put the realm of the movie into a contained and defined locus in one’s brain—somewhere on the side, no longer projected at the very back. Only then can one resume one’s life and self, and start chatting to friends about what did they think of the film.

With this novel I have felt a similar disconcerting magic that sucked me in and hauled me out from my viewpoint. Somewhat aware of my bewitchment I was anticipating a similar bewildering effect when I would finish the book and closed its back cover and its world and transform it back into the shape of a cardboard box. Yes, not unlike coming out into the open city, after the absorbing and dark session in a cinema.

During those reading hours I lived in the Henry James that Colm Tóibín was projecting so very skillfully.

And yet, at times I stirred in my seat. A certain mistrust was unnerving me.

May be the fact that Tóibín choses to begin with a literary flop in the career of Henry James (HJ) and then follows it with too much of a focus on the (homo)sexual inclinations of his subject.

Knowing little about HJ before I began reading The Master, and considering that it was my first two James novels that showed me the beauty of the English language, Tóibín’s initial approach did not accord well with my perceptions. Later episodes or comments confirmed my impression that Tóibín had set out to catch HJ in his faults.

This attitude was particularly problematic when recounting the friendship with and the fatal end of Constance Fenimore Woolson (CFW). May be others too, but certainly Tóibín wants to point fingers, in what I consider a dangerous and futile game of ‘what-ifs’ that are impossible to confirm, and for the most part the result of a simplistic view of cause-and-effect in life, a complex phenomenon. In Spanish we call this the futuribles.

Tóibín also bites the baited hook tended for literary biographers: looking for the persons who were the source for his fictional characters. HJ’s cousin Minny Temple is one such – of James’s most famous female personalities, Daisy and Isabel. And I wonder if Tóibín himself has not also drawn on real people around him when writing his novels. To veer too much away from real life could also lead a writer to write about what he does not know anything about, as Tóibín tells us of HJ’s work ‘in the French mode’ when he wrote about an adulteress when he was still a very young man. Tóbín includes Henry’s elder brother William mocking him for this.

At times, when tracking the original identities HJ’s success at creating characters is presented as if he had been stealing the life of the persons around him to convert them into fiction on paper; a sort of literary vampire. Or the opposite, so that we also come to the subverted situation in which Tóibín reproaches HJ for not making the character quite like the real person.

So that Isabel Archer saw what Constance Fenimore Woolson saw and may indeed have felt what she felt, if only he could have fully divined what Constance felt.

For Tóibín judges HJ. He sees HK not able to empathize enough with his friend CFW. I, however, felt that CFW had also not understood HJ’s need for independence and privacy and may have drawn too many expectations.

This quest for Henry’s faults is nonetheless balanced out with the episode that narrates the relationship of the American writer with his problematic servants, the Smiths. Here HJ is portrayed under a warm light and the writer’s generosity is allowed to shine.

I also wished we had learnt more about HJ as a writer. A couple of times, his complex sentences are alluded to, and his fastidiousness with language is also amusingly presented when he admonishes his nieces when they say that they are going to ‘fix’ their hair asking them: "To fix it to what, or with what?"

All these negative aspects are to justify the missing star in my rating, because, as I have accounted at the beginning of this review, I have felt a very strong pull when reading The Master that disconcerted me strongly. The four stars shine on their own; the difficult one to identify is the missing one.

Tóibín has succeeded in fascinating me with his account. His fictional rendition of a person who in real life seems to have been despairingly inscrutable to those around him is masterful. His Henry James is so plausible that it has been my resistance to believe in its truthfulness that has led me to wrack my brains attempting to identify the dissonances that could signal to me that his account was a siren’s call.

And it has been precisely this push & pull rhythm in his novel that has been captivated and fully engrossed me.

Even if I find that I have to try and restore Henry James, the writer – with his novels.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,217 reviews1,963 followers
September 25, 2019
Thoughtful and well considered novel about a short period in the life of Henry James the novelist. It is set in the late 1890s when James lived in Rye and is entirely told from the point of view of James and is placed in his interior life. James is not an author I have read; apart from some of his shorter stuff, but that didn't present any problems in reading and appreciating the book. The basic knowledge I had about his life and family was enough.
This novel moves slowly and is very descriptive,but is none the worse for that. James's reluctance to become too close to anyone is delicately observed and the oft debated question of his sexuality is explored in an oblique way through well described flashbacks and current encounters. The relationships with the novelist Constance Woolson and the sculptor Henrik Anderson and James's reticence: his wish to be private and alone conflicting with his wish to be close to someone. Aloneness won. There are interesting accounts of his relationships with his formidable family.
Beautifully written, rather slow, James was somewhat infuriating in his reticence. I wanted to shake him and make him express some passion, grab one of his adored but distant objects and feel some human warmth (the bloke, the girl; I didn't care which; as they weren't around at the same time, preferably both). It may be that it was that very reticence, being an observer rather than a participator that made him the novelist he was. I ended up feeling rather sorry for him.
Profile Image for Guille.
782 reviews1,743 followers
June 9, 2019

“Los ídolos no hay que tocarlos: se queda el dorado en las manos” , decía Flaubert, algo muy a tener en cuenta por todos aquellos admiradores de la obra de Henry James que puedan llegar a sentirse dolidos por el enfoque elegido aquí por Tóibín (espero que sean pocos los pobres de espíritu que se molesten por las claras referencias a su homosexualidad). Siempre pueden tomarse la lectura como si de una obra de ficción se tratara.

Desde esa perspectiva, la novela plantea algunas preguntas interesantes: ¿son los sentimientos, las relaciones, los compromisos origen de desdicha más que causa de felicidad? ¿Pueden ser incluso un estorbo? ¿Se pueden realmente reprimir los sentimientos? ¿De poderse, es conveniente, una vida tiene sentido sin ellos? El planteamiento que hace Toibin sobre estas preguntas tomando a Henry James como punto de referencia me ha parecido más que afortunado.
- ¿Supiste siempre que escribirías todos estos libros?
- Sé siempre la frase siguiente —contestó Henry— y a menudo la historia siguiente, y tomo notas para las novelas.
- Pero ¿no lo planeaste todo de una vez? ¿Dijiste: esto es lo que quiero hacer con mi vida?
Cuando había hecho la segunda pregunta, Henry le había dado la espalda y estaba mirando hacia la ventana, sin saber, por qué sus ojos estaban arrasados en lágrimas.
Esta cita sugiere una posible respuesta a alguna de estas cuestiones, pero empecemos por el principio. La novela sitúa a su protagonista en 1895, año en el que asiste al estreno en Londres de su obra teatral Guy Domville, un fracasado intento de relanzar su carrera literaria que no vivía sus mejores momentos. James tiene 52 años, se siente viejo y con la necesidad de hacer balance de su vida, de sus decisiones, sus logros y sus pérdidas. Para ello tendrá que enfrentar aquello a lo que decidió consagrar su vida, la literatura, con las renuncias que con tal fin creyó que debía hacer, con su alejamiento, muchas veces cruel, de aquellos que le querían y requerían, con su retiro del mundo y de los problemas de su época.

Henry James, o, si se quiere, un posible Henry James, eligió no sentir, no involucrarse, no comprometerse, mantenerse al margen y mirar el mundo desde su mullido sillón primorosamente elegido y decorado. Escribir era su gran talento, a lo que debía rendir pleitesía, y la búsqueda de un estilo literario el objetivo irrenunciable. Le satisfacía el prestigio que su maestría le acarreaba, la aceptación general, las puertas abiertas a las mejores casas. Nada debía romper su deseo de seguridad y estabilidad, nada podía interponerse entre él y su arte.
“No quería tener a su lado a su prima inválida. Aunque hubiera estado bien, Henry no estaba seguro de que su compañía, tan llena de deliberado encanto y curiosidad, le resultara agradable. Él necesitaba entonces observar la vida, o imaginarse el mundo a través de sus propios ojos. Si Minny hubiera estado allí, lo habría hecho a través de los de ella.”
Evitó el amor y el sexo, se evadió de amistades profundas, mantuvo distancias familiares, buscó la invisibilidad, y, estando siempre dispuesto a escuchar, nunca reveló sus sentimientos ni sus más profundas convicciones. Negó ayudas, alguna con consecuencias dramáticas, se inhibió en cuestiones políticas y morales, eludió la guerra. Realmente consiguió vivir una vida cómoda y sin grandes molestias. Pero, ¿en verdad vivió? .
“Estoy pensando en un hombre que durante toda su vida cree que le va a pasar algo terrible —explicó Henry—. Le cuenta a una mujer esta desconocida catástrofe y ella llega a ser su mejor amiga, pero lo que él no ve es que su incapacidad de creer en ella, su propia frialdad, es precisamente la catástrofe, ha llegado ya, ha vivido dentro de él toda la vida.” (Hablando de la idea para una posible novela que perfectamente pudiera ser La bestia en la Jungla)
Esta podría ser la tesis de la novela de Tóibín, y sin embargo hay suficientes detalles para pensar que esto no es todo, que se puede dar al tema una última vuelta de tuerca, que quizás no fuera este el caso de Henry James –descubrir al final que su vida había estado vacía y que nada podía compensarlo-, que todavía puede ser más inquietante pensar que a pesar de todo Henry James fue feliz.
“En este cementerio, por el que caminaron una vez más, sintió, como nunca hasta entonces, que el estado de no saber y no sentir propio de los muertos era lo más cercano a la felicidad total.”
Dada su gran reserva, no es extraño que Henry James admirara en las personas su capacidad para descifrar lo que no se decía. De hecho, esa querencia se muestra también en el estilo de sus novelas y es también una de las características principales de la novela de Tóibín.
“Se dio cuenta ahora de que esa situación la había descrito en sus libros una y otra vez: figuras vistas desde una ventana o una puerta, un gesto casual que sugería una relación mucho más importante, algo escondido y súbitamente revelado.”
Esta sutileza en la exploración de los rincones más reservados de la psique del escritor norteamericano, el gusto por lo implícito, por el detalle revelador, por la frase sentenciadora, por los gestos que hay debajo de los gestos, por las conversaciones que corren por debajo de las conversaciones, es lo que hace grande a esta novela y, al mismo tiempo, posiblemente aquello que no me ha dejado ir más allá de la anécdota intrascendente en algunos pasajes. Esto justificaría la falta de una quinta estrella en mi calificación, como también el que mi poco conocimiento de la obra de Henry James me haya permitido disfrutar de los muchos comentarios, quizás demasiados, acerca de la génesis de muchas de sus novelas, de las inspiraciones que las generaron, de los propósitos que las sustentaron, aunque sí ha servido para prevenirme de lo alarmante que es tener cerca a un escritor que pueda tomarnos como modelo para algún personaje de sus novelas o, lo que es mucho peor, pueda señalarnos lo insustancial de nuestras vidas al no sacarnos en ninguna de ellas.
Profile Image for Andy Marr.
Author 3 books775 followers
October 13, 2020
I started reading this book with next to no knowledge of Henry James' life and works. I now find myself fascinated by the man, thanks to Tòibin's incredible storytelling and beautiful prose.
Profile Image for Thomas.
768 reviews177 followers
June 2, 2019
Three stars for a disappointing book. This was a gift from my Goodreads friend Emma. The book cover shows it shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, Los Angeles Times Book Prize Fiction winner and several other prizes. I tried reading 1 of Henry James' books 50 years ago and did not finish because it was boring. I realize that I am in the minority here, but I found this book to be very tedious. It was as if I was in a college literature course reading an assigned book. The book re imagines 4 and 1/2 years in the life of Henry James, an American novelist who moved to Europe and never returned to the US except for short visits.
The book details Henry James interactions with family , friends and upper class society in Italy, France, Ireland and England in this time. It also tries to interpret the writing inspiration/style used by James to write his books.
This book took me 5 weeks to read and it was not my cup of tea.
One quote: "As he worked on his novels of English morals and manners, he felt the dry nature of the English experience, sure of its own place and unready for change, steeped in the solid and social, a system of manners developed without much interruption for a thousand years."
Profile Image for Emilio Berra.
239 reviews196 followers
September 24, 2018
(quasi) Tutto su H. James
Bellissimo libro dell'irlandese C. Toibin, fra i più grandi scrittori viventi.
Protagonista è Henry James, ormai un classico della Letteratura, rappresentato nei cinque anni forse cruciali della sua esistenza (1895-99) quando ha 52-56 anni di età.
Attraverso il ricordo e la frequentazione, entrano in scena vari personaggi ed episodi della sua vita riguardanti famigliari e amici, ma non solo : alcuni di essi rivestono un ruolo di rilievo e di grande interesse.

Come sappiamo, l'insigne scrittore americano amava moltissimo l'Inghilterra, tanto da trasferirsi in modo permanente a Londra e dintorni.
Il libro si apre con il clamoroso insuccesso di una sua opera teatrale, reso ancor più cocente dal confronto con le due acclamatissime commedie, sulle scene londinesi, di Oscar Wilde.
Un'altra figura che viene ad assumere un crescente rilievo è la nota scrittrice americana Constance Woolson, che James frequentò assiduamente a Firenze e Venezia, tanto da dar adito a pettegolezzi.
S'indaga poi su persone e situazioni che diedero spunto per la creazione dei grandi romanzi del celebre autore qui protagonista, come la cugina da cui James trasse ispirazione per la protagonista di "Ritratto di signora". Cugina, orfana e non ricca ma con spiccate doti umane e intellettuali, morta in giovane età. 'Trasformata' in personaggio letterario, vivrà ed avrà a disposizione un ingente patrimonio, e tutti si domanderanno che cosa una giovane così farà della propria vita.

Il libro che stiamo analizzando non è propriamente una biografia, anche se risulta aderire fedelmente alle numerosissime fonti consultate. Si tratta di una splendida narrazione in stile piuttosto 'jamesiano' , in cui Toibin compone un affresco di straordinario effetto, con un approfondimento psicologico-esistenziale che s'intreccia mirabilmente alla realtà sociale e storica. Possiamo parlare quindi di romanzo biografico, documentatissimo e di grande rigore.
Lo stile è veramente a livello d'eccellenza, affascinante e 'aperto' all'interpretazione, ottimamente ancorato al soggetto narrato, senza cadute o cedimenti, mai banale.
L'eleganza della scrittura dà forma a una densità di contenuto e significato, tanto da condurre il lettore al termine del testo, per così dire, un po' stordito e pieno di ammirazione.
Profile Image for Helle.
376 reviews374 followers
July 31, 2016
Life is a mystery and (that) only sentences are beautiful (…)

The disadvantage of listening to an audiobook, however mellow and fittingly transatlantic the accent of the narrator, is that one cannot hold on to the sentences. They seem more fleeting when listened to, even when, as in this case, I went back many times to pay more attention to the beauty of a sentence, the significance of a word. And there was much I wanted to hold on to and savour in this gorgeous novel.

It is the story of Henry James, of his writing, his family, his friendships, his worries and regrets; his life in solitary, sedentary exile, in self-repression, sexual and otherwise. We meet Henry, as he is called throughout the novel, when his play Guy Domville fails miserably in London. After this disaster, he slowly, finally, turns toward fiction. (On the opening night of his own play, afraid to witness the audience’s response, he attends an Oscar Wilde play, Lady Windemere’s Fan, and utterly dislikes it. Already here we get a glimpse of the sombre figure Tóibín paints: Henry James, although an aesthete like Wilde, seemed to embody the very opposite position of the dandified, larger-than-life Oscar Wilde).

It is a novel of ‘startling excellence’, as the reviewer in The Observer stated. As far as I can tell from having so far only read four of James’s novels, Tóibín borrows aspects of James’s style such as tone, vocabulary and register, but he is more modern, and he has to a large extent abandoned the overly long sentences that were one of James’s trademarks (and which have made me, I blush to admit, abandon The Ambassadors more than once). The result is one of ponderous beauty as well as a fascinating literary excavation into the emergence of many of James’s stories and characters – as imagined and interpreted by Tóibín. I especially appreciated the direct line he portrays from Georg Eliot’s Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda + Anthony Trollope’s Lady Laura Kennedy in Phineas Finn + James’s own cousin Minnie to Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady. (Apropos Georg Eliot, I had to smile when Minnie claimed that you know much more how strange and beautiful it is to be alive after having read The Mill on the Floss than after a thousand sermons. Ah, indeed. I only just read that novel myself a few weeks ago).

A few sad truths are indicative of the Henry James we meet in Tóibín’s rendition of the Master in this novel:

(About how he managed to avoid the American Civil War:) His war was private

and further

He lived as if his life belonged to someone else; like a character not fully imagined.

It is an old-fashioned kind of story, in the very best sense; quietly paced, itself almost sedentary; a novel version of a biography about a refined hermit who devoted his life to his art (even if, at one point, Tóibín lets Henry’s brother point out to him that his sentences have become too long!) By employing the Master’s Christian name throughout, Tóibín cunningly makes the reader feel that much closer to the writer, as if we are truly offered an intimate insight into his life and his thoughts.

I immediately want to read more by Henry James, which was no surprise, and three of his books (two of which I’ve seen film versions of) are already on my to-read list. More unexpectedly, but most emphatically, I want to read more by Colm Tóibín. What an imaginative, beautiful feat this novel was!
Profile Image for K.D. Absolutely.
1,820 reviews
November 19, 2017
The subtle third-person narrative of Tolm Coibin (born 1955) masterfully portrays Henry James (1843-1916) as person in this 2004 Booker-shortlisted novel, The Master. Covering a period of 5 years, 1895 to 1899, this includes his defeat at London Theatre when Guy Domville (1895) flopped, his self-seclusion in Rye East Sussex, flashback to his former life in America, before going back and ending the story in Rye.

I picked up this book because this is both a 501 and a 1001 and I have been postponing this book for almost two years now. My brand-new copy then is now starting to yellow so I decided that before the pages become brittle, I have to give it a try. I did not have any prior idea of what the novel is all about except that it was shortlisted in Booker.

After 5 pages, I thought of dropping the book and then return it to my bookshelf. The reason: I have not read any James' books (shame on me) except with some sketchy ideas on Daisy Miller which is one of the books included in Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. The blurbs on the first few pages of the The Master say that Colm Toibin adapted the Henry James’ style of writing: calm literary realism. And this being a biographical fiction of Henry James life is also my first since I have not also read Michael Cunningham’s The Hours which I heard also uses exactly same the approach: a splice of Virginia Woolf’s life told in Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style of writing.

But I persisted by reasoning to myself that I have to start somewhere. I am glad I did. This is an unforgettable read.

There is nothing like it yet: the calm prose of Henry James. His silence as this novel’s main character.

Supposing that it is true that Coibin’s style here is exactly the same as James’, I particularly enjoyed his taut, luminescent and deep narration. Normally, a novel with characters not talking is boring for me but this one is different. I never knew that paragraphs and paragraphs of descriptions about what’s going on in a character’s mind can be interesting. Now I know better. If the character is as interesting as Henry James, who wrote the classic excellent novels like The Portrait of a Lady (1881), What Maisie Knew (1897), The Wings of the Dove (1902), and The Ambassadors (1903), among many others, coupled with the masterful prose by someone like Toibin, then definitely it should be a must-read.

My favorite parts are those that describe the house in Rye in relation to James’ reminiscences and thoughts. That is the house where James “hibernated” after his flopped play in London. The house provides the main backdrop of this novel and it feels like it has a life of its own (just like the clock tower in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway) by the way Toibin described it in the James-like prose that is akin to an impressionist painting: vivid and detailed, depicting the right lighting and the right angle yet achieved with very minimal brushstrokes. For example, the first time Henry entered the house (descriptions: blah blah), while looking around, he saw his room (descriptions: blah blah). It dawned on him that it will be the place where he would die. What with the 21 years of mortgage and he was already 52. I cannot even paraphrase the blah-blah’s because obviously I am neither Colm Toibin nor Henry James.

For me, the main message of The Master is at some point in the second half of our lives, we need to look back and reflect on the first half to know where we are going or how we want to spend the rest of it. We get setbacks, yes, but those points should not stop us from what we want to do. Rather, those should inspire us to do more. While in seclusion, James reflected on the series of deaths (mother, father, sister Alice, cousin Milly, a friend) in the family and felt almost alone in his house by the bay in Rye except towards the end of the story when his elder brother William, his wife and daughter visited him. I mentioned those deaths because each of them brought out who James was (at least in the eyes or imagination of Toibin): calm yet profound, loving yet detached, artistic yet devoid of dramatic nuances.

After his 5-year stay in Rye, he was 57, he bounced back and wrote most of his more “complete” (his word; with The Ambassadors as what he called to be his favorite work) novels. Just to drive home the point that sometimes we have to slowdown or even stop, reflect, wind up, then continue what we were doing and possibly achieve greater success in life.

Definitely, I will be reading some of the works of Heny James soon and probably pick up another book or two by Toibin.

P.S. Colm Toibin is an all-out gay. Henry James was said to be gay too. His contemporary was Oscar Wilde who was an outlandish and scandalous (according to this book) gay. There are implied homosexual acts in the book but not as descriptive as in Augusten Burrough’s Running With Scissors. Well, I should not have compared this masterpiece to that trashy memoir in the first place but I just want to give you a strong contrast just to point out that this, The Master is a must-read book for those who love the works of Henry James and of course Colm Toibin. But still if you are squeamish about gay love, this book is not for you.
Profile Image for Steve.
251 reviews900 followers
February 21, 2012
“Nuanced” is one of those great homological words. (“Polysyllabic” is the usual example – a word that describes itself.) When multiple blurbs for a book call it nuanced, you can bet it’ll feature more in the way of inner life and less in the way of plot. Of course, this can be good or bad depending on how skilled the writer is, how interesting the drill-downs are, and the extent to which the M.O. might otherwise be hackneyed or boilerplate. It’s like jazz standards. I’m not talking about the ivory tickler at Joe’s Piano Bar in Des Moines – all glissandos and grace notes; I’m thinking more like Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette, where nuance is everything. We already know the tune, so our favorite jazzmen can play us the complements instead, merely hinting occasionally at the melody. The indirections alter our balance just enough to enjoy the ride. Often it’s the notes they don’t play that are the most transcendent. (Thanks, Thelonious, for that insight.) Before I get too carried away, I should say what must already be obvious: The Master is nuanced. In a good way. The standards are themes like love, longing, grief and regret. Toibin comes at these in an understated way, with subtlety and refinement to spare.

This is an interesting slice of biographical fiction based on the life of American-English writer Henry James. The action, such as it is, takes place from 1895 to 1899 in England and the continent. There is conflict, as any good book must include, but it’s usually the personal kind. Toibin’s account begins as Henry’s new foray into play writing is given a bad reception. Meanwhile, Oscar Wilde’s new play at a rival theatre was packing them in. For something to do the night his own play opened, Henry witnessed Wilde’s production, where

“as the curtain rose and the audience began to laugh at lines which he thought crude and clumsy, he felt under siege. He did not laugh once; he thought not a moment was funny, but more importantly, he thought not a moment was true. Every line, every scene was acted out as though silliness were a higher manifestation of truth. No opportunity was missed in portraying witlessness as wit; the obvious and shallow and glib provoked the audience into hearty and hilarious laughter.”

Looks like Henry was quite the earnest highbrow, perhaps concluding that Wilde lacked nuance. Toibin did a good job going back and forth in time to give the context needed to understand the present-day Henry and his complicated relationships with people. One of these relationships was with Oliver Wendell Holmes who he knew from school days at Harvard. Here’s another snippet that reveals more about Henry’s perceptions (and Toibin’s fine writing) as it applies to Holmes and other Americans Henry had known who later became famous.

"When they came to England, they appeared mysterious to him, so confident, so adept at finishing their sentences, so used to being listened to, and yet they seemed to him, compared to men of their kind in England and France, oddly raw and boyish, their brashness a kind of innocence."

Another friend was the writer Constance Fenimore Woolson. She was also an American who lived in Europe. They travelled together, critiqued works of art together including each others, and might have become closer still had they both been the right types. Sadly, as Henry wrote to another friend, “she had always been a woman so little formed for positive happiness that half one’s affection for her was, in its essence, a kind of anxiety.”

Before the book, I knew next to nothing about James aside from the fact that he was prolific and from a famous family. His father was a prominent intellectual, his brother William was a famous philosopher and psychologist, and his sister Alice was a noted diarist. Toibin’s meticulous research provides what I’m sure is the real deal. And there’s plenty to be learned. To give the account even more authenticity, his text includes bits taken from letters by James, his friends and his family. Those familiar with James’s books say that Toibin captured the voice well with his ornate sentences and keen observations. The back cover likened it to Michael Cunningham’s book The Hours.

Henry was sometimes hard to figure. His reluctance to act often had repercussions that were every bit as consequential as dramatic actions would have been. Several people – a favorite cousin, his sister, his friend Constance – expected him to share more of himself with them, but he was bound to disappoint, often using his work as an excuse. Then there was a failure to act on certain other impulses, which I’ll come to in a moment. His brother William observed another aspect of his nature, fairly or not:

“I believe the English can never be your true subject. And I believe that your style has suffered through the strain of constantly dramatizing social insipidity. I think also that something cold and thin-blooded and oddly priggish has come to the fore in your content.”

Books like this which rely heavily on a sense of period often focus on manners, it seems. This may be especially true where the n-word (nuance) is involved. Isn’t Jane Austen described as being all about manners? With her it was always women seeking men. With this one, it’s man seeking, uh, we’re not really sure, but it’s pretty clearly from a vantage point deep within the closet. The impulses I mentioned earlier, felt but not pursued, fall under this category. You can read as much into this as you want, but to me it was just another part of a man with more going on beneath the surface than above it.

Graced with nuance, the cowardice, the guilt, and the extreme sensitivity that would typically form an unsympathetic figure are combined with more redeeming traits to create an interesting composite. I wasn’t always sure I liked the guy, but he had a lot of facets to consider. The only knock I have against the book is that with all the long descriptions, my mind would sometimes wander. That said, it often wandered in entertaining directions – character parsing and the ineffable way of folks. All in all, it was a solid 4-star experience.
Profile Image for Marc.
3,108 reviews1,177 followers
August 15, 2021
Fine, nicely balanced novel about the late career of the formidable American writer Henry James (1843-1916). James is portrayed as a tormented man who has increasing difficulty in dealing with others, and only finds fulfilment in his art. Great craftsmanship this is of Toibin, though I suspect it will especially appeal to the fans of James' work. (2.5 stars)
Profile Image for Margaret.
278 reviews170 followers
May 25, 2014
This book belongs to that genre of literary novels which create an imagined life (based heavily on research) for an historical character, in this case, the great novelist, Henry James. (Because there are other James family members appearing throughout, in person and in recollection, I refer to Henry James as Henry rather than as the customary James.)
Although the eleven chapters focus on the events taking place during specified months, beginning with January 1894 and ending with October 1899, the narratives within often slide backwards in time, following Henry’s thoughts as present actions remind him of past events. His mind is not bound to the times specified by the chapter titles. Not having been that familiar with Henry’s life, as I read I would frequently take time out and explore biographical information about other characters (like Alice James, Constance Fenimore Woolson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Minny Temple) and stated events just to see how grounded this novel is in biography. What I discovered certainly matched up with how people and events are portrayed in the novel. Even though Tóibín has based the core of the novel on solid research (he credits Leon Edel’s five-volume biography with the place of honor in his acknowledgements), this book soars far beyond biography because of the author’s imaginative invention of Henry’s state of mind.

For me, the quiet and restrained tone of the novel speaks clearly about the personality of a man who has spent a lifetime approaching then running from people important to him and from his understanding of his own life. He lives in denial of his less than loving behavior towards his sister Alice, his cousin Minny Temple, and his dear friend Constance Fenimore Woolson. He invites them to visit him, to be a part of his life, then abandons them in fear of further responsibility or intimacy. Sometimes his retreats have devastating effects on those he loves. We see him bury his knowledge of his unloving actions, as he also buries his knowledge of his shortcomings, of his sexuality, of his feelings towards his family. An especially strong passage in the novel portrays the struggles between Henry and his older brother William. This part of the book crackles with reality, even though Tóibín has invented the conversations between these men. And there are other scenes like this one, which are too surprising and too satisfying to spoil by hinting at them here.

Tóibín portrays Henry’s interpretations of and imaginings about what is going on around him act as “sources” of literary works written during 1994-1999 (like What Daisy Knew and “The Turn of the Screw”) and also of those greatest novels written shortly after 1899 (The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl). Readers familiar with Henry’s writings will hear echoes of them throughout.

In its very quiet way this novel grip its readers and make us feel we are there. Even though I finished and returned this book to the library two weeks ago, I find myself thinking of it over and over. I may just have to go out and buy a copy so I can savor favorite passages and so I can eventually reread with a pencil in my hand.
Profile Image for Connie G.
1,735 reviews477 followers
June 27, 2022
"The Master" is a psychological portrait of Henry James set in the late 19th Century with flashbacks to his earlier life. Henry James came from an intellectual American family that traveled widely through Europe during his formative years. James spent time in the great European cities of London, Paris, Venice, Rome, and Florence. He enjoyed socializing, and often based characters in his books on people he met. But he also needed private, quiet time to think and write, and he found that solitude when he bought the Lamb House in Rye near the English coast.

"For so many years now he had had no country, no family, no establishment of his own, merely a flat in London where he worked. He did not have the necessary shell, and his exposure over the years had left him nervous and exhausted and fearful. It was as though he lived a life which lacked a facade, a stretch of frontage to protect him from the world. Lamb House would offer him beautiful old windows from which to view the outside; the outside, in turn, could peer in only at his invitation."

James was a person who kept some distance between himself and his close friends which included writer Constance Fenimore Woolson and sculptor Hendrik Andersen. James is portrayed as a man who repressed his sexuality.

His relationships with his family members were interesting. He had a difficult father, a protective mother, and a brilliant invalid sister. There was rivalry with his older brother, and a feeling of guilt from witnessing the bravery of his younger brothers who fought in the Civil War.

Author Colm Toibin shows Henry James as a complex, intelligent man who was a close observer of people, but very private about revealing his life to others. The book was an interesting look at James' midlife while ideas of his next novels were percolating in his mind. Toibin's writing is lovely, and dwells on the inner life of his subject.
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,049 reviews48.7k followers
December 13, 2013
In "The Art of Fiction," Henry James advises the beginning novelist, "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" Unfortunately, much of James's insight is now lost on us. He grows more revered and unread with each passing decade. Shifting tastes, including a century of sensory overload, have rendered his social and emotional precision almost invisible. Students still struggle through his ghost story, "Turn of the Screw," but he's otherwise drifted off high school reading lists. When forced to confront "Portrait of a Lady" or "The Ambassadors," college students find him effete, boring, obsessed with irrelevant issues of class structure and manners. It doesn't help that we pretend there is no class structure in America; there are certainly no manners.

James was not unaware of the problem of finding an audience. His older brother William, the legendary psychologist at Harvard, suggested that his novels were insipid and priggish. His effort to take London by storm led to one of the most disastrous opening nights in theatrical history. He depended on the family fortune to sustain him when - frequently - writing couldn't.

Whatever his struggles for an audience, he enjoyed particularly good fortune in attracting a biographer. Leon Edel spent the better part of his career chronicling James's life in five volumes, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.

And now James has seduced a novelist commensurate with his own sensibilities. "The Master," a new biographical novel by Irishman Colm Tóibín, reflects all the brilliance and challenge of Henry James's work, sweeping through the author's life and mind with a scope that's both broad and precise. It's not likely to win any new fans for James, but lapsed ones should feel roused by it, and members of the cult will embrace "The Master" as a new testament.

Tóibín narrates in the omniscient third person, focused on James's perspective, a kind of "What Henry Knew." The carefully labeled chapters, starting with "January 1895" through "October 1899," belie the novel's extraordinarily complex and fluid structure.

Tóibín seems to have memorized the voluminous journals, letters, and published works of the whole eccentric James clan, allowing him to re-create conversations and interior monologues with remarkable fidelity. He enjoys total command of the decades that were the foundation for these five years, and tends to refer to events and people long before they've been clearly identified for us. Indeed, anyone less familiar with James's life, which is likely to include everyone but Leon Edel, will experience periods of bewilderment, but for those with the stamina to persevere, the rewards here are extraordinary.

The novel opens in London during preparations for "Guy Domville," a play James wrote when he sensed (incorrectly) that his days as a novelist were over. "He awaited the opening night," Tóibín writes, "with a mixture of pure optimism - an absolute certainty that the play would hit home - and a deep anxiety, a sense that worldly glamour and universal praise would never be offered him."

Too nervous to watch his own opening, he attends Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" nearby and loathes it. "The writing, line by line, was a mockery of writing," he thinks, "an appeal for cheap laughs, cheap responses." Leaving Wilde's smashing success, he walks back to his own theater in time to receive a torrent of boos and catcalls.

The experience - with its particularly public dimension - devastates him and throws him back into fiction with grim expectations. But Tóibín catches in James's response a mingled sense of humiliation and superiority: "He had failed, he realized, to take the measure of the great flat foot of the public."

Meanwhile, Wilde's spectacular success aggravates his disappointment and envy further (another one of Wilde's plays opens in the theater that "Guy Domville" exits). It also introduces a major theme in "The Master": James's ambiguous sexual orientation, treated here, like everything else in this story, with exquisite subtlety.

James listens hungrily to news of the playwright's outrageous behavior with a strictly enforced air of casual detachment. He's too elegant to gloat over Wilde's trial, too terrified to pant over Wilde's exploits. This portrayal of intense but unarticulated desire is a triumph of wit and psychological precision. Another scene of James lying awake all night next to a naked and presumably straight Oliver Wendell Holmes is even funnier and just as brilliant.

As the novel moves through James's relationships with his sister, his cousin, a friend's butler, and a young sculptor, we see again and again the same tension between his attraction to these people and a desperate need to withhold himself from them. "He found the waiting for them, the sense of expectation before a visit, the most blissful time of all," Tóibín writes. "He also relished the days after the guest had departed, he enjoyed the peace of the house, as though the visit had been nothing except a battle for solitude which he had finally won."

What's most touching, even heart-wrenching, is the way those closest to James accommodate his detachment as the price of his friendship. He and the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, for instance, enjoy a passionate meeting of minds in Italy. But as she sinks deeper into depression, she never dares to ask outright for his help, and he never stoops to answer her veiled cries. In every case, the people who desperately need him allow him to perpetuate the illusion that they're as self-sufficient as he is.

Only as the casualties mount and a few friends have the nerve to confront him with his own ruthlessness is he willing to consider the fear of entanglement that cauterizes his affections.

Tóibín's work displays the kind of depth and sensitivity that few authors can offer - or demand. After all, writing a novel that captures Henry James is like deriving an equation that calculates Albert Einstein. It's an audacious attempt that manages to beat the master at his own game, while avoiding the perils of parody or sycophancy. The result is a beautiful, haunting portrayal that measures the amplitude of silence and the trajectory of a glance in the life of one of the world's most astute social observers.

Profile Image for Bettie.
9,989 reviews17 followers
August 27, 2015
Description: The Master tells the story of Henry James, a man born into one of America's first intellectual families two decades before the Civil War. In stunningly resonant prose, Tsibmn captures the loneliness and longing, the hope and despair of a man who never married, never resolved his sexual identity, and whose forays into intimacy inevitably failed him and those he tried to love.

Withdrawn from London Borough of Redbridge Libraries

Opening: January 1895. Sometimes in the night he dreamed about the dead - familiar faces and the others, half-forgotten ones, fleetingly summoned up. Now as he woke, it was, he imagined, an hour or more before the dawn; there would be no sound or movement for several hours. He touched the muscles on his neck which had become stiff; to his fingers they seemed unyielding and solid but not painful. As he moved his head, he could hear the muscles creaking. I am like an old door, he said to himself.

Not being much of a Henry James fan I didn't mind the implications, yet do wonder if this was slightly bitchy. Tóibín is a wordsmith but there is that nasty taste left in the mouth. Nora Webster suited me far better.

3* The Master
TR The Blackwater Lightship
4* Nora Webster
LIDA - The Testament of Mary - subject matter does not appeal
Profile Image for Alex.
1,419 reviews4,483 followers
August 16, 2016
It's pretty audacious to make Henry James the hero of your book. Tóibín starts by showing us this deeply closeted, repressed guy: this is the Henry James we know. But then: he goes deeper, writing him as not just closeted but a coward, a selfish guy, and you're like whoa, hey. And then he goes even deeper and shows the terrible damage he's inflicted on everyone around him through his cowardice and selfishness, and you realize Tóibín hasn't made James the hero of his book; he's made him the villain. That's audacious.

Or something. This is a subtle book, and like the best books it acts as a mirror. Many of us have caused damage to some of those around us, in the course of being our shitty selves. We have varying amounts of angst about it. I have a lot of angst about my damage, and I'm not inclined to forgive Henry James.

Tóibín has talked about his "pure admiration for figures who, unlike myself, weren’t afraid (Oscar Wilde, Bacon, Almodóvar)," naming three more or less openly gay artists. I think he identifies with James, and I think there's some self-flagellation going on here. Not that I know anything about Colm Tóibín (Cull 'em Toe-BEAN, btw); I'm going entirely by the quote above.

So...how do you feel about your damage?

There's an ambush spoiler for Portrait of a Lady in the boring last chapter, be aware.
Profile Image for Colleen Browne.
304 reviews67 followers
August 2, 2022
I have not read any of Henry James- I always felt that his work would be stuffy and boring. Elite New Englanders just never held any interest for me. It was reading about what a great writer that Toibin is that made me buy this book. Initially, I found it a little difficult to get into but before long I was so drawn to the beautiful writing that I was hooked. It is an examination of the life of Henry James, so beautifully nuanced and thoroughly researched that I am willing to give James another look- that is not to mention that I have already ordered another book by Toibin.

Toibin describes the life lead by someone who is characterized as a master of irony. James spent much of his life in Europe and it is described in luscious detail. The reader is treated to descriptions of the relationships James had not alone with his family but with some of the most illustrious characters of the late 19th Century. From Oscar Wilde to Oliver Wendell Holmes, we are privy to details me might otherwise not have known, only for the meticulous research of the writer.

In the end, Henry had no intimate relationships with either sex although it is clear that he was gay in his proclivities. It seems that all his attempts to find love were never successful so that in one respect, his was a lonely life. That being said, he was a man who loved his solitude which afforded him the time to read and write.

The Master is a masterpiece of writing that delves deep into James and delivers an amazing reading experience.
Profile Image for Brenna.
157 reviews13 followers
June 26, 2008
usually i get frustrated and bogged down when the pace of a book is as slow as this one, and when the plot isn't really the point. but i loved loved loved this book, and loved its carefully crafted, meditative prose style. i found myself reading much more slowly than i usually do and thinking more about what was being said, so for me it was more of an interactive experience than reading usually is, and i loved that. the sentence structure was more challenging than the books i guess i've been reading recently. i found myself much more aware of myself reading somehow, and this added to my enjoyment of the book. usually i get absorbed in a book and am passively taking it in, and three hours later i finish and look up and move back into my life (kind of like sleeping). because of my awareness that i was reading, i could enjoy this book more.
this is coming from someone who has never read a lick of james, though i now want to read as much as possible, as quickly as possible. also I will be reading much more of toibin.
Profile Image for Joy D.
2,062 reviews238 followers
February 24, 2022
Beautifully written novel about a segment of the life of author Henry James (1843 – 1916). It is set in 1895 to 1899, looking back on key episodes and people in his life. We gain a perspective on his family, particularly his relationship with his parents, older brother William, and younger sister Alice. We look at James’ disappointment in the theater, his relationship with close friend Constance Fenimore Woolson, and interactions with sculptor Hendrik Christian Andersen. Several other prominent people of the era make a cameo appearance, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes and Oscar Wilde. It flashes back to his early life in the US, desire to become a writer, education, avoidance of service in the American Civil War (two of his brothers fought for the Union), and relocation to England.

It is a deeply drawn imaginative psychological character study, which provides the reader with insight into James’ personality. It is based on extensive research. What struck me immediately is his reclusiveness, and desire for solitude related to having time to read and write. He enjoyed friendships with a small number of people but retreated when it felt too intimate. What is left between the lines is his romantic inclinations, implying he was closeted. It follows Henry James as he journeys to sites in Ireland, US, UK, France, and Italy.

The novel is written in a looping style, where we revisit earlier scenes from a slightly different perspective. The writing style is artistic and elegant. The tone is quiet and contemplative. It is written in a style that pays homage to “the master,” and has a 19th century feel to it.

It is not necessary to be familiar with James’ body of work but helps to know at least something about him. If you have read even a few of James’ books, you will notice Tóibín’s use of the same subtle and probing technique that James employed. I now want to read more from both James and Tóibín. Recommended to those interested in Henry James and his literature (or literary fiction in general). I loved it.
Profile Image for David.
865 reviews1,338 followers
June 19, 2009
Colm Tóibín is a genius. In this novel, he explores the life and work of Henry James, spanning the period from 1895 to 1900. His characterization of James is so subtle and - dare I say? nuanced - that I was forced to keep on reading. Even though I don't particularly like Henry James or his work, by the time I finished this book, I was motivated to rethink my dislike.

If you're a James fan, this is probably a five-star book for you. For the rest of us, it's somewhere between 3 and 4 stars. It definitely reinforces my belief that almost anything Tóibín writes is worth adding to one's reading list.
Profile Image for Nahid Rachlin.
Author 14 books451 followers
April 6, 2009
An interesting book, capturing the disquiet and drama of a writing life
Profile Image for Avital.
Author 8 books69 followers
April 19, 2011
The Master tells about Henry James from the inside out and back. The insight into the author's psych is mesmerizing and daring. He also gives a picture of those times' society, with the rich who offered their palaces, parties and company to artists all over Europe, and the artists who stayed as guests for months.
Henry James has enjoyed this kind of hospitality but he has also treasured his solitude.
It's hinted more than once and in various ways that he was homosexual, but either he was a-sexed or Toibin refrains from getting deeper into his sexuality.
Constance's story appears somewhat late in the book, first her destiny and then her relationships with Henry James. However, I found the book masterful in the way it brought to life the author's (the master's) complex personality and sharp mind..

And something funny from Toibin:


BoldType: In addition to being categorized as an Irish writer you’re also described as a gay writer. How do you react to these inevitable labels? Do you think they’re beneficial, or can they be alienating?

CT: I am also bald. I don’t notice a section on us in bookstores. I think you’re best to look at these labels as oddly comic. A few years ago, someone wrote to me to ask for comments about publishing and gay novelists. It was strange. I had been working so hard, and thinking only about my book, that I had forgotten I was gay. I think it’s easier to be gay on holidays, or at the weekend, or late at night, when you’re not otherwise busy.
Profile Image for Annette.
796 reviews382 followers
April 4, 2019
London 1895: As the story begins it is concentrated on a play, actors, rehearsals, and how the novelist Henry James feels about it. I didn’t find it engaging.

A lot of writing is concentrated on how he feels, what he learns and wonders, what he would do or should have done.

“After the failure of Guy Domville, his determination to work did battle with the feeling that he had been defeated and exposed. He had failed, he realized, to take the measure of the great flat foot of the public, and he now had to face the melancholy fact that nothing he did would ever be popular or generally appreciated. Most of the time he could, if he tried, control his thoughts.”

It seems as Henry James tended to be melancholic, which is expressed throughout the story.

From London he goes “to Ireland since it was easy to travel there and because he did not believe it would strain his nerves.”

Upon return to London, there is a new dilemma involving Oscar Wilde and Edmund Gosse.
When life returns to normal, he continues his writing.

“Some days, Henry believed, he wrote too much and too quickly, working his Scot too hard. Once the stories were published, he paid little attention to them, revising them once for book publication and then forgetting about them.”

The author skillfully paints a portrait of a sensitive man. The author’s writing in itself is skilled, but I didn’t find the story that engaging.

Profile Image for Joy H..
1,342 reviews62 followers
January 30, 2015
If you'd like to get a feel for the personality and life of Henry James without struggling (g), try this book.

Colm Toibin, author of _The Master_, imitates Henry James' style as he tells this fictionalized biography of part of Henry James' life.

I found it thrilling to feel so close to Henry James who has always seemed so distant as a writer. It was interesting to learn, as I read Henry's inner thoughts, that he suffered from self-doubt . He was human after all.

It was also interesting to read how James created his stories by taking ideas from the lives of real people in his own life.

The book relates Henry James' thoughts about his brother, the psychologist William James, as well as Henry's interaction with other relatives and close friends.

At times Henry seems rather wistful and even sentimental as he thinks about the "unrecoverable past". Author Toibin talks of how Henry goes through the rooms of his house observing them carefully "so that they could be remembered and captured and held". The book says: "He moved around it relishing the silence and the emptiness". I got the impression that Henry James enjoyed his solitude.

In the acknowledgments, Toibin says: "I wish to acknowledge that I have peppered the text with phrases and sentences from the writings of Henry James and his family."
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