The Master

A Novel

Tóibín, Colm

Book - 2004
Average Rating: 4 stars out of 5.
The Master
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"A deep, lovely, and enthralling book that engages with the disquiet and drama of a famous writing life: splendidly conceived and composed by a writer who is himself a master of his art."--Shirley Hazzard ("The Great Fire").

Publisher: New York : Scribner, 2004
Edition: 1st Scribner ed
ISBN: 0743250400
Branch Call Number: FICTION Toi
Characteristics: 338 p. ; 24 cm

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List - CRRL Book Match: The Sea by: CRRL_JohnGaines Jan 03, 2014

Brilliant and profoundly moving, 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. James left his country to live in Paris, Rome, Venice, and London among privileged artists and writers. In stunningly resonant... Read More »

Brilliant and profoundly moving, 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. James left his country to live in Paris, Rome, Venice, and London among privileged artists and writers. In stunningly resonant... Read More »


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Jan 26, 2015
  • rab1953 rated this: 4.5 stars out of 5.

This is a masterful book about a masterful subject – Henry James and his writing. The book opens with an imagined nighttime awakening from which James thinks about his day and how it might go. In a few paragraphs, he condenses the tone and content that he then fills out and details in the rest of the book.
Though the book is called The Master, the title could almost be ironic. As portrayed by Tóibín, James is uncertain, often uncomprehending, self-doubting and self-deceiving. He misreads his support in London after his first and only play opens and fails on its first night, then flees to Ireland rather than face his friends. He allows a domineering acquaintance to push him into furnishing his home with items he doesn’t really want. He allows his servants to appear drunk and slovenly in front of guests rather than confront them. Most disastrously, he allows his closest friend, a woman, to fall in love with him, but rather than talk about it, he avoids her, leading or contributing to her recent suicide. (Following which, he manages to have himself appointed her literary executor, and secretly burns any compromising correspondence with her.) He has strong homoerotic feelings without even acknowledging them for what they are (understandable in the context of the times, when Oscar Wilde, whom James thinks shallow and clumsy, faces his own disgrace and imprisonment). Far from being a master, this view of James has him as a diffident, ineffectual stumbler.
Yet he observes and interprets what he sees around him as the basis for a lifetime of deeply sensitive, insightful literature. In spite of the frequent misunderstanding of his readers, his family and friends, he stays fixed to his conception of his writing. He thinks about style, themes, content for a variety of stories in the course of the novel (and it’s fascinating to see where well known stories like The Turn of the Screw come from – curious also to find out how much ghosts, both spectral and metaphorical, fit into his life and his writing). He pulls themes from his own complex relationships with his family and friends, and from what he understands, or is willing to admit, about them. Underlying much of the characterization of James is his repression of his homosexuality, which leads to his need to control and hide so much of his life from others and from himself. And yet, while struggling to repress, or at least control, his life, he somehow has enough awareness to use his observations as fodder for his stories. He is, in fact, a master in his writing. It is fitting that the book ends with James explaining to a friend that “the moral … is that life is a mystery and that only sentences are beautiful.” After which, he sends his friends home and returns to his writing.
Tóibín himself writes with a control and insight that seem equal to James’. As a skilled writer himself, and author of a previous book on James, I can see his fascination with the details of James’ life and writing process. He uses James’s own style, complex and internal, on James himself, a kind of homage to a literary master. He traces the development of James’ thinking, his development of story ideas, his resentment of other people’s misinformed views of his writing and his appreciation of the few who do understand him. In James’ interior monologues, Tóibín traces the shifting relationships and sense of control, just as James would do in his own writing. I wonder how much of this is Tóibín’s imagining of the literary process taken from his own insight as a masterful writer, and how much comes from his research into James’ thinking from James’ letters and other personal writing. I think it must be at least as much the former as the latter, for this is a work of imagination, not simply a knitting together of various stories from James. And, as always in fictions about real people, the stories are about the author’s characters, not the people they are modeled on

Jan 22, 2015
  • WVMLStaffPicks rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

After reading A Line of Beauty by Allan Hollinghurst (the Man Booker Prize-winner for 2004), in which the protagonist, Nick Guest, frequently alludes to his ongoing study of Henry James, it was an added bonus to pick up Toibin’s novel, The Master. It is a fascinating, historical novel of five years in the life of Henry James, one of America’s finest writers. Book groups would have an interesting evening of discussion about these two thoughtful novels, and one of James’s own novels, perhaps Portrait of a Lady, to find insight into the works, the times and the life of Henry James, the master.

Apr 10, 2012
  • macierules rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

I never had much interest in Henry James - until now. This is a gentle, reflective novel written in a 19th century style. Really enjoyed it. On the 1001 books to read before you die list.

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