Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Master by Colm Toibin

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Scribner
Pages: 338

Colm Toibin captures the mind and heart of Henry James, a novelist and playwright born into one of America’s first intellectual families two decades before the Civil War.  James left his country to live with the privileged artists and writers in Paris, Rome, Venice and London. He lived the simple, lonely life that most dedicated writers live, often locked in a room with typewriter and his imagination. And when in public, he studied people and situations for inspiration for his stories.

Toibin captures the loneliness and longing, the joys and despair of a man wedded to his art, but never to a lover. Toibin suggests that James was gay, but paints a picture of a man who never resolved his sexual identity, and whose attempts at intimacy inevitably failed. Time and again, James, who is considered the master of psychological subtlety, is incapable of understanding his own heart and passionate longings.

Toibin doesn’t tell a story of James’ life so much as he paints a detailed portrait of the writer’s perspective on life, love, death, and art. Toibin paints this portrait with supple, exquisitely modulated brush strokes that I found emotionally tense and moving.

I was reminded somewhat of how Michael Cunningham captured the mind and soul of Virginia Woolf in his novel The Hours. In the same way, through the eyes and heart of the artist, the reader sees the mystery of art itself. I found it utterly brilliant.

With superlative prose and a deep understanding of the writer’s life, Colm Toibin demonstrates that he, too, is a master.

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