“It was easier to be old here, he thought; no colour was simple, nothing was fresh, even the sunlight itself seemed to fall and linger in ways which had been honoured by time.”
Previously, I described Colm Toibin’s writing as a “breath on glass“, borrowing his own words in The South. In The Master, Toibin uses another phrase that would be perfect to describe his writing. Between Henry James and Minnie Temple, he writes, there was “much that would have to be left unsaid and a great deal that would never be known.” The Master, a thickly fictional biography of Henry James, defines its protagonist by what is left unsaid and what would never be known, and is itself defined by the unsaid and the unknown. In The South, Toibin wrote of the “subtleties of silence“. The Master is an entire book filled with silences, half-suggestions that one must strain to catch, murmurs that resemble “breathing on glass in its uncertainty and its delicacy... [and to] see a pattern before the breath was cleared away.”
The portrait that Toibin paints of Henry James is of a man wedded to his art, keenly aware of the opposing pull of human relationships and human intimacy, and yet determined to reject it. “We all liked you,”, reminisces the Baroness von Rabe on a late evening in Rome, “and I suppose you liked us as well, but you were too busy gathering material to like anyone too much.” “Only sentences are beautiful“, Henry says at another time, merely half-joking. Reality is to be studied, but never to be embraced – until art sublimates it into something worth embracing. And so, while his own experiences with intimacy are dilute and attenuated, full of awkward retreats and withdrawals, it is in his companions’ death that the relationship nears completion: “he had them now, all three of them, and he would embrace them, hold on to them and let them improve with time, become more complex and less vulgar, less ugly, more rich, more resonant, more true not to what life was, but to what it might be.”
Toibin follows Henry James as he moves through Europe at the closing of the 19th century, a Europe that suggests a fading, weary lustre, whether it is the “openness and grand vistas of Rome“, or the “modest and guarded proportions” of his garden in the English village of Rye, “closer to the scale of the landscape they had been moving in, and strangely closer to their range of feeling.” As someone who made his career writing about Americans abroad in Europe, Henry too feels the same dissonance, the “yearning openness of Americans, their readiness for experience, their eyes bright with expectation and promise” contrasted sharply with “the dry nature of English experience – sure of its own place and unready for change, steeped in the solid and the social, a system of manners developed without much interruption for a thousand years.” In the pages of the book, a long (and illustrious) caste of characters traipses through, never staying too long, never long enough to establish themselves in the woodwork of the novel, quickly dissolving into memories “sharp in… outline and faded in… detail”: James Gray and Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James and Alice James, Minnie Temple and Constance Woolson. With each of them, James shares a troubles and ambiguous relationship, often terminated by untimely deaths.
A number of James’ relationships are with women, and it is here that Toibin is at his keenest and most sensitive as a writer, as an observer, as a portraitist. In the most effortless way imaginable, he describes the same world that is full of openness and possibility for a man like James, and is cloying and stifling for women like Alice, Minnie and Constance:
“Considering her insistence on raising the issue of Constance Fenimore Woolson the previous evening and her insinuation that he had abandoned her friend and left her to her fate in Venice, he wondered if she, too, Lily Norton, had been abandoned, or if she lived in fear of such an eventuality. Her not marrying, not being allied with someone who could offer her greater purpose and scope for all her flair and charm, was, in his view, a mistake and would likely seem more so as time passed. As he looked at her across the table, it occurred to him that the re-creation of herself, her deliberate broadening of her effect, could have atrophied other qualities more endearing to a potential suitor.”
“‘I think it’s difficult for all of us. The gap is so wide,’ Constance said.
‘You mean between her imagination and her confines?’ Henry asked.
‘I mean between using our intelligence as women to the full and the social consequences of that,’ Constance said. ‘Alice has done what she has to do, and I admire her.’
‘She really has done nothing except stay in bed,’ Henry said.
‘That’s precisely what I mean,’ Constance replied.
‘I do not understand,’ he said.
‘I mean that the consequences get into the marrow of you soul.’”
It is with Woolson, in particular, that James’ inability – or unwillingness – to comprehend intimacy is at its sharpest, and most tragic. Woolson dies by throwing herself off her balcony in Florence, after unsuccessfully importuning Henry to come to Italy for the winter. And Henry is left to make sense of a relationship that “had been so tentative and full of possibility”, and is now reduced to “her absence in all its finality.” But if the purpose of tragedy is to infuse life with meaning, even in death, then Toibin – through James – denies us the simplicity of closure, or the ease of discovering meaning. There is always that sense of elusiveness, of meaning evading us, just out of reach of our grasp, breath on glass, the unsaid and the unknown. Henry comes to realise, at the end, “how memory and regret can mingle, how much sorrow can be held within, and how nothing seems to have any shape or meaning until it is well past and lost and, even then, how much, under the weight of pure determination, can be forgotten and left aside only to return in the night as piercing pain.”
There’s a sense of Elizabeth Bishop here, a poet whom Toibin has written about with great sensitivity and admiration. Bishop’s One Art ends with the lines “it’s evident/the art of losing’s not too hard to master/ though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” These lines have always indicated, to me, that the shape and texture of loss – “its weight and meaning” is created only through the act of writing, and of course, even that is never complete. For James – and Toibin – meaning itself is created through loss, and is always incomplete, no matter how much you may try to write it!
There is another way in which the presence of Bishop pervades The Master. In his book on Elizabeth Bishop, Toibin quotes Lowell’s ode to her as a fine description of her work:
“Do/ you still hang your words in the air, ten years/ unfinished, glued to your noticeboard with gaps/ or empties for the unimaginable phrase -/ unerring Muse, who makes the casual perfect.”
“Who makes the casual perfect.” In Toibin’s writing – both in The South and in The Master, there is a search for depth in the everyday acts that constitute the layered lives of people. In The Master, he puts it perfectly, again in the thoughts of Henry James:
“In its detail and its dialogue, its slow movements and its mystery, it stood against abstraction, against the greyness and foolishness of large concepts. But it stood singly and small and unprotected, barely present.”
Detail, dialogue, slow movements, against abstraction, the foolishness of large concepts. There is a literary philosophy, to which one might add: the foolishness of easy emotions, the temptation of easy memories, the myth of easy meanings. In Toibin’s writing, like the colours of Rome, nothing is simple. Not even the city of Rome at the turn of the century:
“As Rome became more modern, he wrote to Paul Bourget, he himself became increasingly antique. He had fled from Venice, from the memories and echoes that had settled in its atmosphere, and had at first refused all Roman invitations and offers of shelter. He lodged instead in a hotel close to Piazza di Spagna and he found himself in his early days in the city walking slowly as though the heat of high summer had come in May. He did not at first climb the Spanish Steps, nor make a pilgrimage to any site further than a few streets from his hotel. He tried not to conjure up memories deliberately, nor to compare the city of almost thirty years earlier with the city of now. He did not allow any easy nostalgia to colour the dulled sweetness of these days. He was not disposed to meeting himself in a younger and more impressionable guise and thus feeling sadness at the knowledge that no new discoveries would be made, no new excitements felt, merely old ones revisited. He allowed himself to love these streets, as though they were a poem he had once memorized, and the years when he had first seen these colours and stones and studied these faces seemed a rich and valuable part of what he was now. His eye was no longer surprised and delighted, as it once had been, but neither was it jaded.”
The Master is a book like that. It understands the limits of surprise and delight in this world, but rejects the empty alternative of the jaded.