Late in his life, Henry James told his niece Peggy (daughter of his quite practical philosopher brother William), "I hate the American simplicity. I glory in the piling up of complications of every sort. If I could pronounce the name James in any different and more elaborate way I should be in favor of doing it." If there's one thing people know about Henry James, it's his sentences, and the piling up of complications within them. It was the same in his own day: When he returned to America for a lecture tour in 1906, newspaper cartoons across the country (can you imagine they paid attention?) made fun of his spider-web locutions.
Colm Toibin, the Irish writer who has an excellent new novel about Henry James called The Master, does not seek out such complications, at least in his sentences. In previous novels like The Story of the Night and The Blackwater Lightship, he has seemed reluctant to go more than 10 words or so before calling in a period, never diverting into the curlicues of qualification and indirection that are James's signature. In re-creating James, Toibin's sentences do expand a little, and his language takes on some of the master's formality, but for the most part he resists--no doubt wisely--writing about Henry James as if he were James himself. But what is left of Henry James without the complications? Is he still Henry James?
What is striking about The Master is the extent to which its plainspoken sentences do capture James, at least the James we know from his writing: his exquisite awareness of the gradations of privacy and publicity and the necessity of protecting his own solitude; his eager pouncing on the dramatic possibilities of second-hand anecdotes; and, of course, his wide-open, receptive mind, on which, famously, nothing was lost. James's sentences are a form of privacy in themselves, building anterooms that one must pass through to reach his meaning, but Toibin carries you right up to the inner threshold immediately. "He had never loved the intrigue," Toibin writes, for example, with a directness that James himself would have rarely used. "Yet he liked knowing secrets, because not to know was to miss almost everything." As a result, there's almost an impatience to his narration, an insistence on moving James, willing or not, toward his destination.
But unlike James's own novels, which often support their filigrees of consciousness with steel-girder plots of startling melodrama (the villainy of Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady, the assassination scheme in The Princess Casamassima), The Master is nearly plotless. The chapters progress steadily from January 1895 to October 1899, but the true structure of the book is far less linear, following James's recollections back to his youth, to intimacies once approached, to the deaths of family and friends. The drama of it comes from James, fierce defender of his privacy and his position as a chaste and distanced observer of society, running up against the limits of his sociability and the mysteries of his own desire. In a series of nearly identical climactic scenes that run through the book, James is cornered by a friend and confronted with one of two things: his failure to put his solitude aside to help another, or the insinuation of his homosexuality. In one case Oliver Wendell Holmes accuses him of hastening, through his indifference, the death of his young cousin Minny Temple, on whom he later based some of his finest characters; in another, the writer Edmund Gosse, following Oscar Wilde's indecency trial, asks with elliptical bluntness whether James has been similarly compromised. To each James reacts with a prim, dismissive fury (showing, as elsewhere in the book, little of the charm he was in real life so prized for). The encounters give his story a cumulative melancholy.
Toibin is clear about James's attraction to men and his unwillingness to see it (or even imagine it) to its end, but he's too smart to claim that James' wound comes solely from an appetite unrecognized by his society (and thereby to imply that in today's more enlightened age he would be made whole). Rather, James' thwarted affections are made to seem of a piece with the other intimacies sacrificed in the service of his craft. Toibin, direct as he is, brings James up to the threshold of his desire, but no further: The Master is as much about the costs as it is the pleasures of mastery.