Sunday, July 1, 2012

An imagined Henry James - portrait of a master by a master (Books - The Master by Colm Toibin)

Writers who cannot seem to tell the difference between fact and fiction have been the source of many a news story, but the lines between events as they occurred, as we remember them, and as we create them anew are far from clearly drawn.  The consolidation of a memory - a recursive neural process that solidifies events in our brain's long-term storage bins - changes the memory as it does so.  Each time that memory is retrieved and played on our mind's internal movie screen, it again undergoes metamorphosis.  Works of fiction based on real events and people (is there any other kind?) create a sense of viewing events through a series of transparent layers, each with its version of the happening.  Seeing one layer through the images of another creates an impressionistic dream-space where all truths are simultaneously visible, creating what some think of as stylized artifice, but I think it a very real depiction of memory.  In The Master Colm Toibin has created such a work out of the life of novelist Henry James.

It appears that Toibin has researched the lives of Henry James, his siblings William, and Alice, the novelist Constance Fenimore Wilson, and other of their contemporaries exhaustively, but the fruit of those labors does not feel pedantic.  Rather he has imagined his way into their minds, particularly Henry's, in order to understand how his creative and emotional life fuelled his writing.  One writer to another and one gay man to another Toibin reaches across time to create an imagined Henry James - a man who could have written The Turn of the Screw, The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, and The Aspern Papers, to name some of the pieces to which Toibin applies his research combined with the magic key to artistic creation - the question "what if..."
Gosse spoke idly of the Symondses and did not realize how Henry was taking this in.  The story came to Henry, in any case, so quickly and easily that he did not have time to tell Gosse.  He set to work.

What if such a couple had a child, a boy, impressionable, intelligent, alert to the world around him and deeply loved by both his parents?  How would the child be educated?  How would the child be taught to look at life?  He listened to Gosse and asked questions and from the answers began to construct his story.  His first ideas emerged later as too stark and so he abandoned the ambitions of the parents for their son - one wanting the child to serve the Church, the other, the father, wanting the child to become an artist.  Instead he dramatized the idea that the mother merely wanted to save her son's soul, and in order to do so she needed to protect him from his father's writings.
Toibin depicts James as mollycoddled by his mother, the two of them mutually discovering an imagined fragility as a way of keeping him safe from, among other things, fighting in the Civil War.  This eventually turns into a habit of keeping himself at a distance from most of the risks and stresses of life, especially deep friendship or romance.  He instead develops an acute eye, capable of looking deeply into the motives lying behind other people's actions, but substituting this for any real intimacy he might exchange with them.  This insight fueled his creative work, which he attended to with monkish devotion, but became the sole source of any sustained emotional satisfaction he was to experience.  If we are to believe Toibin, James was aware of this and it warped him.  In responding to a friend's death, which takes place in Venice:
He went to the window and looked down at the street.  Even now, he felt that he had every right to leave her behind, to follow the path of his own talent, his own nature.  Nonetheless, her letters filled him with sorrow and guilt, and added to these a sort of shame when he realized that she must have spoken to others, to Gray at least, about his refusal to entertain her.  Holme's phrase 'she turned her face to the wall' echoed in his mind now and did battle with his sense of his own ruthlessness, his own will to survive.  And finally, as he turned back into the room, he felt a sharp and unbearable idea staring at him, like something alive and fierce and predatory in the air, whispering to him that he had preferred her dead rather than alive, that he had known what to do with her once life was taken from her, but he had denied her when she asked him gently for help.
Toibin brought the loss of this friend most fully to life in a scene in which he and a servant must dispose of her clothes.  Propriety will not allow discussion between him and her family, all female, of how her clothing should be properly disposed of.  So James chooses to take her dresses by gondola to a deserted area of the lagoon and submerge them beneath the water.
At first Henry believed that Tito was searching for a precise place, but he soon realized that, by moving at random back and forth, he was postponing the action they would now have to take.  When they caught each other's eye and Tito intimated that Henry should begin their grim task, Henry shook his head.  They might as well have been carrying her body, he thought, to lift her and drop her from the boat, let her sink into the water.  Tito continued to circle a small area, and on seeing that Henry wold not move, he smiled in mild rebuke and exasperation and laid down the pole until the gondola began to rock gently in the calm water.  Before he reached for the first dress, Tito blessed himself and then he laid the garment flat on the water as though the water were a bed, as though the dress's owner were preparing for an outing and would shortly come into the room.  Both men watched as the colour of the material darkened and then the dress began to sink.
It is this sort of passage that made me wonder whether Toibin had unearthed a gem of a scene in his research or whether he created it with his imagination, but it hardly matters which is true.  It requires exquisite writing skill to so fully invest this scene with the tenor of the time, the shadowy feeling of Venice, and the reticence of James's character.  This James is so vividly imagined that he acquires his own validity.  Toibin's achievement in The Master is to make us feel as if we know the whole man - and in chosing fiction as his form, it is not veracity but integrity to which Toibin chose to be answerable.

1 comment:

Marie Cloutier said...

sounds wonderful. i love james's books so i'm sure i'd find this fun and fascinating.