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The Master

Average Rating 3.5
( 11 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2004

    The Genesis Seeds of Genius; Meditating on Henry James

    Colm Toibin's fine novel THE MASTER is an act of art in and of itself. This is a well-researched biography of one of America's greatest novelists but it is also a novel, a great work of literature that sifts through all the extant data found in the copious letters between Henry James and his brother (the equally famous William James) and others of his family and acquaintances, other biographies, and the vast writings about this extraordinary family. But what Toibin has achieved is more a dissection of the mind of a man who produced so many great books, showing us the gradual development of influences that, once digested, became such great books as 'The Turn of the Screw', 'The Portrait of a Lady', 'Washington Square', etc. THE MASTER opens with the expatriate James' embarrassing failure as a playwright ('Guy Domville') while his compatriot Oscar Wilde is enjoying tremendous success in another nearby London theater. This parallel plays significantly throughout the novel as a point of reference for James' periods of self doubt, fear of his own like sexual longings that ended Wilde's career in a famous trial, his odd transplantation from America to the United Kingdom and Italy, etc. Toibin's novel (by inference of his chapter titles) takes place from 1895 to 1899, but using the flashback and flash forward technique we are privy to the whole history of the James family (the premiere intellectual family in the latter 19th century), Henry's childhood and avoidance of serving in the Civil War, and all of the famous people who surrounded him (and at times slept with him in the case of Oliver Wendell Holmes). In a sensitive way, Toibin addresses the ambiguous sexuality of Henry, touching reverently and yet sensually on his platonic relationships with a manservant Hammond, his houseboy Burgess Noakes in Rye, England, and his magnetic attraction to the Norwegian sculptor Hendrik Andersen. Yet Toibin devotes equal energy to exploring Henry's long-term friendship with the writer Constance Fenimore Woolson who committed suicide in his beloved Venice, his sister Alice who dies young and has a suggested lesbian relationship, Lady Wolseley who decorates his home in Rye, and his own brother William. Along the way are hints and digressions about novels in gestation and in final form. And as if this tome of information weren't enough to satisfy the reader, Toibin writes with such magnificent prose that the book literally sings. 'As an artist, he recognized, Andersen might know, or at least fathom the possibility, that each book he had written became an aspect of him, had entered into his driven spirit and lay there much as the years themselves had done. His relationship with Constance would be hard to explain; Andersen was perhaps too young to know 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 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 a piercing pain.' And in the final chapter: ' 'The moral?' Henry thought for a moment. 'The moral is the most pragmatic we can imagine, that life is a mystery and that only sentences are beautiful, and that we must be ready for change, especially when we go to Paris, and that no one,' he said, raising his glass, 'who has known the sweetness of Paris can properly return to the sweetness of the United States.' 'Erudite, elegant, and sensual. Colm Toibin has mastered it all in this exceptional book. Read it slowly - to absorb over a hundred years of history and the development of the intellect, and to savor the seeds of genius in a great mind. Highly Recommended.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 31, 2011

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    Posted April 1, 2011

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    Posted August 29, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2013

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