The Master

( 11 )

Overview

Like Michael Cunningham in The Hours, Colm Tóibín captures the extraordinary mind and heart of a great writer. Beautiful and profoundly moving, The Master tells the story of a man born into one of America's first intellectual families who leaves his country in the late nineteenth century to live in Paris, Rome, Venice, and London among privileged artists and writers.
In stunningly resonant prose, Tóibín captures the loneliness and the hope of a master of psychological subtlety ...

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Overview

Like Michael Cunningham in The Hours, Colm Tóibín captures the extraordinary mind and heart of a great writer. Beautiful and profoundly moving, The Master tells the story of a man born into one of America's first intellectual families who leaves his country in the late nineteenth century to live in Paris, Rome, Venice, and London among privileged artists and writers.
In stunningly resonant prose, Tóibín captures the loneliness and the hope of a master of psychological subtlety whose forays into intimacy inevitably failed those he tried to love. The emotional intensity of this portrait is riveting.

Finalist for the 2004 Man Booker Prize for Fiction

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The work of a first-rate novelist artful, moving and very beautiful."
The New York Times Book Review

"A spectacular novel."
— Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones

"A gorgeous portrait of a complex and passionate man."
— Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran

"Tóibín takes us almost shockingly close to the mystery of art itself. A remarkable, utterly original book."
— Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours

"A marvel."
— John Updike, The New Yorker

"A deep, lovely, and enthralling book that engages with the disquiet and drama of a famous writing life."
— Shirley Hazzard, author of The Great Fire

Daniel Mendelsohn
Whatever Toibin's literary-critical and ideological interest in James, The Master is unquestionably the work of a first-rate novelist -- one who has for the past decade been writing excellent novels about people cut off from their feelings or families or both.
The New York Times
Michael Dirda
… Toibin's impersonation of James works beautifully. The prose is appropriately grave and wistful, the sentences stately without being ponderous, the descriptions at once precise and evocative. The action, such as it is, moves smoothly from a time of temporary desolation to memories of horrible physical and mental suffering to angst-filled comedy (James dithering about how to deal with two drunken servants, James uncertain about how to dispose of the dresses of a dead woman). Toibin focuses on his subject in the years between 1895, when James's play "Guy Domville" was hooted on its opening night, and 1899, when his elder brother William came to visit at Lamb House, his beloved residence in Rye. But in between Toibin recreates scenes from James's childhood, offers a subtle interpretation of the apparent back injury -- the so-called great "vastation" -- that kept him out of the Civil War and helped make him an artist, and systematically introduces many of the people important in the writer's life.
The Washington Post
The Observer
A sympathetic and triumphant novel of startling excellence….The Master is a portrait of Henry James that has the depth and finish of great sculpture.
The Guardian
This is an audacious, profound, and wonderfully intelligent book.
Booklist
What Tóibín has so boldly done-and so brilliantly and successfully-is forge a sympathetic imagining of James' interior life….Even the reader who knows little about Henry James or his work can enjoy this marvelously intelligent and engaging novel, which presents not on a silver platter but in tender, opened hands a beautifully nuanced psychological portrait. (Starred)
Sunday Times Review
Tóibín's enthralling novel displays-in a manner that is masterly-the wit and metaphorical flair, psychological subtlety and phrases of pouncing incisiveness with which a great novelist captured the nuances of consciousness and duplicities of society.
Times Literary Supplement
Impressive and moving…the novel grapples with what it means to really live….The Master is a lovely portrait of the artist, rich in fictional truth.
Publishers Weekly
It's a bold writer indeed who dares to put himself inside the mind of novelist Henry James, but that is what Toibin, highly talented Irish author of The Heather Blazing and The Blackwater Lightship, has ventured here, with a remarkable degree of success. The book is a fictionalized study, based on many biographical materials and family accounts, of the novelist's interior life from the moment in London in 1895 when James's hope to succeed in the theater rather than on the printed page was eclipsed by the towering success of his younger contemporary Oscar Wilde. Thereafter the book ranges seamlessly back and forth over James's life, from his memories of his prominent Brahmin family in the States including the suicide of his father and the tragic early death of his troubled sister Alice to his settling in England, in a cherished house of his own choosing in Rye. Along the way it offers hints, no more, of James's troubled sexual identity, including his fascination with a young English manservant, his (apparently platonic) night in bed with Oliver Wendell Holmes and his curious obsession with a dashing Scandinavian sculptor of little talent but huge charisma. Another recurrent motif is James's absorption in the lives of spirited, highly intelligent but unhappy young women who die prematurely, which helped to inform some of his strongest fiction. The subtlety and empathy with which Toibin inhabits James's psyche and captures the fleeting emotional nuances of his world are beyond praise, and even the echoes of the master's style ring true. Far more than a stunt, this is a riveting, if inevitably somewhat evasive, portrait of the creative life. Agent, Peter Straus at Rogers, Coleridge & White (June) Forecast: This is too subtly shaded and leisurely for some fiction readers, but James's many admirers will be drawn to its many insights and its uncanny recreation of his world. Five-city author tour. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Dublin journalist, travel book writer, and novelist (his Blackwater Lightship was short-listed for the 1999 Booker Prize), Toibin here turns a life-long obsession with Henry James into a scrupulously researched and artfully rendered biographical novel. Fear not, fervent Jamesians, no attempt has been made to imitate the master's inimitable style. Even when the narrator takes us inside the mind of James, circa 1890s, Toibin's prose is largely straightforward even as the subject matter discursively wanders the streets and beau monde residences of Paris, Dublin, London, Rome, Venice, and James's English home, Lamb House, in Rye, Sussex. From the subtle machinations of James's closeted homoerotic sensibilities, to his intense friendships with both men and women, to his angst over the notorious failure of his only performed drama, Toibin excels at showing us (not telling us, as James himself advised in his seminal essay, "The Art of Fiction") the connections between James's life and his fictional oeuvre. Highly recommended for most fiction and all literary fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/04.] Mark Andr Singer, Mechanics' Inst. Lib., San Francisco Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The Irish author (The Blackwater Lightship, 2000, etc.) finds a great subject in the life and sensibility of ineffably cosmopolitan American author Henry James. Focusing on several of James's "middle years" (the late 1890s), To'b'n creates an increasingly affecting picture of a great writer so devoted to and immured in his art that his very life comes to seem to him "a story that had not yet been written." Moving backward and forward in time, the novel begins with the disastrous opening night of the middle-aged James's play Guy Domville (its audience booed him off the stage), then juxtaposes memories of the author's earlier years with travels to beloved European places and his decision to reside henceforth in England. There are generously detailed flashbacks to Henry's youth among a cultivated itinerant family presided over by portentous Swedenborgian idealist Henry James Senior; the lifelong frailty and early death of Henry's acerbically witty sister Alice; the ordeal of the Civil War, from which he was spared (though his younger brothers were not) by a possibly imaginary illness; and his politely adversarial relationship with his prickly older brother, the accomplished psychologist-philosopher, William James. The advancing narrative concentrates on Henry's frustrating friendships with attractive younger men (manifestations of a sexual hunger he fastidiously declined to satisfy), and chance meetings and overheard gossip that To'b'n-often quite ingeniously-shows to have inspired such mature masterpieces as "The Aspern Papers," The Golden Bowl, and "The Turn of the Screw." And, in the book's most plaintive chapters, To'b'n traces Henry's affectionate friendships with his vibrant cousinMinny Templre and globetrotting American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson-both of whom died young, arguably of hearts broken by Henry's withdrawals from them and into the world of his own imagination. A somewhat stately novel that will appeal most to readers who admire James's subtle, stylistically rich, demanding prose. As such, it's a formidably brilliant performance.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743250412
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 4/19/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 260,022
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín is the author of seven novels, including The Blackwater Lightship; The Master, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Brooklyn, winner of the Costa Book Award; and The Testament of Mary, as well as two story collections. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.

Biography

Colm Tóibín is a literary star of the "new" Ireland, the one -- as noted by National Public Radio's Jacki Lyman -- is short on whiskey and St. Patrick and long on cell phones, personal computers, and a stage set for economic opportunity. This is an Ireland where the people stop to cheer an author, yes, an author, whose latest novel has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, even though its key subject matter is the protagonist's struggle with his homosexuality.

"When I went down to get my groceries, people stopped their car and got out of them and waved at me and looked at me as though I was an athlete and shouted at me, ‘Come on, you can do it. You can do it,' " Tóibín said on NPR's All Things Considered in 2000. "And I basked in the sunshine of Irish approval and love for about three weeks.... You know, sort of -- I keep wondering when this, you know, backlash or something is going to happen, but I'm afraid it isn't going to happen. I'm afraid the country has changed, and being a writer there is actually quite a nice thing these days."

In fiction, travelogues, essays, and newspaper columns, Tóibín has established himself as a writer who can connect both the political and the personal to a sense of place. Though his work has often been informed by the political history of Ireland, he has also drawn on his travels to places like Spain and Argentina to create settings for his work.

And, even though his current home of Dublin has never made an appearance in any of his fiction, the environs of his youth -- County Wexford -- have been prominent.

The Washington Post, in a 2000 review of The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, which Tóibín edited, called him a "journalist and critic of influence, a brilliant novelist steadily harvesting his own postage-stamp piece of Wexford as diligently as Faulkner worked Mississippi."

"Colm Tóibín has established himself as a major and distinctive voice in contemporary Irish fiction," the Dictionary of Literary Biography has noted. "While his work makes much of the complex associations between people and place, he eschews easy stereotypes of Irishness in favor of the often-contradictory impulses that pull on contemporary lives.

Tóibín was born into a family that had a long history in his hometown. His father, who died when Tóibín was 12, was a local schoolteacher, and his grandfather was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and was twice imprisoned by British authorities for civil disobedience against British rule.

Tóibín explored this history as a writer, following four years teaching English in Barcelona, Spain. He began as a features editor but moved to editing a current affairs magazine and joined the Sunday Independent in Dublin in 1985 as a columnist. As an author, he started by writing travelogues on Ireland and Spain before publishing his first novel in 1990. The South, which draws on Ireland's Catholic-Protestant tensions as well as Tóibín's life in Spain, is about an Irish woman who leaves her husband and son and moves to Spain, falls in love with a political artist, and returns to Ireland as an artist herself, once her son is grown.

This novel would establish Tóibín's reputation as a writer with a keen sensibility for characterization ("His novels have been noted for their deft characterizations, particularly of women, as evidenced by the strong female protagonist in The South," noted Contemporary Literary Criticism), but it wasn't until later novels such as The Story of the Night and The Blackwater Lightship that readers would realize his insight into gay characters as well.

"This is not a simple, upbeat story about gay liberation or political activism," Merle Rubin wrote in The Christian Science Monitor in 1997. "Powerfully imagined and tautly written, it is a subtly shaded portrait of a country in transition, a culture beginning to reflect important political changes, and a man coming to a new understanding of himself."

David Bahr, writing in The Advocate in 2000, predicted that The Blackwater Lightship -- now that it had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize -- would finally make Tóibín known outside his magazine's primary readership: "His latest...should finally prove to straight American readers what many gay people have long known: that Tóibín is one of the more honest and subtly powerful novelists publishing today.... Perceptive and moving, The Blackwater Lightship again reveals Tóibín to be the kind of restrained, quiet writer whose prose feels as natural as breathing. His poetic narrative is so understated that its profound lyricism often takes you by surprise, infusing a potentially familiar tale with vibrant new life."

Mixing fiction and biography in 2004, Tóibín penned a novel inspired by the life of Henry James. "Ambitious and gracefully plotted," said the New Statesman. In the pages of London's Observer, a previous Tóibín skeptic confessed he had been swayed. "There's little in Colm Tóibín's previous work, to some of which this reviewer has been immune or even mildly allergic, to prepare for the startling excellence of his new novel," Adam Mars Jones wrote, "The Master is a portrait of Henry James that has the depth and finish of great sculpture."

Moving fully into nonfiction, Tóibín continued to impress.

The New Statesman observed that The Irish Famine: A Documentary was "no arid survey of the historiography of the famine, but a stimulating quest, prompted by a personal and vocational curiosity. And Joseph Olshan, writing in Entertainment Weekly in 1995, awarded Tóibín's The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe an A, not only for its ability to dissect the Church's close relationship with European politics and social order. "[W]hat Tóibín comes back to is the transcendent power of Catholic ritual," Olshan writes. "Indeed, in a very moving centerpiece, Tóibín describes a therapy session during which he relives his father's death and comes to realize that his most profound wish is to bless his deceased parent with the sign of the cross. This is an extraordinary document."

But it may always be the intensely personal moments in his fiction that will always stand out. Susan Salter Reynolds noted as much in the Los Angeles Times in 2000. "There is little reconciliation in Colm Tóibín's novels; moments in which the stage is set for it usually pass," she wrote. "His novels build to these moments, fraught with potential, from which the air goes out with a nasty little hiss, and a new chapter, full of reasons not to live, begins.... It's good to read Tóibín's honest novels, in which human beings fail to forgive, fail to understand. We spend so much of our lives in the dark, shouldn't literature face this as squarely as we must?"

Good To Know

Tóibín's novel The Story of Night is No. 84 on the Publishing Triangle's list of the best 100 gay and lesbian novels of all time.

He counts two books by James Baldwin -- Giovanni's Room and Go Tell It on the Mountain -- as major influences on his work.

Tóibín covered the downfall of the military dictatorship in Argentina in 1985.

He joined such authors as Roddy Doyle in the 1997 novel Finbar's Hotel, in which each of the seven authors wrote individual chapters set in the same 24-hour period at a fading hotel.

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    1. Hometown:
      Dublin, Ireland
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 30, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland
    1. Education:
      St. Peter's College, Wexford; University College, Dublin, B.A. in English and history
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

January 1895

Sometimes in the night he dreamed about the dead — familiar faces and the others, half-forgotten ones, fleetingly summoned up. Now as he woke, it was, he imagined, an hour or more before the dawn; there would be no sound or movement for several hours. He touched the muscles on his neck which had become stiff; to his fingers they seemed unyielding and solid but not painful. As he moved his head, he could hear the muscles creaking. I am like an old door, he said to himself.

It was imperative, he knew, that he go back to sleep. He could not lie awake during these hours. He wanted to sleep, enter a lovely blackness, a dark, but not too dark, resting place, unhaunted, unpeopled, with no flickering presences.

When he woke again, he was agitated and unsure where he was. He often woke like this, disturbed, only half remembering the dream and desperate for the day to begin. Sometimes when he dozed, he would bask in the hazy, soft light of Bellosguardo in the early spring, the distances all misty, feeling the sheer pleasure of sunlight on his face, sitting in a chair, close to the wall of the old house with the smell of wisteria and early roses and jasmine. He would hope when he woke that the day would be like the dream, that traces of the ease and the color and the light would linger at the edge of things until night fell again.

But this dream was different. It was dark or darkening somewhere, it was a city, an old place in Italy like Orvieto or Siena, but nowhere exact, a dream-city with narrow streets, and he was hurrying; he was uncertain now whether he was alone or with somebody, but he was hurrying and there were students walking slowly up the hill too, past lighted shops and cafés and restaurants, and he was eager to get by them, finding ways to pass them. No matter how hard he tried to remember, he was still not sure if he had a companion; perhaps he did, or perhaps it was merely someone who walked behind him. He could not recall much about this shadowy, intermittent presence, but for some of the time there seemed to be a person or a voice close to him who understood better than he did the urgency, the need to hurry, and who insisted under his breath in mutterings and mumbles, cajoled him to walk faster, edge the students out of his path.

Why did he dream this? At each long and dimly lit entrance to a square, he recalled, he was tempted to leave the bustling street, but he was urged to carry on. Was his ghostly companion telling him to carry on? Finally, he walked slowly into a vast Italian space, with towers and castellated roofs, and a sky the color of dark blue ink, smooth and consistent. He stood there and watched as though it were framed, taking in the symmetry and texture. This time — and he shivered when he recalled the scene — there were figures in the center with their backs to him, figures forming a circle, but he could see none of their faces. He was ready to walk towards them when the figures with their backs to him turned. One of them was his mother at the end of her life, his mother when he had last seen her. Near her among the other women stood his aunt Kate. Both of them had been dead for years; they were smiling at him and moving slowly towards him. Their faces were lit like faces in a painting. The word that came to him, he was sure that he had dreamt the word as much as the scene, was the word "beseeching." They were imploring him or somebody, asking, yearning, and then putting their hands out in front of them in supplication, and as they moved towards him he woke in cold fright, and he wished that they could have spoken, or that he could have offered the two people whom he had loved most in his life some consolation. What came over him in the aftertaste of the dream was a wearying, gnawing sadness and, since he knew that he must not go back to sleep, an overwhelming urge to start writing, anything to numb himself, distract himself, from the vision of these two women who were lost to him.

He covered his face for a moment when he remembered one second in the dream which had caused him to wake abruptly. He would have given anything now to forget it, to prevent it from following him into the day: in that square he had locked eyes with his mother, and her gaze was full of panic, her mouth ready to cry out. She fiercely wanted something beyond her reach, which she could not obtain, and he could not help her.

In the days coming up to the New Year he had refused all invitations. He wrote to Lady Wolseley that he sat all day at rehearsals in the company of several fat women who made the costumes. He was uneasy and anxious, often agitated, but sometimes, too, he was involved in the action on the stage as though it were all new to him, and he was moved by it. He asked Lady Wolseley and her husband to unite in prayers for him on the opening night of his play, not far away now.

In the evening he could do nothing, and his sleep was fitful. He saw nobody except his servants, and they knew not to speak to him or trouble him beyond what was entirely necessary.

His play Guy Domville, the story of a rich Catholic heir who must choose whether to carry on the family line or join a monastery, would open on January 5. All the invitations to the opening night had gone out and he had already received many replies of acceptance and thanks. Alexander, the producer and lead actor, had a following among theatergoers, and the costumes — the play was set in the eighteenth century — were sumptuous. Yet, despite his new enjoyment of the society of actors and the glitter and the daily small changes and improvements in the production, he was, he said, not made for the theater. He sighed as he sat at his desk. He wished it were an ordinary day and he could read over yesterday's sentences, spend a slow morning making corrections, and then start out once more, filling the afternoon with ordinary work. And yet he knew that his mood could change as quickly as the light in the room could darken, and he easily could feel only happiness at his life in the theater and begin again to hate the company of his blank pages. Middle age, he thought, had made him fickle.

His visitor had arrived promptly at eleven o'clock. He could not have refused to see her; her letter had been carefully insistent. Soon she would be leaving Paris for good, she said, and this would be her last visit to London. There was something oddly final and resigned in her tone, a tone so alien to her general spirit that he was quickly alerted to the seriousness of her situation. He had not seen her for many years, but over these years he had received some letters from her and news from others about her. That morning, however, still haunted by his dream, and so full of concern about his play, he saw her as merely a name in his diary, stirring an old memory sharp in its outlines and faded in its detail.

When she came into the room, her old face smiling warmly, her large-boned frame moving slowly and deliberately, her greeting so cheerful, open and affectionate, and her voice so beautiful and soft, almost whispering, it was easy to put aside his worries about his play and the time he was wasting by not being in the theater. He had forgotten how much he liked her and how easy it was to be taken instantly back to those days when he was in his twenties and lingered as much as he could in the company of French and Russian writers in Paris.

Somehow, in the years that followed, the shadowy presences interested him as much as the famous ones, the figures who had not become known, who had failed, or who had never planned to flourish. His visitor had been married to the Prince Oblisky. The prince had a reputation for being stern and distant; the fate of Russia and his purposeful exile concerned him more than the evening's amusement and the glamorous company who stood around. The princess was Russian too, but she had lived most of her life in France. Around her and her husband there were always hints and rumors and suggestions. It was part of the time and the place, he thought. Everyone he knew carried with them the aura of another life which was half-secret and half-open, to be known about but not mentioned. In those years, you searched each face for what it might unwittingly disclose and you listened carefully for nuances and clues. New York and Boston had not been like that, and in London, when he finally came to live there, people allowed themselves to believe that you had no hidden and secret self unless you emphatically declared to the contrary.

He remembered the shock when he first came to know Paris, the culture of easy duplicity, the sense he got of these men and women, watched over by the novelists, casually withholding what mattered to them most.

He had never loved the intrigue. Yet he liked knowing secrets, because not to know was to miss almost everything. He himself learned never to disclose anything, and never even to acknowledge the moment when some new information was imparted, to act as though a mere pleasantry had been exchanged. The men and women in the salons of literary Paris moved like players in a game of knowing and not knowing, pretense and disguise. He had learned everything from them.

He found the princess a seat, brought her extra cushions, and then offered her a different chair, or indeed a chaise longue which might be more comfortable.

"At my age" — she smiled at him — "nothing is comfortable."

He stopped moving about the room and turned to look at her. He had learned that when he quietly fixed his calm gray eyes on somebody they too became calm; they realized, or so he thought, that what they said next should be serious in some way, that the time for the casual play of half talk had come to an end.

"I have to go back to Russia," she said in slow, carefully pronounced French. "That is what I have to do. When I say go back, I talk as though I have been there before, and yes, I have, but not in any way that means anything to me. I have no desire to see Russia again, but he insists that I stay there, that I leave France for good."

As she spoke she smiled, as she had always done, but now there was anguish and a sort of puzzlement in her face. She had brought the past into the room with her, and for him now, in these years after the death of his parents and his sister, any reminder of a time that was over brought with it a terrible and heavy melancholy. Time would not relent, and when he was young, he had never imagined the pain that loss would bring, pain that only work and sleep could keep at bay now.

Her soft voice and her easy manners made it clear that she had not changed. Her husband was known to treat her badly. He had problems with estates. She began to talk now about some remote estate to which she was going to be banished.

The January light was liquid and silky in the room. He sat and listened. He knew that the Prince Oblisky had left the son by his first marriage in Russia, and had gruffly spent his life in Paris. There was always a whiff of political intrigue about him, a sense that he counted somehow in the future of Russia, and that he was waiting for his moment.

"My husband has said it is time for us all to go back to Russia, the homeland. He has become a reformer. He says that Russia will collapse if it does not reform. I told him that Russia collapsed a long time ago, but I did not remind him that he had very little interest in reform when he was not in debt. His first wife's family have brought up the child and they want nothing to do with him."

"Where will you live?" he asked her.

"I will live in a crumbling mansion and half-crazed peasants will have their noses up against the glass of my windows, if there is glass still in the windows. That is where I will live."

"And Paris?"

"I have to give up everything, the house, the servants, my friends, my whole life. I will freeze to death or I will die of boredom. It will be a race between the two."

"But why?" he asked gently.

"He says I have wasted all his money. I have sold the house and I have spent days burning letters and crying and throwing away clothes. And now I am saying good-bye to everyone. I am leaving London tomorrow and I am going to spend one month in Venice. Then I will travel to Russia. He says that others are returning too, but they are going to St. Petersburg. That is not what he has chosen for me."

She spoke with feeling, but as he watched her he sensed that he was listening to one of his actors enjoying her own performance. Sometimes she spoke as though she were telling an amusing anecdote about somebody else.

"I've seen everyone I know who's still alive and I've read over all the letters of those who are dead. With some people I've done both. I burned Paul Joukowsky's letters and then I saw him. I did not expect to see him. He is aging badly. I did not expect that either."

She caught his eye for one second and it was as though a flash of clear summer light had come into the room. Paul Joukowsky was almost fifty now, he calculated; they had not met for many years. No one had ever come like this and mentioned his name.

Henry was careful to try to speak immediately, ask a question, change the subject. Perhaps there was something in the letters, a stray sentence, or the account of a conversation or a meeting. But he did not think so. Perhaps his visitor was letting him know for nostalgia's sake what his aura had suggested in those years, his own designed self. His attempt to be earnest, hesitant and polite had not fooled women like her who watched his full mouth and the glance of his eyes and instantly understood it all. They said, of course, nothing, just as she was saying nothing now, merely a name, an old name that rang in his ears. A name that, once, had meant everything to him.

"But surely you will return?"

"That is the promise he has extracted from me. That I will not return, that I will stay in Russia."

The tone was dramatic, and he suddenly saw her on the stage, moving casually, talking as though she put no thought into it, and then throwing an arrow, a single line intended to hit home. From what she had said, he understood for the first time what had happened. She must have done something very wrong to place herself back in his power. In her circle, there would be knowledge and speculation. Some would know, and those who did not know would be able to guess. Just as she let him guess now.

These thoughts preoccupied him, and he found that he watched the princess, carefully weighing up what she had been saying, while thinking how he could use this. He must write it down as soon as she left. He hoped to hear nothing more, none of the explicit details, but as she continued speaking, it was clear that she was frightened and his sympathy was once more aroused.

"You know, others have gone back and the reports are excellent. There is new life in St. Petersburg, but as I told you that is not where I am going. And Daudet, whom I met at a party, said the most foolish thing to me. Perhaps he thought that it might console me. He told me that I would have my memories. But my memories are of no use to me. I told him that I never had any interest in memories. I love today and tomorrow, and if I am in form I also love the day after tomorrow. Last year is gone, who cares about last year?"

"Daudet does, I imagine."

"Yes, too much."

She stood up to go and he accompanied her to the front door. When he saw that she had left a cab waiting, he wondered who was paying for it.

"And Paul? Should I have given you some of the letters? Would you have wanted them?"

Henry put out his hand as though she had not asked the question. He moved his lips, about to say something, and then stopped. He held her hand for a moment. She was almost in tears as she walked towards the cab.

He had been living in these rooms in De Vere Gardens for almost ten years but the name Paul had never once been uttered within the walls. His presence had been buried beneath the daily business of writing and remembering and imagining. Even in dreams, it was years since Paul had appeared.

The bare bones of the princess's story would not need to be set down now. They would stay in his mind. He did not know how he would work it, whether it would be her last days in Paris — burning letters, giving things away, leaving things behind — or her last salon, or her interview with her husband, the moment when she first learned her fate.

He would remember her visit, but there was something else that he wanted to write down now. It was something he had written before and had been careful to destroy. It seemed strange, almost sad, to him that he had produced and published so much, rendered so much that was private, and yet the thing that he most needed to write would never be seen or published, would never be known or understood by anyone.

He took the pen and began. He could have written an indecipherable script, or used a shorthand that only he himself would understand. But he wrote clearly, whispering the words. He did not know why this had to be written, why the stirring of the memory was not enough. But the princess's visit and her talk about banishment and memory, of things that were over and would not come back, and — he stopped writing now and sighed — her saying the name, saying it as though it were still vividly present somewhere within reach, all these things guided his tone as he wrote.

He set down on paper what had happened when he returned to Paris, having received a note from Paul, that summer almost twenty years before. He had stood in the beautiful city on a small street in the dusk, gazing upwards, waiting, watching, for the lighting of a lamp in the window on the third story. As the lamp blazed up and with tears in his eyes he had strained to see Paul Joukowsky's face at the window, his dark hair, the quickness of his eyes, the scowl that could so easily turn into a smile, the thin nose, the broad chin, the pale lips. As night fell, he knew that he himself on the unlit street could not be seen, and he knew also that he could not move, either to return to his own quarters or — he held his breath even at the thought — to attempt to gain access to Paul's rooms.

Paul's note was unambiguous; it had made clear that he would be alone. No one came or went, and Paul's face did not appear at the window. He wondered now if these hours were not the truest he had ever lived. The most accurate comparison he could find was with a smooth, hopeful, hushed sea journey, an interlude suspended between two countries, standing there as though floating, knowing that one step would be a step into the impossible, the vast unknown. He waited to catch a moment's further sight of what was there, the unapproachable face. And for hours he stood still, wet with rain, brushed at intervals by those passing by, and never from behind the lamp for one moment more was the face visible.

He wrote down the story of that night and thought then of the rest of the story which could never be written, no matter how secret the paper or how quickly it would be burned or destroyed. The rest of the story was imaginary, and it was something he would never allow himself to put into words. In it, he had crossed the road halfway through his vigil. He had alerted Paul to his presence and Paul had come down and they had walked up the stairs together in silence. And it was very clear now — Paul had made it clear — what would happen.

He found that his hands were shaking. He had never allowed himself to imagine beyond that point. It was the closest he had come, but he had not come close at all. He kept his vigil that night in the rain until the light in the window faded. He waited for a while longer to see if something else would happen, but the windows remained dark, they gave nothing away. Then he walked slowly home. He was on dry land again. His clothes were soaking, his shoes had been destroyed by the rain.

He loved the dress rehearsals and allowed himself to picture the potential playgoers in each seat in the theater. The lighting, the extravagant and opulent costumes, and the ringing voices filled him with pride and pleasure. He had never, in all the years, seen anyone purchase or read one of his books. And even if he had witnessed such a scene, he would not have known the effects of his sentences. Reading was as silent and solitary and private as writing. Now, he would hear people in the audience hold their breath, cry out, fall silent.

He placed friends, familiar faces, and then in all the seats near him and in the gallery above surrounding them, and this was the most risky and exciting prospect, he placed strangers. He imagined bright, intelligent eyes in a man's sensitive face, a thin upper lip, soft, fair skin, a large frame that was carried with ease. Tentatively, he placed this figure in the row behind him, close to the center, a young woman beside him, her small, delicate hands joined, the tips of her fingers almost touching her mouth. Alone in the theater — the costume makers were still backstage — he watched his imaginary, paying theatergoers, as Alexander, playing Guy Domville, appeared. It became clear what the core of the conflict on the stage would be. He kept an eye on the audience he had conjured behind him as the play proceeded, noting how the woman's face lit up at the gorgeousness of Mrs. Edward Saker's costume, the elaborate elegance of a hundred years ago, noting then how serious and still the face of his thin-lipped supporter became when Guy Domville, despite his vast wealth and golden future, decided to renounce the world and devote himself to a life of contemplation and prayer in a monastery.

Guy Domville was still too long and he knew that there was disquiet among the actors about the discrepancies between Act One and Act Two. Alexander, his steadfast director, told him to pay no attention to them, they had merely been stirred up by Miss Vetch, who had no role to speak of in Act Two and barely reappeared in Act Three. Nonetheless, he knew that in a novel it could not be risked: a character, once established, must remain in the narrative, unless the character were minor, or died before the story closed. What he would never have tried in a novel, he was trying in a play. He prayed that it would work.

He hated making the cuts, but he knew that he could not complain. At the beginning he had grumbled a great deal — indeed expressed a pained amazement — until he had made himself less than welcome in Alexander's offices. He knew that there was no point in claiming that if the play had needed cuts he would have made them before he finished it. Every day now he made excisions, and he thought it strange that after a few hours, he remained the only one who noticed the gaps, the missing moments.

During the rehearsals he had little to do. He was both thrilled and disturbed by the idea that only half the work was his, the other half belonged to the director, the actors and the scene makers. Overseeing the work was the element of time and that was new to him. Over the proscenium arch there was an immense, invisible clock to whose ticking the playwright must attend, its hands moving inexorably on from eight thirty, as precise as the audience's patience. In that busy period of two hours, if the two intervals were taken into account, he must present and solve the problem he had set himself, or be doomed.

As the play came to seem more distant from him, and more real, as he watched the first rehearsals onstage, then the first dress rehearsals, he became sure that he had found his métier, that he had not begun too late to write for the theater. He was ready now to change his life. He foresaw an end to long, solitary days; the grim satisfaction that fiction gave him would be replaced by a life in which he wrote for voices and movement and an immediacy that through all his life up to now he had believed he would never experience. This new world was now within his grasp. But as suddenly, especially in the morning, he would become certain that the opposite was the case, that he would fail, and he would have to return, willingly and unwillingly, to his true medium: the printed page. He had never known such days of strange shifts and excitements.

He felt only affection for the actors. There were times when he would have done anything he could for them. He arranged for hampers of food to be delivered backstage during the long days of rehearsal: cold chicken and beef, fresh salads, potatoes in mayonnaise, fresh bread and butter. He loved watching the actors eat, relishing those moments when they returned from their appointed roles to civilian life. He looked forward to years ahead when he would write new parts and observe them create the parts and play them every night until the run was over and they would fade back into the pale world outside.

He also felt that as a novelist he had fallen upon evil times, any indication of his being hugely wanted by any editor or publisher was declining. A new generation, writers he did not know and did not prize, had taken universal possession. The sense of being almost finished weighed him down; he had been producing little, and publication in periodicals, once so lucrative and useful, was becoming closed to him.

He wondered if the theater could be not only a source of pleasure and amusement, but a lifeline, a way of beginning again now that the fruitful writing of fiction seemed to be fading. Guy Domville, his drama about the conflict between the material life and the life of pure contemplation, the vicissitudes of human love and a life dedicated to a higher happiness, was written to succeed, to match the public mood, and he awaited the opening night with a mixture of pure optimism — an absolute certainty that the play would hit home — and a deep anxiety, a sense that worldly glamour and universal praise would never be offered to him.

Everything depended on the opening night. He had imagined every detail, except what he himself would do. If he stood backstage, he would be in the way; in the auditorium he would be too agitated, too ready to allow every groan or sigh or fall of silence to disturb him or elate him unduly. He thought that he could hide himself in the Cap and Bells, the public house closest to the theater, and Edmund Gosse, whom he trusted, could slip out at the end of the second act and let him know how it was going. But two days before the opening he decided the plan was absurd.

He would have to do something. There was no one he could have supper with because he had invited everyone he knew to the opening, and most of them had accepted. He could travel to a nearby city, he thought, view the sights and then return on an evening train in time for the applause. But nothing, he knew, could take his mind off his prospects. He wished that he was halfway through a book, with no need to finish until the spring when serialization would begin. He wished he could work quietly in his study with the haunting gray morning light of the London winter filtered through the windows. He wished for solitude and for the comfort of knowing that his life depended not on the multitude but on remaining himself.

He determined, after much indecision and discussion with Gosse and Alexander, that he would go to the Haymarket to see the new play by Oscar Wilde. It was the only way, he felt, in which he would be coerced into quietness between eight thirty and ten forty-five. He could then make his way to St. James's Theatre. Gosse and Alexander agreed with him that it was the best plan, the only plan. His mind would be elsewhere at least some of the time, and he could arrive at St. James's Theatre at the enraptured moment when his play had ended or was close to ending.

This, he thought, as he prepared himself for the evening, is how the real world conducts itself, the world he had withdrawn from, the world he guessed at. This is how money is made, how reputations are established. It is done with risk and excitement, the stomach hollow, the heart beating too fast, the imagination fired with possibilities. How many days in his life would be like this? If this, the first play of his which he believed could make his fortune, should end triumphantly, the opening nights of the future should be softer and less inflamed. And yet he did not stop wishing, even as he waited for the cab, that he had embarked just now on a new story, that the blank pages were ripe and waiting for him, that the evening was empty and he had nothing to do but write. The will to withdraw was strong in him as he set out for the Haymarket. He would have given anything now to be three and a half hours into the future, to know the result, to bathe in the praise and the adulation, or to know the worst.

As the cab made its way to the theater he felt a sudden, strange, new, fierce desolation. It was too much, he thought, he was asking too much. He forced himself to think about the scenery, the golden lighting, the costumes, and the drama itself, and those who had accepted the invitations, and he felt only hope and excitement. He had chosen this and now he had it, he must not complain. He had shown Gosse the list of those who would fill the stalls and dress circle and Gosse had said that such a galaxy of aristocratic, literary and scientific celebrity would gather in St. James's Theatre as had never before been seen in a London playhouse.

Above them would be — he hesitated and smiled, knowing that if he were writing now he would stop and see if he could find the right tone — above them would be — how should he say it? — the people who had paid money, the real audience whose support and applause would mean more than the support and applause of his friends. They were, he almost said it aloud, the people who do not read my books, that is how we will know them. The world, he smiled as the next phrase went through his mind, is full of them. They are never at a loss for kindred company. Tonight, he hoped, these people would be on his side.

Instantly, as soon as he set foot on the pavement outside the Haymarket, he became jealous of Oscar Wilde. There was a levity about those who were entering the theater, they looked like people ready to enjoy themselves thoroughly. He had never in his life, he felt, looked like that himself, and he did not know how he was going to manage these hours among people who seemed so jolly, so giddy, so jaunty, so generally cheerful. No one he saw, not one single face, no couple nor group, looked to him like people who would enjoy Guy Domville. These people were out for a happy conclusion. He winced now at the arguments with Alexander over the less than happy ending of Guy Domville.

He wished he had demanded a seat at the end of a row. In his allotted place he was enclosed, and, as the curtain rose, and the audience began to laugh at lines which he thought crude and clumsy, he felt under siege. He did not laugh once; he thought not a moment was funny, but more importantly, he thought not a moment was true. Every line, every scene was acted out as though silliness were a higher manifestation of truth. No opportunity was missed in portraying witlessness as wit; the obvious and shallow and glib provoked the audience into hearty and hilarious laughter.

If An Ideal Husband were feeble and vulgar, then he was clearly the only one who thought so, and when the first interval came, his longing to leave was profound. But the truth was that he had nowhere to go. His sole consolation was that this was not an opening night, there was no fashionable crowd, no one whom he recognized and no one who recognized him. Most consoling of all, there was no sign of Wilde himself, loud and large and Irish as he was, or of his entourage.

He wondered what he could have done with such a story. The writing, line by line, was a mockery of writing, an appeal for cheap laughs, cheap responses. The sense of a corrupt ruling class was shallow; the movement of the plot was wooden; the play was badly made. Once it was over, he thought, no one would remember it, and he would remember it only for the agony he felt, the pure, sheer tension about his own play going on just a short walk away. His drama was about renunciation, he thought, and these people had renounced nothing. At the end, as they called the actors back for further bows, he saw from their flushed and happy faces that they did not appear to have any immediate plans to amend their ways.

As he walked across St. James's Square to learn his own fate, the complete success of what he had seen seemed to him to constitute a dreadful premonition of the shipwreck of Guy Domville, and he stopped in the middle of the square, paralyzed by the terror of this probability, afraid to go and learn more.

Later, over years, he would hear hints and snatches of what had occurred. He never discovered everything, but he knew this much: that the clash between the invited audience and those above them who had paid was as unbridgeable as the gap between himself and the audience at the Oscar Wilde play. The paying public, it seemed, had begun to shift and shuffle, cough and whisper, even before the first act was over. In the second act they laughed when Mrs. Edward Saker appeared in her large and expansive period costume. And once they began to laugh, they began to enjoy being offensive. It was not long before the laughter turned to jeers.

He learned later, much later also, what happened when Alexander uttered his last lines: "I'm the last, my lord, of the Domvilles." Someone from the gallery had shouted: "It's a damned good thing you are!" They hooted and roared and when the curtain came down they catcalled and yelled abuse as those in the stalls and dress circle applauded enthusiastically.

That night he entered the theater by the stage door, meeting on arrival the stage manager, who assured him that all had gone well, his play was a success. Something about the way it was said made Henry want to inquire further, find out the scale and quality of the success, but just then the first applause came, and he listened, mistaking the catcalls for roars of approval. He glimpsed Alexander, noted how stiff and serious he was as he came off the stage and waited for a moment before returning to take his bow. He moved closer to the side of the stage, certain that Alexander and the other actors were triumphant. The whistles and roars, he still believed, indicated special approval of one or two of the performers, Alexander surely among them.

He stood and listened, close enough to the wings for Alexander to see him as he walked off from taking his bow. Later, he was told that there were wild shouts of "Author! Author!" from his friends in the audience, but they were not wild enough for him to hear. Alexander heard them, however, or so he later said, because on catching the author's eye he approached him, his face solemn, his expression fixed, and led him slowly and firmly by the hand onto the stage.

This was the crowd he had imagined over those long days of rehearsal. He had imagined them attentive and ready to be moved, he had imagined them still and somber. He had not prepared himself for the chaos of noise and busy fluttering. He took it in for a moment, confused, and then he bowed. And when he lifted his head he realized what he was facing. In the stalls and in the gallery, the members of the paying public were hissing and booing. He looked around and saw mockery and contempt. The invited audience remained seated, still applauding, but the applause was drowned out by the crescendo of loud, rude disapproval which came from the people who had never read his books.

The worst part was now, when he did not know what to do, when he could not control the expression on his own face, the look of panic he could not prevent. And now he could make out the faces of friends — Sargent, Gosse, Philip Burne-Jones — still gallantly applauding, futile against the yells of the mob. Nothing had prepared him for this. Slowly, he moved off the stage. He did not attend to Alexander's speech to calm the audience. He blamed Alexander for leading him onto the stage, he blamed the crowd for booing, but more than anyone he blamed himself for being here. There was no alternative now, he would have to leave by the stage door. He had dreamed so much of moments of triumph, mingling with the invited guests, pleased that so many old friends had come to witness his theatrical success. Now he would walk home and keep his head down like a man who has committed a crime and is in imminent danger of apprehension.

He waited in the shadows backstage so that he would not have to see the actors. Nor did he wish to leave just yet as he did not know whom he might see in the streets around the theater. Neither he nor they would know what to say, so great and so public was his defeat. For his friends, this night would be entered into the annals of the unmentionable, pages in which he had so studiously avoided having his name appear. As time passed, however, he realized that he could not betray the performers now. He could not give in to his own horrible urge to be alone in the darkness, to escape into the night and walk as though he had written nothing and was nobody. He would have to go to them and thank them; he would have to insist that the repast planned after the triumph of his play should go ahead. In the half light he stood preparing himself, steeling himself, ready to suppress whatever his own urges and needs might be. He made his hands into fists as he set out to smile and bow and imagine that the evening in all its glory had been due entirely to the talents of the actors in the great tradition of the London stage.

Copyright © 2004 by Colm Tíibín

From Chapter Three

March 1895

Over the years he had learned something about the English which he had quietly and firmly adapted to his own uses. He had watched how men in England generally respected their own habits until those around them learned to follow suit. He knew men who did not rise until noon, or who slept in a chair each afternoon, or who ate beef for breakfast, and he noticed how these customs became part of the household routine and were scarcely commented on. His habits, of course, were sociable and, in the main, easy; his inclinations were civil and his idiosyncrasies mild. Thus it had become convenient to himself and simple to explain to others that he should turn down invitations, confess himself busy, overworked, engaged both day and night in his art. His time as an inveterate dinner guest in the great London houses had, he hoped, come to an end.

He loved the glorious silence a morning brought, knowing that he had no appointments that afternoon and no engagements that evening. He had grown fat on solitude, he thought, and had learned to expect nothing from the day but at best a dull contentment. Sometimes the dullness came to the fore with a strange and insistent ache which he would entertain briefly, but learn to keep at bay. Mostly, however, it was the contentment he entertained; the slow ease and the silence could, once night had fallen, fill him with a happiness that nothing, no society nor the company of any individual, no glamour or glitter, could equal.

In these days after his opening night and his return from Ireland he discovered that he could control the sadness which certain memories brought with them. When sorrows and fears and terrors came to him in the time after he woke, or in the night, they were like servants come to light a lamp or take away a tray. Carefully trained over years, they would soon disappear of their own accord, knowing not to linger.

Nonetheless, he remembered the shock and the shame of the opening night of Guy Domville. He told himself that the memory would fade, and with that admonition he tried to put all thoughts of his failure out of his mind.

Instead, he thought about money, going over amounts he had received and amounts due; he thought of travel, where he would go and when. He thought of work, ideas and characters, moments of clarity. He controlled these thoughts, he knew that they were like candles leading him through the dark. They could easily, if he did not concentrate, be snuffed out and he would again be pondering defeats and disappointments, which if not managed could lead to thoughts that left him desperate and afraid.

He woke early sometimes and when such thoughts took over, he knew that he had no choice but to rise. By operating decisively, as though he were rushing somewhere, as though the train were on time and he was late, he believed that he could banish them.

Nonetheless, he knew that he had to allow his mind its freedoms. He lived on the randomness of the mind's workings, and, now, as the day began, he found himself involved in a new set of musings and imaginings. He wondered how an idea could so easily change shape and appear fresh in a new guise; he did not know how close to the surface this story had been lurking. It was a simple tale, made simpler still by his friend Benson's father, the archbishop of Canterbury, who had tried to entertain him one evening after the failure of his play. He had hesitated too much and stopped too often as he attempted to tell a ghost story, knowing neither the middle nor the end and unsure even of the contours of the beginning.

Henry had set it down as soon as he arrived home. He wrote in his notebook: "Note here the ghost story told me at Addington (evening of Thursday 10th), by the archbishop of Canterbury: the mere vague, undetailed, faint sketch of it: the story of the young children (indefinite number and age), left to the care of servants in an old country house, through the death, presumably, of parents. The servants, wicked and depraved, corrupt and deprave the children: the children are bad, full of evil to a sinister degree. The servants die (the story vague about the way of it) and their apparitions return to haunt the house and children."

He did not need to look back at his notebook to be reminded of the story; the events remained with him. He thought of setting it in Newport, in a remote house by the rocks, or in one of the newer mansions in New York, but none of these settings captured him, and gradually he abandoned the idea of an American family. It became an English story set in the past; and in the early and slow elaboration of the story he reduced the children to merely two, a boy and his younger sister.

He thought often of the death of his sister Alice, who had died three years earlier. He had read her diaries, so full of indiscretions, for the first time. Now he felt alone, much as she had throughout her life, and he felt close to her, although he never suffered her symptoms or maladies and lacked her stoicism and her acceptance.

In his darkest hours, he felt that both of them had somehow been abandoned as their family toured Europe and returned, often for no reason, to America. They had never been fully included in the passion of events and places, becoming watchers and nonparticipants. Their brother William, the eldest, and then Wilky and Bob, who came between Henry and Alice, had been ready for the world, expertly molded, while Henry and Alice had been left unprotected and unready. He had become a writer and she had taken to her bed.

He could clearly remember the first time he sensed Alice's panic. They had been caught in the rain in Newport, having become too distracted by their own talk and laughter to pay attention to the darkening of the sky. She could have been fourteen or fifteen, but she had developed none of the strange, shy assurance of her cousins when they came to that age; their poised and careful way of coming into a room, or talking to a stranger, their easy and spontaneous way of being with friends and family, all this confidence Alice lacked.

It began to rain hard that hot summer's day and the sky over the sea was a purple-gray mass of cloud. He was wearing a light jacket, but Alice was wearing only a summer dress and a flimsy straw hat. There was no shelter at hand. A few times they tried to shelter under bushes but the rain, driven by the wind, was insistent. He took off his jacket and held it over both of them and they moved slowly and silently, huddled close together, towards home. He sensed her happiness as intense, almost shrill. He had never before understood the extent of her need for the full attention, the full pity and protection, of him or William or their parents. In these minutes, as they walked the wet sandy soil of the lane from the sea walk back to the village, he felt his sister on fire with satisfaction at being close to him. Watching her radiance and delight as they neared home, he had his first sense of how difficult things were going to be for her.

He began to watch her. Until now, he had considered the joke that William was going to marry her as a light tease, a way to make her smile and William laugh and all the family join in. It was also a show put on for visitors. William, the eldest, was six years older than Alice. As soon as Alice began to present herself to visitors, wear colorful dresses and become alert to the effect she could have on a roomful of adults, the joke that she was going to marry William became a kind of ritual.

"Oh, she's going to marry William," Aunt Kate would say, and if William were there, he would come over to her, take her arm, kiss her on the cheek. And she would say nothing, merely watch everybody, her eyes almost hostile before their smiles and laughter. Her father would lift her and hug her.

"Oh, it won't be long now," he would say.

Alice, Henry thought, never believed that she was going to marry William. She was rational and even when she was in her teens her intelligence had at its core a brittle anger. Yet because the idea that she would marry William had been spoken so many times, and because no outsider had presented himself as even vaguely plausible, the notion had entered surreptitiously but firmly into the silent places of her soul.

As he pondered and tried to shape the story of the two abandoned children told to him by the archbishop, he found himself thinking about his sister's puzzling presence in the world. He went over the scenes where she had made clear to them her considerable intelligence and her raw vulnerability. She was the only little girl he had ever known, and now, as he began to imagine a little girl, it was his sister's unquiet ghost which came to him.

He remembered a scene when Alice must have been sixteen. It was one of those long dinners with one or two guests, he remembered, and someone was talking about life after death, and meeting members of their family after death, or hoping to, or believing they might. Then one of the guests, or Aunt Kate, had suggested praying to meet the loved ones in the next life, when suddenly Alice's voice rose above all others and everyone stopped and looked at her.

"One need pray for nothing," she said. "Reference to those whom we should meet again makes me shiver. It is an invasion of their sanctity. It is the sort of personal claim to which I am deeply opposed."

She had sounded like Emerson's aunt, someone steeped in the philosophy of life and death, someone who prided herself on the independence of her thought. It was clear to her family that she had a sharp mind and a great wit but that she knew that she would have to conceal them if she wanted to be like the other young women of her age.

Alice had friends and visitors and went on outings. She learned to be acceptable to the sisters of her brothers' associates. But Henry observed her when a young man came into the room and he noticed the change in her behavior. She could not relax and her silences were full of force. She would become garrulous, talking a mixture of nonsense and paradox. There was a terrible shrillness and uneasiness about her. He saw how these social occasions must exhaust her.

Even family meals could be a trial for her, as Bob and Wilky learned to delight in teasing her and leaving her defenseless. These were the years of their father's great restlessness, when they crossed the Atlantic in search of something that none of them understood, a distraction from his father's passionate and eager bewilderment. They were dragged from city to city, hotel to apartment, tutor to school. They spoke French fluently and they knew themselves to be strange. It made all five of them stand apart from their generation; they knew both more and less than others. More about opulence and history and European cities, more about solitude and uncertainty, more about standing alone and being independent. Less about America, and the web of connections and affections being woven by their contemporaries. In these years, they learned to lean on each other, offer each other a private language, a containment, a coherence. They were like an old walled city. No one, no matter how strong the siege, could break down their defenses. And Alice, as she grew older, was trapped inside.

Henry had no real memory of Thackeray's visit to the family table in Paris, although he remembered other sightings of him. The story was told and retold, and everyone in the family, including their mother, who was normally careful and reticent, believed that it merited recounting to every visitor.

Alice must have been eight or nine at the time. She had been placed beside the novelist and Henry knew that this could not have been easy for her. She would have been nervous about every gesture that she made, every morsel of food touched by her knife and fork. She would have spent the meal wondering what the great man thought about her. Henry knew that on these occasions her pulse would have been faster, her efforts to impress would have been complex and self-conscious and laborious.

He never remembered her wearing crinoline in those years, but the story centered on this. Thackeray turned to her and studied her attire.

"Crinoline!" he said. "I never would have guessed. So young and so depraved!"

The remark, which might have been meant kindly, would have come as a sudden blow to his sister. In the moments that followed she would have felt only shame, as though a secret, dark part of her had been exposed. He imagined the suddenness of the remark, saw his sister's incomprehension, her attempt to smile. Henry alone understood the full cruelty of it, but he did nothing to silence the rest of them as they paraded the story in front of everyone who would listen, happiest if Alice were in the room to hear the story of her own humiliation at the hands of one of the most distinguished novelists of the age.

William was the eldest and the least vulnerable. No amount of traveling or disruption seemed to make any difference to him. He was strong and popular among his schoolmates. He was certain of his entitlement to be part of the next game. He loved shouting and noise; he loved loud companions. He loved banging doors and playing sport. No one noticed the bookish part of him, and he may not even have noticed it himself until he began to argue fearlessly with his father. He did so with such relish and exuberance that by his early teens he was doing to words and phrases and opinions what he had done previously to fences and well-tended lawns.

Alice tried to be sophisticated for William, a woman of the world, a French diarist of the eighteenth century. Their mother one day spoke of how deeply affected Ned Lowell had been by the Boston portrayed in Howells's new novel. Alice clearly wanted to say something, and they all turned to her. She could not begin. Her face was flushed.

"Oh, the poor dear!" she stammered out. "If he is so affected by a novel, one wonders how he feels about the Sack of Rome, or indeed his own wife's flirtations."

Once more, the table stopped. Their mother made as though to stand up, and moved her chair back. The others looked at Alice in surprise. William did not smile at her. She kept her eyes down. She had misjudged the moment, and they had learned how strange an impression she might make if she were to be let loose on the world.

That image of her stayed with him; the gap between her inner life in all its confused privacy and the life which had been mapped out for her intrigued him. As the long winter in London began to soften and the days lengthen, he worked on no novels, instead taking notes for stories and making some tentative beginnings; his sister's premature death haunted him, and the details of her strange life came to him when he least expected them, adding to his sense of unrecoverable past.

He remembered one night also when his sister must have been eighteen or nineteen. He had come back to the house with news of some sort, a lecture he had heard which would interest his father, or something he had published. He had walked in the door full of bright expectation to be met by his aunt Kate, who immediately alerted him to the fact that his sister was not well.

As he sat downstairs, he could hear Alice calling out. Both parents ministered to her, and Aunt Kate regularly ascended the stairs to hover near her room or join them briefly and then come back down to report to Henry in hushed tones. He could not remember precisely what term his aunt had used to describe Alice's trouble. Alice was having an attack, perhaps, or Alice was suffering from her nerves, but he knew that during the night both of his parents in turn had come to speak with him, and he had noticed their excitement at the new dilemma presented to them. Their nervous daughter and her strange illness deserved all their sympathy and attention.

That night when her sobs did not die down in the room above, and he knew she was being held and comforted, Henry had noticed also that his mother, so often dismissed by Alice for her banal concern with the merely domestic, now was needed desperately by her daughter, and she seemed, in the dim light of the old parlor as she came down and sat with Henry, to derive a certain satisfaction in being so needed.

Nothing was as it seemed. He had an image for his story of a governess, a person full of sweetness and intelligence and competence, excited by the challenge of her new duties, her charges, the boy and girl, whom the archbishop had told him about. And he had an image also of his mother and his aunt Kate, one of them carrying a lamp, entering the parlor where he sat, both appearing worried and exhausted, his mother's lips pursed but her eyes all bright and her cheeks flushed, both of them sitting with him as Alice's muffled cries came from upstairs, both women grim and dutiful in their chairs, more alive, more intensely involved than he had seen them for many years.

He had an image, too, of being in Geneva with Alice and Aunt Kate some years later, a time in which none of them dared say to Alice or to each other that her suffering seemed almost willed. They tried to name her malady, and the nearest her mother could come to describing it was to say that Alice was suffering from genuine hysteria. Her illness was incurable, Henry realized, because she looked after it and clung to it as though it were a visitor with whom she had fallen helplessly in love. In Geneva, during their tour of Europe, they must have seemed to onlookers, and at times even to each other, a picture of rare and dutiful New Englanders taking in the sights, observing the Old World with an intelligent and sensuous eye, the brother and sister traveling with their aunt in the time before they would settle. His sister had seemed to him at her happiest, her wittiest and her most hopeful.

He remembered how each afternoon the three of them would walk by the lake, Aunt Kate having ensured that Alice had rested enough in the morning.

"The geography book never mentioned," Alice said on one of these walks, "that lakes have waves. The whole of poetry will have to be rewritten."

"Where shall we start?" Henry asked.

"I shall write to William," Alice replied. "He will know."

"You must rest every day, my dear, and not write too many letters," Aunt Kate said.

"How else shall I let him know?" Alice asked. "Walking is more tiring than writing letters and all this fresh air shall, I fear, be the death of me."

She smiled condescendingly at her aunt, who did not seem amused, Henry noticed, at the mention of death.

"Lungs love hotels," Alice said. "They long for them, especially the lobby and the stairs, but also the dining room and the bedroom, if it has a nice view and a shut window."

"Walk slowly, my dear," Aunt Kate said.

Henry watched Alice as she tried to think of a further remark which would amuse him and annoy Aunt Kate, and then, as they continued walking, she became briefly contented in her silence and in their company.

"The heart," she then continued, "prefers a nice, warm train and the brain, of course, cries out for an ocean liner. I shall convey all of this to William as soon as I return to the hotel, and we must walk fast, Aunt dear, slow walking is anathema to the memory."

"If Dorothy Wordsworth," Henry said, "had let her brother know such things, then his poetry would, I think, have been much improved."

"Was Dorothy Wordsworth not the poet's wife?" Aunt Kate asked.

"No, that was Fanny Brawne," Alice said and smiled mischievously at Henry.

"Walk slowly, my dear," Aunt Kate repeated.

That evening, as she came down to dinner, Henry noticed how carefully Alice had dressed and done her hair, and he knew that things might have been different for her if she had been a great beauty, or not an only girl, or if her intelligence had been less sharp, or her childhood more conventional.

"Could we move around the world staying in nice hotels, just we three, and writing letters home when some very witty remark is made by one of us?" Alice asked. "Could we do this forever?"

"No, we could not," Aunt Kate said.

Aunt Kate took on the role, Henry remembered, of a stern but benevolent governess caring for two orphaned children, Henry obedient and considerate and reliable, and Alice flighty but also ready to do what she was told. And all three of them were happy in those months as long as they put no thought into what would happen to Alice when she returned home.

No one watching them could have guessed that Alice was already a strange and witty invalid. Alice came close in their company to recovery, but Henry knew even then that they could not travel from city to city with her forever. Behind the smiling face and the figure who came so happily down the stairs of the hotel to meet them in the lobby each morning, there was a darkness ready to emerge when the time came. By then Alice's doom was somehow written into every aspect of her being, and, despite those days of equilibrium and happiness in Geneva, what was ahead for her had the shape of a story which now puzzled him and fascinated him, of a young woman who appeared to be light and ambitious and dutiful, but who would soon hear shrill sounds in the night and see frightening faces at the window and allow her daydreams to become nightmares.

The worst time for her was the period before and just after William's marriage, when she had her most severe nervous breakdown, an aggravated recurrence of her old troubles. In England, years later, she told him that most of her had died then, that in the hideous summer of William's marriage to a woman, pretty and practical and immensely healthy, whose name, most cruelly, was also Alice, Alice James went down to the deep sea, and the dark waters clouded over her.

Yet, despite her fearful and debilitating maladies, she maintained a strange mental energy; nothing she did was predictable, or without deliberate ironies and contradictions. When her mother died the family watched her closely, believing this would surely cause her final and complete disintegration. Henry stayed on in Boston, imagining ways he could help her and help his father. But Alice had no more attacks; she became, as plausibly as she could, the competent, dutiful and loving daughter, organizing the domestic life of the house with a light spirit and communicating with the rest of the family as though it were she who held things together. Before he left for London, he saw her one day standing in the hallway of the house as a visitor took leave, her arms folded and her eyes bright as she told the guest to come again soon. He watched her smiling warmly and then almost sadly as she closed the door. Everything about her in those moments, from her stance, to the expressions on her face, to her gestures as she turned back to the hallway, was borrowed from their mother. She was making an effort, Henry saw, to become the woman of the house.

Their father died within a year and once he was buried, her act fell apart. She had developed a close friendship with Katherine Loring, whose intelligence matched hers and whose strength equaled her weakness in its intensity. Miss Loring accompanied her when Alice decided to come to England to avoid being cared for by her aunt Kate, an act of defiance and independence and also, of course, a cry to Henry for help. She would live for eight more years, but they were spent mainly in bed. It was, as she often said, only the shriveling of the empty pea pod which awaited completion.

He remembered this as he waited for her at Liverpool, on her arrival in England, and he knew that her stubborn sense of purpose and preference, and her considerable inheritance from her father's estate, would, with the aid of Miss Loring, delay this completion for some time. He resolved not to entertain the idea that she would disturb his solitude and the fruitfulness of his exile. Nevertheless, he was frightened when he saw her, carried from the ship helpless and ill. She could not speak to him as he approached; she closed her eyes and turned her face away in distress when she thought he was going to touch her. It was clear that she should not have traveled. Miss Loring supervised the moving of Alice to suitable quarters and the finding of a nurse. She rather depended on the invalid state of his sister, Henry came to feel, as much as Alice depended on her.

She did not wish Miss Loring to leave her sight. She had lost her family and she had lost her health, but her will joined now with her intense need to have Katherine Loring to herself. Henry noticed Alice's deterioration verging on hysteria when Miss Loring was absent, and her taking quietly, almost happily, to her bed once Miss Loring promised to stay with her and minister to her. He wrote to his aunt Kate and to William about this strange pair. He tried to make clear his gratitude to Miss Loring for her devotion, so generous and so perfect, but he knew that this devotion depended on Alice's remaining an invalid. He was unhappy at the connection between them, the way it reveled in the unhealthy. He disliked Alice's abject dependence on her steadfast friend. Sometimes, he even believed that Miss Loring did his sister harm, but he could not see who, instead, would do her good and eventually he became resigned to Miss Loring.

Miss Loring stayed with Alice most of the time, caring for her, tolerating her, admiring her as no one ever had. Alice specialized in strong opinions and morbid talk, and Miss Loring seemed to enjoy listening to her as she expressed her views on death and its attendant pleasures, on the Irish Question and the iniquity of the government, and on the nastiness of English life. When Miss Loring was away, however briefly, Alice became sad and indignant that she, who had sat at the table of her brothers and her father, the greatest minds of the age, was now left to the shallow mercies of an English nurse whom Miss Loring had employed.

Henry visited her as often as he could, even when she and Miss Loring took lodgings outside London. Sometimes he listened to her with wonder and fascination. She loved elaborate jokes, taking something small and odd and making it seem, by force of her personality, enormously funny. Mrs. Charles Kingsley's devotion to her late husband was a topic she relished and she was apt to tell the story over and over with indignant mockery, demanding her visitors' agreement that it was worth the retelling quite before she had finished.

"Did you know," she would say, "that Mrs. Charles Kingsley was devoted to her husband's memory?"

She would stop as though that were enough, there was no more to be said. And then, by a toss of her head, she would make clear she was ready to continue.

"Did you know that she sat with his bust beside her? When you visited Mrs. Charles Kingsley, you had to visit her husband too. Both of them glowered at you."

Alice glowered herself as though pure evil were being described.

"And what's more," she went on, "Mrs. Charles Kingsley has her dead husband's photograph pinned to the adjoining pillow on her bed!"

She would close her eyes and laugh dryly and at length.

"Oh, a good night's sleep for Mrs. Charles Kingsley! Can you think of anything more grotesquely loathsome?"

And then the doctors. Their visits and prognostications filled her with both contempt and glee, even when she was told she had cancer. One tiny foolish remark from a doctor provided conversation for days. She declared one day that she had been visited by Sir Andrew Clarke and his ghastly grin, as though the latter were a well-known appendage of his. And then, gasping, she would tell her story of how a friend, years before, had been kept waiting by Sir Andrew, who announced himself upon arrival as "the late Sir Andrew Clarke."

"So I said to Miss Loring as we waited for Sir Andrew that I would bet money he would make precisely the same exclamation all these years later on coming into the room. 'Hark,' I said. The door opened and a florid gentleman came in, complete with his ghastly grin, and the phrase 'the late Sir Andrew Clarke' fell from his lips, as though he were saying it for the first time, followed by a very ripe burst of hilarity from the same Sir Andrew, rather too ripe indeed."

She watched herself expectantly for signs of dying, appearing as fearless in the face of mortality as she was fearful in the face of all else. She disliked the clergyman who lived in the apartment below and discussed her dread that he might, should she take ill in the night, minister to her at the end before he could be stopped.

"Imagine," she said, "opening your eyes for the last time and seeing this batlike clergyman."

She stared proudly into the distance as she spoke.

"It would spoil my postmortem expression which I have been practicing for years."

She laughed bitterly.

"It is terrible to be an unprotected being."

Copyright © 2004 by Colm Tóibín

Read More Show Less

Introduction

Reading Group Guide for The Master by Colm Toibin

1. In this book Colm Toibin makes the novelist Henry James a protagonist. Do you think the novel is more powerful because it's based on a significant historical figure? Would it be equally powerful and resonant if the central figure were invented?

2. The novel reveals Henry James as a dedicated and inspired writer who relishes the solitary confinement that a writer's life often demands. The reader discovers early on that Henry "wished for solitude and for the comfort of knowing that his life depended not on the multitude but on remaining himself"(page 23). Does Henry achieve his wish of staying true to himself? How might have Henry betrayed his true feelings/ longings?

3. After the terrible reception of Henry's play, "Guy Domville," the narrator states that "he now had to face the melancholy fact that nothing he did would ever be popular or generally appreciated"(page 32). Henry is prolific, nonetheless, producing volumes of work during his writing life. Would you consider Henry's life successful? Do you think he considered his life's work a success?

4. Henry never marries and seems to have little interest in women beyond friendship, but there are several curious interactions between him and Paul Joukovsky, the war veteran Holmes, the manservant Hammond, and the sculptor Andersen. Discuss Henry's ambivalence toward his sexuality. Why do you suppose he never fully acts on his sexual impulses? How might the Oscar Wilde scandal have affected him?

5. Alice James, Henry's sister, clings to her sickness like an occupation. Do you think Alice manipulates her sickness to evoke pity? Henry'ssister-in-law, Alice, asserts that Alice and her caretaker, Miss Loring, shared a "sort of happiness together that is not mentioned in the Bible"(p.528) What do you make of her relationship with Miss Loring?

6. Both Henry's sister, Alice, and his cousin Minny Temple shared a witty intellect and a sharp tongue that was never silenced in the company of men. Henry's father has strong feelings about the role of women claiming that "It is a woman's job to be submissive"(p.152). What commentary does the novel make about women's roles during the late nineteenth century? Overall, how are women portrayed?

7. Many of Henry's stories and novels are inspired directly from people and events in his life such that reality often blurs into fiction.

8. Henry shared an interesting relationship with his mother, silently conspiring with her about his so-called illness. Why does Henry so easily fall into his prescribed role? Why do you think Henry's mother becomes so doting and over-protective of him?

9. Bob and Wilkie, Henry's brothers, go off to war while Henry and William are sent to school. Henry experiences guilt even though he knows "he was not cut out to be a soldier"(p.267). Discuss Henry's conflicted feelings about the war, his lack of participation, and his obvious admiration for the soldiers, especially his brothers, who fought.

10. William disliked England, claiming its people had "no spiritual life." Henry, on the other hand, felt that New England had "no flavour, no life to dramatise." So Henry traveled and lived abroad, using the European landscape and its people as muse for many of his novels and stories. Discuss the differences of attitude and society between America and its mother country, England, during this time.

11. After being so inspired by Hawthorne's work, Henry seeks to know more about the author and his life. His brother, Bob, assumes Hawthorne is a minister because he "thought only women wrote stories." Consequently, Henry publishes his first story anonymously. What do you make of the stigma attached to male writers of fiction?

12. Henry's relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolson was one of his most intimate. Yet when she attempts to get too close, Henry becomes reclusive. Her sadness compounds and she eventually commits suicide. Do you think Henry's absence and withdrawal lead to her death? Discuss his guilt associated with Constance's suicide.

13. After Henry allows the sister of his servant, Mrs. Smith, to coalesce in his home, the boundaries between servant and master become less stringent. Henry begins to doubt his authority, feeling that Mrs. Smith "had won some invisible battle with him which allowed her to make herself at home in other subtle ways in the household" (page 334). Describe Henry's relationship with his servants, and his strange inability to confront the situation.

14. Henry's American privilege allows him to travel Europe and socialize in elite European circles. What statements does the novel make about class? Compare the English ideas surrounding class with those of the Americans during the late 1800's.

15. William, Henry's eldest brother sees himself as a "practical man, a family man, a man who did not write fictions but gave lectures, an American man plain in his habits and arguments, representing gruff masculinity against his brother's effete style"(page 513). Discuss the sibling rivalry of sorts that exists between Henry and his eldest brother, William. What is William's opinion of Henry's lifestyle and career choice?

16. Henry prefers to maintain a polite distance between himself and his acquaintances. He was a keen listener and observer but was "not prepared to reveal the mind at work, the imagination, or depth of feeling"(page 366). Discuss the narrator's revelations about the mind and imagination of Henry James.

17. As Henry ages, the narrator makes it clear that, "He did not wish to be regarded as a fossil, but he also wanted to keep the past to himself, a prized and private possession"(page 451). How important are nostalgia and memory to the telling of Henry's story? Why do you think Henry was so guarded with himself and his past?

18. A good portion of the novel is told in flashback; the reader is almost always reliving a memory along with Henry. Do you find this style of narrative effective?

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide for The Master by Colm Toibin

1. In this book Colm Toibin makes the novelist Henry James a protagonist. Do you think the novel is more powerful because it's based on a significant historical figure? Would it be equally powerful and resonant if the central figure were invented?

2. The novel reveals Henry James as a dedicated and inspired writer who relishes the solitary confinement that a writer's life often demands. The reader discovers early on that Henry "wished for solitude and for the comfort of knowing that his life depended not on the multitude but on remaining himself"(page 23). Does Henry achieve his wish of staying true to himself? How might have Henry betrayed his true feelings/ longings?

3. After the terrible reception of Henry's play, "Guy Domville," the narrator states that "he now had to face the melancholy fact that nothing he did would ever be popular or generally appreciated"(page 32). Henry is prolific, nonetheless, producing volumes of work during his writing life. Would you consider Henry's life successful? Do you think he considered his life's work a success?

4. Henry never marries and seems to have little interest in women beyond friendship, but there are several curious interactions between him and Paul Joukovsky, the war veteran Holmes, the manservant Hammond, and the sculptor Andersen. Discuss Henry's ambivalence toward his sexuality. Why do you suppose he never fully acts on his sexual impulses? How might the Oscar Wilde scandal have affected him?

5. Alice James, Henry's sister, clings to her sickness like an occupation. Do you think Alice manipulates her sickness to evoke pity? Henry's sister-in-law, Alice, asserts that Alice and her caretaker, Miss Loring, shared a "sort of happiness together that is not mentioned in the Bible"(p.528) What do you make of her relationship with Miss Loring?

6. Both Henry's sister, Alice, and his cousin Minny Temple shared a witty intellect and a sharp tongue that was never silenced in the company of men. Henry's father has strong feelings about the role of women claiming that "It is a woman's job to be submissive"(p.152). What commentary does the novel make about women's roles during the late nineteenth century? Overall, how are women portrayed?

7. Many of Henry's stories and novels are inspired directly from people and events in his life such that reality often blurs into fiction.

8. Henry shared an interesting relationship with his mother, silently conspiring with her about his so-called illness. Why does Henry so easily fall into his prescribed role? Why do you think Henry's mother becomes so doting and over-protective of him?

9. Bob and Wilkie, Henry's brothers, go off to war while Henry and William are sent to school. Henry experiences guilt even though he knows "he was not cut out to be a soldier"(p.267). Discuss Henry's conflicted feelings about the war, his lack of participation, and his obvious admiration for the soldiers, especially his brothers, who fought.

10. William disliked England, claiming its people had "no spiritual life." Henry, on the other hand, felt that New England had "no flavour, no life to dramatise." So Henry traveled and lived abroad, using the European landscape and its people as muse for many of his novels and stories. Discuss the differences of attitude and society between America and its mother country, England, during this time.

11. After being so inspired by Hawthorne's work, Henry seeks to know more about the author and his life. His brother, Bob, assumes Hawthorne is a minister because he "thought only women wrote stories." Consequently, Henry publishes his first story anonymously. What do you make of the stigma attached to male writers of fiction?

12. Henry's relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolson was one of his most intimate. Yet when she attempts to get too close, Henry becomes reclusive. Her sadness compounds and she eventually commits suicide. Do you think Henry's absence and withdrawal lead to her death? Discuss his guilt associated with Constance's suicide.

13. After Henry allows the sister of his servant, Mrs. Smith, to coalesce in his home, the boundaries between servant and master become less stringent. Henry begins to doubt his authority, feeling that Mrs. Smith "had won some invisible battle with him which allowed her to make herself at home in other subtle ways in the household" (page 334). Describe Henry's relationship with his servants, and his strange inability to confront the situation.

14. Henry's American privilege allows him to travel Europe and socialize in elite European circles. What statements does the novel make about class? Compare the English ideas surrounding class with those of the Americans during the late 1800's.

15. William, Henry's eldest brother sees himself as a "practical man, a family man, a man who did not write fictions but gave lectures, an American man plain in his habits and arguments, representing gruff masculinity against his brother's effete style"(page 513). Discuss the sibling rivalry of sorts that exists between Henry and his eldest brother, William. What is William's opinion of Henry's lifestyle and career choice?

16. Henry prefers to maintain a polite distance between himself and his acquaintances. He was a keen listener and observer but was "not prepared to reveal the mind at work, the imagination, or depth of feeling"(page 366). Discuss the narrator's revelations about the mind and imagination of Henry James.

17. As Henry ages, the narrator makes it clear that, "He did not wish to be regarded as a fossil, but he also wanted to keep the past to himself, a prized and private possession"(page 451). How important are nostalgia and memory to the telling of Henry's story? Why do you think Henry was so guarded with himself and his past?

18. A good portion of the novel is told in flashback; the reader is almost always reliving a memory along with Henry. Do you find this style of narrative effective?

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • 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.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2008

    Most boring porn I ever paid money for.

    This has to be the most boring pseudo- victorian- intellectual-elitist- stroke book ever written. Please use your mind in more healthful ways. If you cannot, try one of those books by Anon. at least you won't fall asleep during the good parts.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2007

    Words that go nowhere

    I usually read at least 1 book a week. I've been reading this book for 3 weeks and the words keep going on and on and on and on and on. I hoped the book would get better but after 200 pages, I had to stop reading it because it was so boring. The author uses 5,000 words and doesn't say anything. I have never read a book so dry, hard to follow and pointless.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2006

    James must be rolling in his grave!

    Having studied the works of Henry James, I was dearly disappointed at this pretentious and boring novel. While it does skirt his supposed repressed homosexuality and restate his obvious disdain for nineteenth century English society, the book dwells painfully on contrived discourses with his colleagues and acquaintances. The Master takes, unfairly in my opinion, far too much literary license in describing the inner thoughts of this truly brilliant author and his life. Examples include its preoccupation with the death of his morbid sister, assumptions about his wanderlust father, and preoccupation with Oscar Wilde. My advice is to save your money and buy a copy of one of James' books instead of this extremely boring nonsense.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted May 8, 2010

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    Posted August 31, 2011

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