Saturday, 8 September 2012

1001 Books Review: The Master

No matter how hard I try, all the books I write turn out to be about people saving the world. One time I tried to write a gentle romance where nothing happened and a) it was terrible and b) they ended up saving the world anyway. Therefore, I am consumed with admiration for authors who manage to make plots about characters just wandering around houses and talking to each other seem elegant and interesting.

I don't mean those books that do not feature the invasion of giant rats from Mars or werewolves or decapitated heads in pies or something, like the novels of Dickens or Byatt or Ali Smith, I mean books in which the entire point is that literally nothing happens. The plot is that there is no plot, just some dude walking about and thinking.

Where do all the words come from? How do you keep going when you know that nowhere in the 100,000 words you have yet to write does anybody blow up a power plant or transform into a dragon? Don't get me wrong, I love reading that kind of book, but the thought of writing one makes my brain short-circuit. Evidently, though, there are lots of writers out there who have no idea why anyone would ever write about werewolves, and since those are the writers who win the Booker prize I guess I should envy them even more than I already do.

Just such a writer is Colm Toibin (which I learnt today is pronounced Collum Toebean, you can thank me later unless you are Irish and knew that anyway), and just such a text is his novel The Master.

Not this one
No, Doctor Who lovers, not that Master. The Henry James kind of Master. I'm not sure if that's a nickname all the cool academics use, or if Toibin just made it up to convey the idea that James wrote a lot of masterpieces, but the point is that this book is about the later life of Henry James, as he travelled around Europe gathering plot ideas for his novels while failing to have meaningful life experiences or form emotional connections with other human beings.

This one
Toibin's James is a man chronically afraid of feelings. He watches other people being bereaved, or falling in love, or struggling with depression, and sucks it all up into his head to use in his books. He refuses to actually vocalise or act on any of his own emotions - instead, he hides them in his novels in the fond and mistaken belief that no one will realise he's writing about himself.

There's a story that gets told repeatedly in The Master. In his younger days, in Paris, James once stood all night outside the home of a man he fancied, just glaring up at his window and getting rained on because he couldn't bear to actually go on in and try his luck. That's pretty much the pattern of the life of Toibin's James. He makes eyes at men but fails to sleep with them; he makes friends with women but fails to invite them to stay with him (after which the women die and James suffers hidden inner tragedy).

It's all written in a very peaceful, detached way, like looking at the reflections of buildings in water rather than the buildings themselves. There's a sense of unacknowledged things lurking in the depths that make the surface calm seem a little bit creepy - which is completely genius on the part of Toibin, because that's precisely how it feels to read one of James' stories. The one everyone knows, of course, is The Turn of the Screw, which you should ABSOLUTELY READ THIS MOMENT if you haven't already (that is how strongly I feel about how brain-wigglingly brilliant it is), but I had to read 'The Beast in the Jungle' for an MA module last year and it has exactly the tone that Toibin has captured in The Master. In 'The Beast in the Jungle', two people are waiting for something creepy to happen, nothing happens, nothing happens and then it turns out that the creepy thing they have been waiting for is... nothing. And yet it is still creepy. 'The Beast in the Jungle' is (probably) about being gay, which is (probably) what Toibin's novel is about too, but like everything to do with James, you can never quite be sure.

In The Master, Toibin has pulled off something pretty special. It's a well-researched, interesting and pitch-perfect homage to James' fiction, a book about James that could almost have been by James. For a book in which literally nothing happens, it's amazingly compelling, and (the test of a good piece of writing about an author) I came away wanting to read a lot more of James' novels. On balance, I probably prefer to read about werewolves and decapitated heads, but if you want a bit of elegant nothingness in your fiction, Toibin - and by extension James - is a very good way to go. Yes, nothing happens in a Henry James novel or in The Master, but it doesn't happen in a really interesting way.

4 stars, and 20.68% of my 1001 List finished.

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