Not many pages after the famous passage in which Lambert Strether, the rueful hero of The Ambassadors, implores a young friend, "Live all you can; it's a mistake not to," there's a less famous passage in which Strether reflects that "a man might haveóat all events such a man as heóan amount of experience out of any proportion to his adventures." Henry James's fiction isn't lacking in melodrama, but the mind is where the real action is, as it was in James's own life. Colm Tóibín's splendid new novel, The Master, which treats James's life from 1895 to the turn of the centuryóthat is, from the humiliating disaster of his play Guy Domville to the beginnings of his magisterial late phaseóis wholly lacking in melodrama, which is one of several factors that set it apart from a James novel. Yet it's so beautifully imagined that I had the sensation as I read it of being in as close contact with James as I am when I'm ensconced in his sentences.

James is a perilous choice of subjectóthere are few novelists toward whom readers feel so protective. I do, anyway. He's not only an extraordinary presence on the page but also, clearly, a vulnerable one, and a good one. Seldom do we expect novelists to live up to the morally lucid version of themselves they give us in their books, but with James we do. To read him, one feels, is to know him, foibles and all. Foibles are an essential component of his tragicomic (but mostly comic) vision, a view of life that allows him to take in the most complicated and poisonous operations of society with the sangfroid of a Balzac or a Proust but with none of their malice. Malice is alien to James. His most characteristic pronouncement, for me, can be found in the fifth volume of the Leon Edel biography, in a paragraph relating the impressions of young Billy James on a visit to his uncle's home in Rye in the autumn of 1902: "His vision was of a short, rotund man, with a quick sensibility and a boundless capacity for affection. What he carried away from his elderly uncle"óJames would have been just shy of sixtyó"was the memory of hearing him say, åThree things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.'"

A man, in other words, who was, like his protagonists, profoundly good. And a man who, again like his protagonists, had measured the distance between goodness and happiness and chosen the renunciatory satisfaction of living up to the best imaginable version of himself.

Tóibín recently described James as "the most tactful of artists, keeping himself and his views out of sight, being ready to disappear for the sake of his art." I'd say he's off about everything but the tact. Tóibín has looked at James and seen Tóibín. As artists, they're opposites. James created a host of memorable characters, but they all pale next to the storyteller; everything gets filtered through that hypnotically weird voice, and at the end of each novel, no matter how sorry we may be to say good-bye to a Hyacinth Robinson or a Fleda Vetch, the character we know we'll miss most is Henry James. Tóibín is the one who disappears for the sake of his art. His modest style draws no attention to itself; he gets the story down on the page without fuss, or so it seemsóhis technique is invisible. I can't read the final pages of his 1999 novel The Blackwater Lightship without a Kleenex, but I can't put my finger on what it is that makes me so weepy. (The understatement?) Killer sentences were a specialty of James, who wrote some of the best exit lines in fiction, but I don't think there's a single one in any of Tóibín's earlier novelsóand if the language is more florid in The Master, the extravagance is James's, not Tóibín's.

Not surprisingly, they construct their novels very differently. James's slowly gather steam and then barrel toward their conclusions. Tóibín's are far less plotty. The Master is broken into eleven discrete miniatures of James's life. Though the book ostensibly covers five years, the dates under the chapter headings are deceptive, sinceómodifying the technique he used to lustrous effect a dozen years ago in The Heather Blazingóin several chapters Tóibín deals with past events. (He also fiddles with chronology to draw some later events into his scheme.) Chapter 7, dated April 1898, begins with a letter from William James to his younger brother about his speech at the unveiling of a Civil War monument, then travels back several decades to an exploration of the war's effect on the James family. Chapter 6, dated February 1897, treats Minny Temple, the inspiration for Isabel Archer and Milly Theale, who had died in 1870. Chapter 9, dated March 1899, is about James's relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolson, the woman with whom, aside from his sister, Alice (who died in 1892), he formed the deepest of any of his attachments. Of Henry and Alice, Tóibín writes, "They had both recoiled from engagements, deep companionship, the warmth of love. They had never wanted it"ówords that fit Woolson just as aptly, except that, of course, no one renounces the warmth of love without a great deal of ambivalence. James and Woolson seem to have circled around each other, both of them intensely guarded, alternately testing and retreating, approaching and rebuffing. According to Tóibín, it was James who delivered the final rebuff, after a perceived indiscretion of Woolson's. She killed herself in 1894, and James must have felt the rebuke in her act; Tóibín persuasively construes "The Beast in the Jungle" as his mea culpa for the failure of their friendship, which sank the lonely writer into an even more profound isolation.

But in isolation he found power. James's solitude went so much deeper than that of most other artists; in his loneliness and his industry he rivals Beethoven as a model of artistic dedication. Among Tóibín's many triumphs, perhaps his finest is the skill with which he conveys James's incessant longing for the consolation of work; no doubt he understands it. Tóibín's James is the opposite of pitiful. That's why the title of his book is so well chosen, even though the sobriquet belongs more properly to the late phase James is entering as The Master draws to a close.

Of course, it wasn't just an artist's instinctual self-preservation that led James to erect a wall between himself and Woolson and to live without sexual love. For Tóibín, James's repressed sexuality is the key to both his life and his artóa dubious conviction that Tóibín argues so convincingly (though "argues" is hardly the word for the novelist's gift of placing the reader inside a character's skin) that I no longer find it dubious. This view of his character guarantees that the obsessively private James, who was rigid in his determination "to frustrate as utterly as possible the post mortem exploiter," would have hated the book. But, allowing for the difference in eras, Tóibín handles James's sexuality with a tact fully worthy of his subject. Elsewhere he has described James's temperament as "polite, playful, distant, steely," and we see the steel in his natureóthe same steel he shows when Woolson tries (or he thinks she tries) to get too closeówhenever his friends attempt to touch on the matter of his sexual preference. His sexuality is a wound to be guarded and protected absolutely. He won't allow himself to be mortified, and Tóibín, to his great credit, won't allow it either. The opportunity arises in a chapter about James's infatuation with the young sculptor Hendrik Andersen; another kind of novelist would have gone straight for the myriad possibilities of humiliation.

But Tóibín has the generosity and the empathy to look at James's restraint in the same terms in which James viewed it himself. As he shows, James had many reasons to dislike Oscar Wilde (jealousy of his theatrical success not least among them), but it's clearóto the reader and everyone elseówhy his horror is so visceral when Wilde's flamboyance turns on him. James will never be of much use as a symbol in the battle for liberation, yet the fact that his star has continued to rise alongside Wilde's must mean something. Few readers today could endorse the kind of self-repression he accepted and embraced. But I would hope that even fewer could repudiate the efflorescence of that self-repression as it evolved into some of the most wonderful art that any American has produced. Self-control has a lot going for it, especially in a culture that seems so out of control. It suits an artist of immense gifts way better than self-destruction. The James that Tóibín gives us may be fragile and solitary, but he's also deeply satisfied, and he has reason to be. That contentment is the kiss of comedy in his tragicomic art.

Craig Seligman's Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me is being published by Counterpoint.

 
     
     
 
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THE MASTER BY COLM TÓIBÍN. NEW YORK: SCRIBNER. 352 PAGES. $25. BUY NOW