Saturday 23 April 2016

What's wrong with Colm Toibin?

I am a big fan of Colm Toibin's books. His writings often remind me of beautiful melodies, capturing moments of haunting beauty or devastating realistic insight into human frailty. More recently I started reading Toibin's novel 'The Master', a fictional account of Henry James in England. Whilst Toibin once again at times manages to conjure up literary marvels the novel itself somehow misses the emotional mark. With Toibin, a writer of great precision and quality, the most interesting question is why.

Henry James, the brother of the American philosopher William James, is still read widely today but his record is mixed. His writing style is often compared to the impressionism of Monet and others, offering a multitude of dots that require distance to comprehend the whole picture. James also occupies a curious position within the American canon as a lifelong exile (in Britain) yet never quite making Britain his home. The main reason for the latter was his abject failure at producing any good play and Toibin homes in on James' experience of Guy Domville's flop in London's West End which arguably traumatised James and produced a creative crisis (not least as James had the misfortune that his play's failure contrasted with the enormous success of Oscar Wilde's work on the London stage at the time, a writer he despised).

Toibin may have been motivated to write about James by his subject's curious position in English literature, something they both share. As an American, James was at once removed from English manners and customs, whilst curiously drawn to them. The remove afford him a critical distance, yet the fact that he shared the same language intimated a closeness that was probably illusory. Toibin may feel something similar, being Irish (now mostly living in Spain) yet invariably drawn to the enormous (at times negative) influence of the English on his homeland. James' experience of being a closet homosexual in a country that both cultivated 'queerness' in London high society and repudiated it violently in law may be something that Toibin can sympathise with as well.

As usual Toibin manages to capture moments of fascinating insight and beauty in 'The Master'. His writing is full of fitting observations of Englishness as seen from a distance. And yet, the novel somehow does not quite hit the mark perhaps because Toibin, by linguistic means, is too close to the English (language) that serves as the backdrop to James' emotional upheaval.

Poignancy over extravagance: Colm Toibin.
Foto: David White/NZ Listener/REX

Toibin is not an extravagant stylist at the best of times. His mastery does not reside in innovative linguistic playfulness but detailed descriptions of moments, based on acute awareness of social dynamics that conspire to poignant insights. He is almost unrivalled in this amongst contemporary writers but the outer limits are defined by his unwillingness to push into more poetic writing. At the core, his style remains realistic and factual. This is usually an asset when writing fiction, yet when creating a simulacrum of actual events, the factual can come to predominate and artistic construction takes on the cloak of the humdrum of reality.

This makes 'The Master' a difficult read as Toibin clearly wants to pass it off as a realistic account of James' existential and emotional struggle in England. Yet the main linguistic tool, given that Toibin eschews poetic flights of fancy, remains a third person narrative that sounds precocious, distant and impersonal at times. Whilst Toibin manages to paint some stunning scenes, James as a character remains unfinished and sketchy. Toibin may have wanted to create this effect as it may mirror James' precarious experience of living in self-imposed exile, requiring him to never disclose his emotions and views quite fully to his friends and foes populating his English world.

But, as a fictional biopic, Toibin's refusal to turn the hero inside out for the reader to see his inner workings (and failings) makes it a difficult read. At the end of the day, his novel resembles one of Monet's paintings, composed by a myriad of individual details but requiring distance to identify the overall motif. Artistically, this may be an enormous feat achieved by Toibin, yet being constantly held at bay we sometimes lose interest in the image supposed to occur before us.

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