Learning from the master

 

LITERARY CRITICISM: All a Novelist Needs: Colm Tóibín on Henry JamesBy Colm Tóibín Johns Hopkins University Press, 148pp. £13

THERE ARE GREAT scholar critics, such as Erich Auerbach, Northrop Frye and Christopher Ricks, and great cultural critics, such as Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes, but by and large the best literary criticism has always come from the practitioners themselves: Coleridge, Eliot, Proust, Auden, Jarrell, Hill. This is not surprising: more is at stake for the writer than for most readers as he seeks to grapple with the mystery of why a predecessor feels so significant, has helped release so much in his own art. Colm Tóibín’s relation to Henry James is of this kind.

In devoting several years of his life to re- creating a small period of James’s life for his novel The Masterhe was of course devoting them, as any artist devotes his working life, to trying to discover what it was he needed and wanted to say. In other words he wants to understand James, his life and his art, because in that way he will come to understand himself. We can feel sure, therefore, that a collection of his incidental essays on James, written between 2002 and 2009, the years surrounding his writing of The Master,will enrich our understanding of both artists.

And the book does not disappoint. The essays may be incidental – reviews, introductions, lectures – but each conveys a sense of Tóibín’s deep engagement with his subject and his writer’s way with words. Reviewing Sheldon Novick’s biography of James he quickly but firmly insists on replacing the biographer’s easy conflation of silence with sexual repression with something more subtle but to my mind far more convincing: the artist’s reticence. “When Novick says in his prologue that James wrote ‘frank love letters’ to Henrik Andersen (xviii) and adds soon afterwards that James’s ‘only indisputable love letters were written to men’ (13 ), the reader who knows these letters is entitled to feel that Novick’s reading skills are not subtle. These letters . . . are many things, but they are not ‘frank’ and they are not ‘indisputable’. James was not given to frankness or indisputability. That is why we read him.”

In other words the web of allusions may protect not a secret but the sanctity and complexity of life. Tóibín comes to this in the most profound piece in this volume, an essay that would by itself be worth the price of the book, A More Elaborate Web: Becoming Henry James.This is his account of how and why he wrote The Master,and it is one of the best essays on how a work of art comes into being that I know.

Towards the end he returns to questions of biography, pointing out that, while the use of some fragment from the artist’s past life may be read under the sign of neurosis and trauma, it should perhaps be read rather differently if we are to engage fully with a major artist. “Things that have mattered emotionally, often for the quality of their pattern, their beauty, their emotional shape, things that are not necessarily traumas, lodge in the mind, becoming shadows until you sit at a desk and begin to work out a pattern of words and images and then they become substantial and they block the way of narrative progress until they are allowed onto the page, or they offer the narrative great body and substance until they become the secret subject of the book.” This is finely put: perhaps only a novelist would have had the confidence to make such an assertion and also found the words to express something so simple and yet so difficult to articulate. To my mind it is both true and in need of affirmation in our age, when the biographer’s dictat is often seen as the final word on any artist.

I do, however, have to take issue with Tóibín and with James himself on one important point. In an essay on the meaning for the novelist of Lamb House, his Sussex retreat in his later years, Tóibín quotes a letter James wrote to his friend Grace Norton about the heroine of A Portrait of a Ladyand her relationship to the real-life Minnie Temple: “I had her in mind and there is in the heroine a considerable infusion of my impression of her remarkable nature. But the thing is not a portrait. Poor Minny was essentially incomplete and I have attempted to make my young woman more rounded, more finished. In truth everyone, in life, is incomplete, and it is [in] the work of art that in reproducing them one feels the desire to fill them out, to justify them, as it were.”

Tóibín is so taken with this formulation that he repeats it verbatim in one later essay and paraphrases it in another. But what artists say about their work, even artists as self-aware as James, is, as Tóibín knows all too well, not necessarily the truth. It seems to me that both James and Tóibín in The Masterare using their art not to round out and fill out a portrait left incomplete by life, which sounds more like the sort of aim Oscar Wilde might have expressed, but to bring home (to themselves, to the reader) the mystery of that life. That is why each of the great last novels ends not with resolution, not with final understanding, but with the sense that something which could be said in no other way has, remarkably, been said by the accumulation of things not said, of actions not done. That is why James’s greatest short story, The Turn of the Screw, ends so magnificently and so mysteriously: “I caught him, yes, I held him – it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it was truly that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.”

I would have loved to hear what Tóibín had to say about this sentence, but he does not go in for close analysis, even though he devotes one (rather disappointing) essay to the story. But, as Maurice Blanchot grasped, The Turn of the Screwis essentially about not Freudian repression or ghosts but that quintessential Jamesian and Tóibínesque subject, reticence. It tells what happens when, with a final turn of the screw, that which should not have been spoken in so many words is forced out into the open: it kills.


Gabriel Josipovici’s most recent books are What Ever Happened to Modernism?, Only Joking(a novel) and Heart’s Wings,a volume of new and selected stories covering 40 years of writing