Learning From the Master

1224285797332_1Gabriel Josipovici reviews Colm Tóibín's All a Novelist Needs: Colm Tóibín on Henry James, in The Irish Times:

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 Master he 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.