Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Margaret Drabble, Tracy Chevalier, Sarah Dunnant et al., please take note: This is good historical fiction!

Although it was unclear to me at first the extent to which Colm Tóibín's beautiful book The Master is historical fiction and to what extent it is biography. Whatever it is, I absolutely adore it.

I don't know much about Henry James (in fact, I'm somewhat ashamed to say I've never read any of his books - I'll get to it eventually I promise), but from reading some reviews, I get the impression that The Master is a whole lot of speculation based around a framework of real events. This doesn't actually bother me at all. I am fast coming to realise that characterisation may well be my favourite thing about literature, and I know from experience that filling in the gaps of what you don't know about a character in a way that may not be strictly true but is true to the personality of the character as you know them is one of the single most enjoyable and satisfying things you can do.

In relation to this, I'd like to quote this review from The Guardian:
How the books grow out of the life is the novel's deepest story. The phrase "I can imagine" crops up several times in the imaginary conversations. It irritated me, as it seemed so anomalous - but it's a clue to what Tóibín is doing. He shows us James's capacity for imagining his way in minute detail into, say, the state of mind of an abandoned child, his superhuman attention to "figures seen from a window or a doorway, a small gesture standing for a much larger relationship, something hidden suddenly revealed". Tóibín too "can imagine" his way into Henry James with exceptional attention - and, particularly, into the process of turning his own "personal store" of memories and relationships into fiction. Sometimes he allows himself simplistic biographical links, but at its best, the novel deals carefully and subtly with the complicated, mysterious process of how a novelist - above all, this master-novelist - goes about "masking and unmasking himself".
It is such a clear, if often unflattering, portrait of James that I feel like I know this man I had barely heard of before. He is gorgeously flawed. He is idealistic, selfish, snobbish, self-absorbed, self-justifying and so, so, so believable. I fell in love with his flaws again and again and again. It helps that he is also endlessly introspective. I adore introspection. I suspect I indulge in it far too often, but then perhaps so does Tóibín's James.

I have only two possible criticisms of this book, and I say 'possible' because I'm not entirely convinced that they are bad things. The first is an occasional tendency to lapse into sentimentality. I hate sentimentality, so I suppose it's telling that it barely grated at all in this case. To me it seemed to be in character, and I barely noticed it except occasionally when it maybe got a tiny, tiny bit out of hand. So tiny I can't even think of an example, which is pretty pathetic on my part and says a lot for the inconsequentiality of this criticism.

The second is that it is highly episodic. First he talks about the failure of James's play Guy Domville, but then he goes straight onto something else, I think it might have been James's relationship with his cousin Minny Temple. From there, on to something else. It frustrated me a bit. Some novel-reading part of me wanted it to have some common thread arching throughout. Although Guy Domville is portrayed as such a crucial event of James's life, it is only mentioned occasionally in the latter part (by which I mean almost all) of the book, and then only as a very, very marginal comment. I didn't sense that any of the episodes were more important or central than any others, though of course there are themes present throughout - the conflict between public and private life being an obvious one - but somehow I wanted at least one of the events to be more omnipresent.

The reason I wonder if this is really a criticism is because once again, it is true to life. Life is episodic. We have our temporary preoccupations, our transient obsessions. Something that seems monumental at the time will have receded into the minutiae of the past after a few days - weeks - months - years. It is rare for one event to dictate the course of one's life, and for this I doubt my own assessment.

I'd like to end on a quote from the book itself.
' "I view the historical novel as tainted by a fatal cheapness and if you want a statement from me on the matter... it would be all one word." Henry said. "One simple word. It would all be humbug!" '
I too have felt this intrinsic 'cheapness' of the historical fiction genre, and it is so all-pervasive that I have come to equate the two. Perhaps this is unfair. No matter. Simply rest assured that there is nothing whatsoever that is 'cheap' or 'humbug' about The Master.

No comments: