Posts Tagged ‘Henry James’

Book #65: The Master

Once again it’s been awhile. Sorry, again. I had a busy last couple weeks traveling around Europe and enjoying Prague. Then I had a busy couple of weeks re-adjusting to American life, apartment hunting, and starting my new job. I’ve still been reading (though not as much), but I haven’t felt much like writing about books. I’m going to try and get caught up, because I’m about 2 months behind on writing.

Colim Toibin’s The Master is one of the best books I’ve read in awhile. It captivated me to the point where I didn’t want to stop reading. Toibin, in this book-version of a biopic, gets into the head of one of the great writers of the nineteenth century – Henry James.

The novel picks up with James’ failed foray into being a playwright. At this point James is living in London, though he’s growing tired of London society and sick of being in the shadow of Oscar Wilde. From there, we follow James forward and backward as he reflects on his life, where he’s been, where he’s going, and what he will write next.

The funny thing is that if you read this book without checking out a synopsis, review, or back cover, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise. I’d forgotten that The Master is about Henry James. For the first couple pages, the narrator was never named and all I knew was that I was reading about a writer in London. It wasn’t until, I think, the second or third chapter that I finally made the connection that I was reading about Henry James.

I’ve read a couple Henry James books (Daisy Miller and What Maisie Knew). I didn’t particularly enjoy either of them. There is something about James’ prose that makes it very hard for me to connect with him.

James as Toibin portrays him, though, is easily one of the most relatable ‘fictional’ characters I’ve ever read. Toibin writes with such convincing human emotion that I felt like I was Henry James sometimes. I’ve never empathized so completely and so easily with a character. Ever. James reflects on the many friends and family members he’s lost, some through death, and some because he is aloof and tends to distance himself from others.

Perhaps I could so easily relate to Henry James because James, as Toibin writes him, is such an extreme introvert. He has an extremely rich inner life, but often, even when he wants to have a human connection, he finds himself unsatisfied with the interactions he has with other people. James is nearly always building people up in his mind, creating thoughts, feelings, and reactions for them, and is often disappointed when they act differently than he expects. The result is that James longs to be around other people, but when his friends and loved ones come to be with him, he almost instantly wishes they were gone. The introvert in me was reading the whole thing like, awww, yeah, I’m not a freak!

Here’s where the post got away from me a bit. This happens quite a bit, but usually I cut most of the stuff out. This time it was cathartic so I’m leaving it in. Here’s where things get REALLY personal. Read it if you want.

Basically, TL;DR:

I got lonely and a bit bummed out during my last two months in Prague, so I really related to Toibin’s portrayal of Henry James as a reflective, introverted loner looking back on his life and the deaths of people who were important to him.    

I think this book resonated with me so much because I read it at a perfect time in my life. It was at the point when I was first starting to be really unhappy in Prague. With the exception of two or three people, I had real trouble relating to everybody I knew. They enjoyed dancing in crowded clubs, getting drunk and talking about nothing, and then spending the whole week talking about how much fun they had. I hung out with them for awhile when I first got to Prague, but after awhile it stopped being fun. I can’t dance. I don’t like crowds. I hate clubs. I never had a good time when I went out with them, so I certainly couldn’t understand why, on the rare occasions they’d actually sit down and have drinks at pubs where you could have conversations, all they seemed to want to talk about was how much fun last weekend was and how great the next music festival was going to be.

I stopped hanging out with them at some point and then things got very lonely. The longer I went without forcing myself to go to the clubs, the worse it got when I hung out with these people at group events. I’d sit at the end of the table staring into my beer and listening to them talk about their most recent escapades. I’d try to make conversation, but it often seemed like I was speaking a different language. Questions like, “Oh, how was your trip back to America?” were met with a smirk and a sarcastic, “Well, the more you change, the more those states just stay the same.” (That was an actual interaction I had with a guy. He said that, then walked off.)

Things progressed, the few people I could relate to moved away or got significant others, and soon I found myself with literally one person in the entire Czech Republic that I could actually have a conversation with without feeling like I was completely incapable of talking to other people. I can’t stress enough just how much I could not relate to a single other person that I knew.

But it wasn’t like I was trying that hard. And it wasn’t like I was dying to be best friends with all of them and they rejected me. In fact pretty much the whole situation was my decision. I was not terribly interested in hanging out with them or trying to become great friends. They weren’t bad people, really. They just had very different interests and priorities than I did. That was fine, just lonely. Toibin’s Henry James was a fine friend for those days I spent bored in my apartment.

Rating: *****
Up Next: The Hamlet

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