I've just discovered an incredible novelist: Colm Toibin, author of The Master, a book I'd never heard of and didn't mean to read. I'm under a deadline for the next two months, and I'm not even letting myself read my next book-group selection, judging that I don't have time for any but deadline- and work-related reading. But my husband just finished The Master, and recommended it.
So I made the mistake of picking it up while I was waiting for him to come out of a store or something, and the book was the only readable thing in the car at the time. And once I picked it up, I was gone.
But for the life of me, I can't fathom why. Toibin, apparently an Irish writer, and one I've never heard of, has written a masterpiece, bringing the great Henry James to life on the page. And he breaks some major "rules" of creative writing that I've taught for the last twenty years, leaving me more grateful than ever that I've moved into a different field (ESL) than one that seemed less teachable the longer I taught it. Writing is doing, so beyond being a prod to make students do, a teacher has little conceptual knowledge to pass on to students.
The first conceptual "rule" Toibin breaks is opening his novel inside a character's head. And we're not only inside Henry James's head, we're not even getting his take on the "real" world. He's dreaming. So it's as if Toibin is challenging himself to counter every strategy to hook readers in his opening: there's only one character onstage; there's no action; and we're inside someone's dream. There are no senses at work, nothing to imaginatively involve the reader, and the reader has, as yet, no stake in the character and thus no reason to be interested in his dream.
And yet, I was hooked. I went back and read over the short paragraph, and I think now what drew me in was this very imaginative spareness, the lacks that I just cited. The author sets up a literary desert, and the few sense-perceptibles he sprinkles in soak into our parched imaginations, triggering strong empathy. Henry James is like all of us in the lonely hour before dawn: woken by the effort of trying to hold on to the fleeting images of dead loved-ones in a dream, aware of creaking neck muscles that signal aging and mortality. Toibin thus makes one of our greatest writers human and accessible, someone readers can immediately identify with.
Toibin then proceeds to tell us about characters and events via straight exposition, rather than showing via scene. As in his opening, he suggests scenes, but does it sparsely. Like his master Henry James, he does rooms particularly vividly. But most of the novel is pure exposition about Henry's thoughts, jumping the fence that writing texts set up against anything but action and external description to characterize.
It reminds me of years ago when I was going through a creative writing program, and how we students would puzzle over student stories criticised by the intructors being simultaneously accepted for publication in literary journals. We quickly learned that if there was any body of conceptual knowledge in this field that might shorten the journey to publication, it was regularly challenged by many writers.
This novel is more than just meeting a challenge, though. There is something calmingly familiar about the work, as if in it's pages, the reader finds herself finally home. Perhaps it's Toibin's genius at describing rooms, particularly homey, cosy rooms against rainy, gray English winters. Perhaps it's the way these rooms ameliorate James's exile from his native New England. Or perhaps because it's written so close in to James's consciousness that we feel, throughout the novel, that we're in the presence of a comfortable companion, if not a friend.
This book makes me want to take up Henry James, something I haven't done in decades. I also look forward to reading more Toibin novels, and I'd love to hear from anyone who knows anything about this guy. Some of his titles are: The South; The Heather Blazing; The Story of the Night; and The Blackwater Lightship.