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Colm Tóibín, The Master

Bland episodic mechanics and coherence. Mere biographic extension; a lesser novel. Disappointing in terms of biographical power, mildly speculative/insinuating but shallow, unwhole; and in terms of novelistic aesthetics and order, merely a good read. There is some sympathetic material for writers chasing the buzz of literary conception. It’s good that it didn’t win the Booker, it is just. It’s reduced me to spluttering half-sentences. I guess with all my banging on about fictive extensions of biography I’d be expected to like this particular execution, but The Master doesn’t deepen the knowledge of James nor thicken the mystery of creation, especially not in terms of writing or characterisation. James comes across like a central blank: effete, austere, a mix of passive, dry will-lessness and ambiguous uncertainty. It strikes one as artless: James Lite for ladies of a certain age who’ll get a kick out of its restrained manners and oblique silences, readers for whom identity-ambiguity and artistic genius is a one-way street. It’s mostly a game of spot-the-novel-in-gestation with a dash of family drama and the peculiar Jamesian observation slash indifference to action. Important points aren’t given the weight and connectedness or completion they deserve in novels. The suspicion that much of James’ thought and speech was lifted/peppered somehow weakens the already watery, unremarkable prose. There’s no pointed power. Time, in other words, to get back to James Central.

But I’ll quote:
Observing the concealed self… skilled in the art of self-effacement. (p 226)

Both ladies, in the early months of 1892, sent one another short, brittle, witty messages. (p 246)

He had become like the eternal city itself: he was dented by history, he had responsibilities and layers of memory, he was watched and examined and in much demand (a sample of artlessness, p 274)

In the shadowy light of the apartment, he veered between displaying a vulnerability, an extraordinary, half-blank handsomeness and a strangely thoughtful introspection. (Colm’s favourite technique of compound word-lists, p 282)

Anderson was perhaps too young to know how memory and regret can mingle, how much sorrow can be held within, and how nothing seems to have any shape or meaning until it is well past and lost and, even then, how much, under the weight of pure determination, can be forgotten and left aside only to return in the night as piercing pain. (As Jamesian as it gets, staggering his commas to extend sentences, especially as the book wears on, though that entire section about Anderson is tediously drawn out, one might even say pointedly futile and crying out for editorial intervention of the sharpest kind, p287).
On another tack, I did get a reactive melancholic spark thinking how the idea and value of correspondence has changed so much since James’ time.

posted by rino breebaart  # 1:00 pm
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Alternatively, read about it at: The Slow Review or the long blog. Or even Nurture Health

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