introducing readers to writers since 1995

October 08, 2004

Gaelic Pronunciation Guide: call-um toe-BEEN

by Ron Hogan

Despite my inability to navigate the Village, I managed to find NYU's Glucksman Ireland House and hear Colm Toibin speak about his Man Booker-nominated The Master. Before reading, he spoke briefly about what it felt like the last time he was nominated, commenting drily, "It's what the five losers get up to afterwards that's more interesting to a novelist." In the end, he compared it to the Blessed Sacrament processions he was compelled to take part in as a churchgoing lad--forced into one's good clothes and paraded around all day by the people in charge.

He read two passages from the novel, one in which Henry James desperately tries to prevent his American houseguest from figuring out that his servants are alcoholics, and another in which James disposes of the clothes of Constance Fenimore Woolson after her death in Venice. Toibin noted that the latter incident shows up in other recent novels about James as well, and says it just proves the truth of a bit of writing advice James himself once gave: "Dramatise, dramatise." It's part of why he even chose to write about the author; other writers lives may lead to obvious conclusions and pat fictionalizations, but "the level of mystery in James is really very great--everything he was, he was also the opposite." He was also, he told us, concerned with the recent recastings of James as a neurotic and the queering process that had taken place with regard to his life and fiction, particularly in academia. In elaborating his fictional portrayal of James, Toibin's priority was creating "a novel of feeling," and he found himself cutting biographical details that seemed to show off his own clever research. For the prose style, "I tried to pretend that Hemingway had never lived," so that he doesn't quite imitate James directly, but he does rely on a more Latinate vocabularly and indulges in slightly longer sentences with semicolons and dashes.

What about those other novels about James, I asked from the back of the room? He recounted a long-ago meeting with David Lodge, then told us that he'd had lunch with Lodge more recently, as they were reading from their James novels in the same town on consecutive nights. "I've read the beginning of Author, Author, which I liked," he said, "and I'm sure I'll like the rest as well." He also called Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty "marvelous," though he actually finds it "closer to the spirit of an English political novel, more like Trollope than James." Which may make New Yorkers that much more interested in catching Hollinghurst at Three Lives on October 13th.

If you enjoy this blog,
your PayPal donation
can contribute towards its ongoing publication.