By December 18, 2008 0 Comments Read More →

The Master: Fiction as Biography

The Master Cover

Recently my book group discussed Colm Toibin’s The Master, a fictionalized view into the life of the esteemed and deeply private writer Henry James.

What surprised and in some cases pleased the readers was how deeply introspective Toibin’s portrait of James was. The term “speculative introspection” was bandied about and discussed.

A number of questions came up throught the discussion of this fictional biography or biographical fiction. How well does this genre work? Did you feel that you had to have read or know about Henry James to enjoy the book? How much research or source material was used in the making of the book? Why did Toibin only choose to only look at the last two decades of James’ life? What do we miss?

We also discussed at length James’ repressed sexuality, a theme that Toibin weaves throughout the book as it was woven throughout James’ life. Was James gay or bisexual? Why was he so afraid of intimacy? What was the nature of his relationships with women?

Toibin sets up the theme of repressed sexuality rather splendidly by opening the novel at the time of the trials of Oscar Wilde. James’ distaste for the public aspects of that scandal and his jealousy over the fame of his rival’s plays introduce us to the complexity of James’ character and milieu.

In preparing for the discussion, I found myself swept into the PBS site where a timeline and other background materials had been assembled for a program on Henry James. One of the things I love about being in a book group and being a facilitator if just how much I get to indulge my literary fascinations in the process. I get to geek out on a regular basis and fill my head with random literary and historical facts (any historian would be appalled by my general lack of chronological historical knowledge, but I could totally kick butt in the literary and pop culture sections of Trivial Pursuit!).

What also fascinated us was learning that another novel about Henry James’ life, Author, Author by David Lodge, had come the same year that Toibin’s work did. But Toibin’s book won numerous awards and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, while Lodge’s book languished in comparison. Reviewers took note, but more readers found The Master (the power of award buzz?). Lodge went so far as to write about this experience in The Year of Henry James.

I don’t have any definite opinions on fictional biographies. To be perfectly honest, I don’t read a tremendous amount of nonfiction in general. While I enjoy memoirs and biographies, I read them all with a grain of salt–with the understanding that perception and memory is faulty, and that biographers use a fair amount of speculative introspection for even the most public figure who leaves behind reams of primary source material. In other words I appreciate the limitations and potential for both fictional and nonfiction accounts. But I am not a comparative literature professor. I am just a book group leader, going from book to book to book. I don’t pretend to be an authority, here or in my book group. I’m just here to ask some questions, to ponder, to mull, to hear how others process and read what they read–to be a part of a community of readers.



About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

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