The Irish author (The Blackwater Lightship, 2000, etc.) finds a great subject in the life and sensibility of ineffably cosmopolitan American author Henry James.
Focusing on several of James’s “middle years” (the late 1890s), Tóibín creates an increasingly affecting picture of a great writer so devoted to and immured in his art that his very life comes to seem to him “a story that had not yet been written.” Moving backward and forward in time, the novel begins with the disastrous opening night of the middle-aged James’s play Guy Domville (its audience booed him off the stage), then juxtaposes memories of the author’s earlier years with travels to beloved European places and his decision to reside henceforth in England. There are generously detailed flashbacks to Henry’s youth among a cultivated itinerant family presided over by portentous Swedenborgian idealist Henry James Senior; the lifelong frailty and early death of Henry’s acerbically witty sister Alice; the ordeal of the Civil War, from which he was spared (though his younger brothers were not) by a possibly imaginary illness; and his politely adversarial relationship with his prickly older brother, the accomplished psychologist-philosopher, William James. The advancing narrative concentrates on Henry’s frustrating friendships with attractive younger men (manifestations of a sexual hunger he fastidiously declined to satisfy), and chance meetings and overheard gossip that Toíbín—often quite ingeniously—shows to have inspired such mature masterpieces as “The Aspern Papers,” The Golden Bowl, and “The Turn of the Screw.” And, in the book’s most plaintive chapters, Toíbín traces Henry’s affectionate friendships with his vibrant cousin Minny Templre and globetrotting American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson—both of whom died young, arguably of hearts broken by Henry’s withdrawals from them and into the world of his own imagination.
A somewhat stately novel that will appeal most to readers who admire James’s subtle, stylistically rich, demanding prose. As such, it’s a formidably brilliant performance.