Sometimes in the night he dreamed about the dead -“ familiar faces and the others, half forgotten ones, fleetingly summoned up.
With this opening sentence Colm T?n begins his wonderful new novel The Master, based on the life of writer Henry James. There’s a lot in that sentence about T?n, about James and about this novel.
Death and fleetingly summoned memory are recurring themes in T?n’s novels. The Irish gay novelist is probably best known for Story Of The Night, a coming out story set in the violent Argentina of the generals, just before the Falklands war, and Blackwater Lightship, an Irish family drama set around Declan who is dying of AIDS.
He told one interviewer that when he started out writing he considered himself to be quite happy but that his books are full of terrible melancholy.
T?n goes on to say that in therapy he learned that his father’s death was blocked inside me and that he hadn’t managed to release it.
Henry James, the great turn-of-the-century American writer, also lived with many things blocked inside, notably his attraction to men. This is in part what drew T?n to James’s life.
What remains fascinating for a novelist about Henry James -¦ is that James is not open. Everything about him is ambiguous, T?n recently told The New York Times.
Everything he was, he was also the opposite. He loved his family, he longed for them; he longed to be away from them. He loved England, he dreaded England -¦ He loved working, he dreaded working. And the matter of his sexuality remains so strange and hidden, open sometimes, back enclosed again. He’s constantly glittering, appearing briefly, clearly, and then going back in again in almost every way -¦ So that he’s wide open for a novelist to go into the interior and tease out all that dramatically, T?n said.
In The Master, T?n concentrates on the period 1895 to 1899, with chapters allocated to 11 selected months in that period. But within that structure each chapter also includes James’s reflections from other periods in his life, so while it is not a total biography it replays many of the major incidents in James’s life.
James’s biographer Leon Edel has written that the mid-1890s was a time when James began to fall in love with young men. It seems likely that James never acted on these infatuations except through the respectable guise of passionate friendships.
One of these young men was a sculptor Hendrik Anderson and T?n catches some of the fraught desire of Henry’s relationship with Hendrik.
Anderson’s decision to stay a short time was, despite his dreaming, not only a sentence of disappointment but a way for him to experience again, but more sharply now, the sense of doom which came with longing and attachment, T?n writes in one of the final chapters of The Master.
The Master is a powerfully imagined piece of biographical fiction that manages to capture the hidden heart of James and his ambiguous desires.
Colm T?n’s The Master is published by Pan Macmillan, RRP $30. If you buy it at the Bookshop Darlinghurst, they are offering a free copy of T?n’s earlier book Bad Blood.