The Art of Consciousness

Incidentally, a brief scene from David Lodge’s novel about Henry James doubles as a pithy introduction to Colm Tóibín’s The Master. (And, really, since I excerpted Tóibín in Monday’s entry on Author, Author, it only seems fair to do the contrary here.)

As a free-ranging discussion turns to Catholicism, James confides in his good friend George du Maurier:

‘I rather envy the Romans their rituals and symbolism – the sung masses, the votive candles, the anointing of the sick…’
      ‘You wouldn’t convert, though, would you?’ Du Maurier enquired, almost anxiously.
      ‘No, no fear of that,’ Henry said with a smile. ‘Consciousness is my religion, human consciousness. Refining it, intensifying it – and preserving it.’

Tóibín takes the consciousness of the master artist as his topic, and beautifully illuminates it in a style, which, while certainly individual to each author, may also be unique to the contemporary literary novel.

Laura Miller, reviewing The Master for Salon credits it with possessing the “ripe stillness” of James’s own work. Miller describes Tóibín’s James as “elegiac and melancholy, aware at last of all that he has missed of life in his resolve to miss nothing that was going on around him,” without making it explicit that he clearly owes much to The Ambassadors‘ Lambert Strether.

Like most reviewers, I read the two books in the order they were published, first Tóibín’s and then Lodge’s, so the comparisons that inevitably followed my having completed both books actively intruded on my reading of Lodge’s Author, Author.

I recommended in my last entry that readers coming fresh to the pair begin with Lodge’s, but I now see there’s as good an argument for starting with The Master. Tóibín’s novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, delves deep to capture the “rich, darting, almost impressionistic glimpses of the moments of James’s life that made him the ‘Master,'” as Daniel Mendelsohn put it in a 2004 New York Times Magazine article, The Passion of Henry James.

In doing so, though, it is perhaps less suited than its comfortably baggy, buoyantly witty counterpart, Author, Author, to the kind of disruptive, associative rumination that such a comparison inspires. The Master is an absorbing, contemplative and deeply sensual work even if it does portray James as possessing a certain coldness to which some readers, notably Mendelsohn, have strenuously objected.

The final paragraphs of Mendelsohn’s article, which in its entirety manages to be at once admiring and deeply critical of Tóibín’s rendering of James, practically cry out for comparison with the then-yet-to-be-published Author, Author:

Toibin can’t acknowledge that James may have been ”the kindest of friends,” because it interferes with his larger vision of James the cold fish, the artistic vampire living off the lifeblood of his innocent and truly suffering victims

It’s possible that James just didn’t suffer in the way Toibin understands suffering. From everything we know, he was indeed quite a happy person (by his own standards, rather than ours) for most of his life — productive, sociable, well loved and remarkably kind. And, of course, a very great artist for whom art was the highest satisfaction. Yet Toibin never explores what it might feel like to be satisfied by art alone in the way that most of us want to be satisfied by love and sex; he just keeps showing you the damage that art causes without really suggesting what its compensatory value might be — for James or, indeed, for us.

Whether you agree with Mendelsohn’s assessment or not, there’s much to enjoy in Tóibín’s widely-praised, Booker short-listed portrait of James. It is officially fiction after all. Browse more aggregated reviews of The Master and Author, Author thanks to Reviews of Books.

Let’s give Tóibín’s James the last meditative word with this slow, lyrical tribute to solitude:

He loved the glorious silence a morning brought, knowing that he had no appointments that afternoon and no engagements that evening. He had grown fat on solitude, he thought, and had learned to expect nothing from the day but at best a dull contentment. Sometimes the dullness came to the fore with a strange and insistent ache which he would entertain briefly, but learn to keep at bay. Mostly, however, it was the contentment he entertained; the slow ease and the silence could, once night had fallen, fill him with a happiness that nothing, no society, nor the company of any individual, no glamour or glitter, could equal.


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