Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Friday, April 22, 2005

Reading lives: on The Master and In the Hand of Dante after having returned both to the library

The final pages of Colm Tóibín’s The Master passed with the same gentle, uncertain pleasure as all the others. The hours taken to read its 359 pages - spread evenly over two and a half weeks - were like those one might spend drifting in a boat along a calm, meandering river under a hazy summer sun. While I didn’t want it to end, when it did I wondered: what was the point of that? Of course it doesn’t need a point at all, but for point read conclusion. Tóibín follows Henry James’ almost uneventful life over only six years – six years well after he’s established as a famous writer yet well before the distinguished thing at the end. The narrative floats in mid-career with James writing and writing; writing so much he gets RSI. This seems very odd. In the current publishing climate, where biography is king, one would expect a full-blown fictional life! But it’s odd like this for a reason.

The novel begins with the most famous known event in James’ life: the disasterous first night in 1895 of his play Guy Domville. In its aftermath, the narrative returns to his youth in the US. The extent of the drama here is that one brother goes to war and goes to Harvard while Henry has a bad back. We watch him prevaricate in choosing a career before he follows William to college, to study Law. But it’s not really him. A little more turmoil occurs when Tóibín has Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry share a room and sleep together, naked yet chastely. Tóibín’s sensitivity to James’ imagined feelings at this imagined time is the first inkling of unease with authorial intent. Tóibín has written elsewhere of his fascination with famous writers’ apparently repressed homosexuality. This unease occurs with two other friendships or infatuations with men, neither of which develop very far except in Tóibín’s suggestive narration. However, there are similarly awkward relationships with women even if Tóibín does not describe them in similarly intimate detail. What each friendship reveals is James’ distance from regular engagement. He seems barely to live. He backs away from life but keeps watch and then goes away and writes and writes. Tóibín manages to make this gripping because the question that hangs always in the background is not when will he start to live? but: from where does all this writing come?

When I had finished The Master, I returned it to the library and withdrew a book with a wrap-around label on its spine with the word "CRIME" on it. Before, I had read only one novel that was classed under "Crime". This was Dick Francis’ Twice Shy in around 1985 or maybe earlier. (I associate the time of reading with Soft Machine’s final LP Land of Cockayne, a memory I offer for no reason.) My second crime novel then was Nick Tosches' In the Hand of Dante. On reflection, it is not a crime novel in the Dick Francis sense, but for sure it has what I assume to be its usual element: er, crime. It also has this genuinely terrifying character Louie, a New York City mobster, and ‘Nick Tosches’ the narrator, a man with the definitive rage to live. The chapters involving these two are absolutely thrilling, funny and horrible. (There is a chapter early on in which Tosches the narrator (as opposed to Tosches the author) rails against modern publishers in a manner reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard at his disarming best – it is simply glorious). The crime is that they steal a newly-discovered manuscript of Dante's Commedia written in the poet’s hand.

However, the novel has more or less alternative chapters, one following the crime, the other imagining Dante’s life. The latter are written with not only Tosches’ curiously fussy grammar but also a decidedly ‘poetic’ literary style. Superficially, it is comparable to Tóibín’s restrained Jamesian pastiche yet, in contrast, they are almost impossible to read. I longed to return to the crime narrative to find out what happens next. Sometimes I just skipped a page or two. At last, I thought, I understand what people mean when they say they don’t want to read anything too heavy. I can’t honestly say I knew what is going on in the Dante chapters. Only from reading the explicatory reviews did I find out. One thing I’m sure of though: this is a profound and moving work that one doesn't have to 'understand' in order to enjoy and appreciate.

Curious, then, that the rather inconclusive, quiet, novel about a novelist who barely lived leaves me feeling the same. I think this is in good part because both novels, in their own way, present the paradox that reading - the activity that seems to postpone life; that doesn't seem like an activity at all; the thing that places a fermata over the repose of consciousness - is actually where we are most fully alive. (And it's not that great).

1 comment:

  1. ...the paradox that reading - the activity that seems to postpone life; that doesn't seem like an activity at all; the thing that places a fermata over the repose of consciousness - is actually where we are most fully alive

    I really like this and how you have said it.

    ReplyDelete

Contact

Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

Blog Archive

Followers

Contact steve dot mitchelmore at gmail.com. Powered by Blogger.