The Empty Family and All a Novelist Needs

By Colm Toibin
By Colm Toibin

Henry James wrote a lot – novels, stories, essays, letters, journals – and a lot has been written about what he wrote. In addition to a long and ever-growing list of biographies and critical studies he has also inspired authors in our own time to revisit his work (most recently Cynthia Ozick updated The Ambassadors in her novel Foreign Bodies) and even to cast him as a character in their historical fictions.

Of all the writers who have mined the James lode, however, the one who has done so with the most success (arguably even more than James himself, who revised his own canon with mixed results), has been Colm Toibin. In his 2004 novel The Master he dramatized an important period in James’s life to remarkable effect, establishing himself in the process as James’s modern literary heir. All a Novelist Needs extends this legacy, collecting a decade’s worth of writing about James, while the stories in The Empty Family demonstrate the Master’s abiding influence.

Influence can take many different forms, but here it seems almost a case of one writer inhabiting another, a sort of psychic channeling that resembles the effect of James’s own “third person intimate” narrative voice enveloping the reader’s consciousness. There’s more to it than shared elements of personal identity, such as James’s tenuous Irishness and homosexuality. (With regard to this latter point, it is worth noting that despite the best efforts of generations of scholars we can still only speculate about whether or not James was gay. What Toibin calls “the grand armor of his sexuality” remains intact.) The essential connection is one of style and their common approach to the art of fiction.

For Toibin, James was “the supreme novelist” mainly for his style. It was Clover Adams who first likened the Master’s prose to slow food, chewing more than he had bitten off. But one can learn to appreciate (this is Toibin now) the “careful application of slow detail,” a method of describing things “obiquely, ambiguously, beautifully, and rather grandiloquently.” In Toibin’s stories we often find the same freighted glances, shadowy relations, descriptive layerings, and gauzy states of mind that are part of a vision of the novel as something richer, “more complete than life.”

The essays and reviews in All a Novelist Needs are mostly ephemeral pieces, though they do reveal Toibin’s eye for passages that provide a glimpse into the Master’s mind, and make for an interesting commentary on his own writing. There is even some crossover between these two books, as the Afterword to All a Novelist Needs is the story “Silence” (a period piece that features James in a cameo), which also appears in The Empty Family.

Toibin’s stories, like his novels, tend to deal with family, memory, and home. Many of them are set in the “new” (read: prosperous) Ireland and Spain, countries pulling themselves out of the shadow of the Church, the pub, and long histories of divisive politics. “I hope it lasts, that’s all I have to say,” one character says about the good times. They haven’t, and I suspect the new “new” Ireland and Spain will end up looking a lot like the old old. If so, it will be interesting to see what Toibin makes of such material.

For all the influence of James apparent in The Empty Family, Toibin does strike at least one decidely un-Jamesian “note.” This is sounded in the several explicit accounts of gay sex – a bit of realism that the Master, obviously, didn’t much go in for. One gets the feeling that Toibin is determined to overcompensate for James’s reticence. In a review of Sheldon Novick’s 2007 James biography he takes the author to task for not spelling out just what he means when he refers to James’s “passionate,” “vigorous,” and “intimate” encounters with men. “You can say it,” he urges Novick in the review, “come on, don’t be afraid!” And so in his own fiction he is determined to bring such matters out in the open. But it’s not being prudish to feel that descriptions of analingus or remarks on the taste and consistency of spunk are out of place in stories that otherwise eschew physicality for the inner life. Toibin’s characters get defined by their sexual urges and behaviour, which is a trap that James took some pains to avoid.

But in his best stories, like “Silence,” “Two Women,” “The Pearl Fishers,” and “The Colour of Shadows,” Toibin manages to walk the delicate line his mentor laid down between excessive inwardness and action, artfulness and artificiality. He doesn’t “do” Henry James in any deliberate sense, but reveals, on almost every page, a strong family resemblance.

Review first published in the Toronto Star June 30, 2011.

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