To Read Is to Fly

“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.” 
― Alberto Manguel

 

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The Master - Colm Tóibín I loved this book. I thought Tóibín did a beautiful job adapting his style to one that was evocative of Henry James, although more easily readable. The novel moves with James to London, Ireland, Italy, and Rye, and effectively integrates James' memories of the past in flashbacks that come as responses to his relationships, tensions, and interactions with others.

Tóibín has been described as a writer who is keenly interested in his characters' psychology and relationships, and this interest comes to the fore in The Master. James emerges very much as an isolated figure. He worries about how he appears to others, he struggles to maintain his composure, and in his zeal to maintain his privacy, he shies away from intimate relationships with others inside and outside of his family. He even (or especially) shields himself from knowledge of his true identity, particularly with regards to his sexuality. Tóibín's style, restrained and formal, beautifully (and sadly) conveys James' isolation and separation.

Finally, I also found Tóibín's depiction of James's writing process to be revealing. Through chapters that focus on James's relationships with important figures in his life, including his sister Alice, Tóibín explores ways in which James used his writing to communicate with, remember, and in some cases make amends to ghosts in his life. I was left thinking about the limitations on intimacy that this approach can lead to - the barriers a writer can erect by being an observer rather than an active participant, the instrumentality of relationships formed and experiences sought primarily to provide material for a novel or play, and the betrayal felt by friends and family when they read James's work only to see themselves appearing as characters.

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