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Home Uncategorized Behind The Curtain

Behind The Curtain

Carol Taaffe
All a Novelist Needs: Colm Tóibín on Henry James, Johns Hopkins University Press, 176 pp, £13, ISBN: 978-0801897795 Many of the essays in this collection begin with raids on Henry James’s letters and notebooks. Some provide hints of how his most famous stories began, while others have traces of those which were never written. In his private papers, James is shown worrying about exposure upon the publication of his sister’s diary, or giving instructions for personal letters to be burnt, or – following the very public failure of his play Guy Domville – firmly directing himself back to the work in hand: “I take up my own old pen again – the pen of all my old unforgettable efforts and sacred struggles. To myself – today – I need say no more.” Again and again, this collection uncovers a fascinating tension between the work and the life, the public and the private. Colm Tóibín explores how the life made its way into the fiction, but in a slantwise fashion. James is shown enjoying the effects of his fame, but also guarding his solitude. For all their scholarship and insight, these essays respect the reticence and subterfuge at the heart of Henry James’s work. All a Novelist Needs brings together Tóibín’s writing on James over the past decade, most of it published after the appearance of The Master in 2004. In effect these pieces lay bare the elements that went into making that novel because they are also explorations of the writer at work. And for that reason, they are as likely to be read for insight into Tóibín’s working methods as for those of James himself. Some are essays, some reviews of the newer biographies of James and his family, others originated as introductions to recent editions of the novels. Because they were written for different occasions they vary in depth and attack, and certain ideas sound as keynotes throughout the collection. But as a whole they are never less than fascinating, together pointing the reader to central preoccupations in Tóibín’s dialogue with Henry James. The Master was an audacious novel, focused on only four years of James’s life following the spectacular failure of Guy Domville on the London stage in 1895. But time in the novel is fluid, and just as Tóibín’s writer is haunted by family and loss, the echoes of Jamesian images and patterns in The Master also look forward to the achievements of his later years….

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