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The price of going public

THE MASTER, by Colm Tóibín (Picador, $34.95).

Colm Tóibín's latest offering opens with American writer Henry James - the master of the modern novel - devastated by the failure of one of his plays. We see James thrust onto the stage after the opening night performance, and it is here, in this unforgivingly public position, that he realises the audience is not applauding, but jeering. This is a brilliant beginning to a book that dissects the art of observation - suddenly James, that keenest of watchers, himself becomes the observed.

Tóibín's novel - and indeed, James's life, by this account - is a delicate balancing act between the public and the private. Indeed, the play responsible for James's humiliation centres around a monk who must renounce solitude in order to continue an otherwise doomed family line. Just as confounded is the fact that James's subsequent withdrawal from the world, providing temporary relief from "an unhappiness that only work could cure", is what enables him to produce the masterpieces for which he is so publically lauded.

Tóibín's Henry James places work above all else. His characters are so enmeshed with his being that they seem real to him - more real, perhaps, than the aristocrats and artists so eager to invite him to their dinners and salons. A young sculptor, for example, is eerily close to "the eponymous hero of his own novel Roderick Hudson, which he had published more than twenty years earlier ... [it] was as though one of his own characters had come alive, ready to intrigue him and puzzle him and hold his affections".

In the hands of Tóibín, James feels just as alive. Like his subject, Tóibín has a sharp eye for detail, and his descriptions of James in turn describing those around him not only bring to life the society in which James moved, they also reveal a great deal about him as a character. One of the central themes of the novel is exile, both physical and emotional - James establishes temporary homes in Paris, Venice, London and Rome in search of peace - but writing is the only exile to afford him any tranquility. And, ironically, the success of the works produced in solitude propels him once more into the social spotlight.

James seems unaccountably anxious in the real world. The great author, never ill at ease where writing is concerned - he dictates his later novels, sentence by beautiful sentence, to a stenographer - agonises in silence over his servants' drinking and slovenliness, too afraid to reprimand them. Similarly, he is inordinately fearful of offending the mighty Lady Wolseley, whose husband "runs the army"; when she offers her tasteful guidance in furnishing his new house, he does not dare to purchase anything without her approval. Why, we wonder, does he feel so guilty about purchasing an antique tapestry Lady Wolseley dismissed? Why does he rush to hide it before she visits?

Tóibín paints James as a man obsessed with what people think, say or write about him. Tellingly, on the opening night of his disastrous play, James goes to an Oscar Wilde production in order to make the evening pass more quickly. Wilde is mentioned at various points throughout the book, Tóibín employing him as a kind of reminder to James of what he might become. At first, James is envious of Wilde's theatrical successes, but he is also only too aware of the risk Wilde is taking - and the price he ultimately pays - for making no secret of his homosexuality.

There is much gossip about the Wilde case, and "always some embellishment and some new piece of intrigue". Wilde, James insists, "had never been interesting to him, but now, as Wilde threw caution away and seemed ready to make himself into a public martyr, the Irish playwright began to interest him enormously". James, we gradually realise, understands the potential for gossip about his own conduct; he notices every sidelong look, wonders about the meaning behind every letter, every comment. For example, when he is considering introducing one friend to another, he worries that they will "come to conclusions about him that would require further discussion, until he became one of the subjects which bound them together".

Henry James may be the master of the modern novel, but his fear of the consequences of a homosexual relationship - only alluded to obliquely, as if too risky even to name - is his own master. The recurring references to Wilde surely imply that by remaining doggedly private and alone, James spares himself Wilde's ruin - but the cost of such exile is very high.

Tóibín at times quotes James and his family verbatim from their writings, weaving this with the James of his imagination, and the resulting portrait of a gentleman is seamless and perfect: it is the work of a master.