Colm Toíbín & Henry James
Paul Lakeland July 9, 2011 - 3:00am
Rebecca Goldstein (see my post of July 5) is not the only current author making much of Henry James. Colm Tobn has been well-known for his interest in James, at least since his 2005 tour-de-force,The Master, a remarkable novelistic reading of Jamess life. Actually, Tobns interest long preceded the novel, and a collection of his essays on James appeared last fall (All a Novelist Needs: Colm Tibn on Henry James, Johns Hopkins Press). There are also those who think that his 2010 novel,Brooklyn, is a kind of homage toPortrait of a Lady. The travels are in reversehis heroine Eilis goes from Ireland to New Yorkbut there is much to remind one of Isabel Archer, including two suitors, though not three.
The tables are turned here and in a number of the other stories, though James doesnt actually reappear. Many of the stories are about travel between two worlds, for example, though for James America and England we have to substitute Ireland and Spain, particularly Barcelona (a city of some significance to Tobn and the subject of yet another of his books). But where James wrote about the clash of cultures and the comedies and tragedies they encouraged, Tobn is more concerned with the sense of place and its relationship to identity, whether Enniscorthy or Menorca, Dublin or Barcelona or even London and Texas. There is a lot of nostalgia for home, usually but not only Ireland. Frankness is where Tobn parts company with James, of course. Where James exemplifies the exquisite contortions of 19th century repression, Tobns clear and simple prose speaks plainly of gay love, without comment and almost without romance. But in the most touching of all the stories, The Street, which tells of the love between two illegal immigrants in Barcelona, Tobn seems to return to something like a Jamesian understatement. It is almost as if Malik and Abdul cannot or will not name what is transpiring between them. This reticence is not only a Jamesian novelistic note; it is also, inThe Master, precisely the way in which Tobn imagined James himself approaching his own life.
About the Author
Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, SJ, Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.