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Irish Novelist Colm Toibin on Henry James

Irish novelist and journalist Colm Toibin was born in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford in Ireland in 1955 and was educated at University College Dublin where he read History and English. After graduating, he lived and taught in Barcelona, a city that he later wrote about in Homage to Barcelona (1990). He returned to Ireland and worked […]

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This is KZSU Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison.
And we're coming to you from the Stanford campus.
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My good friend, Paula Kanjalosi from New York City,
once talked to me about the difference between the snail and the mollusk.
The snail sets forth in search of its food, wandering the night,
the mollusk holds fast to its rock, periodically lifting its shell
to absorb the nutrients that reach it in the currents of the sea.
Likewise, some of us travel the world and take in the things it has to offer,
while some of us stay put and let the world come to us.
If you're going to be a mollusk, New York City is not a bad place to find a rock to colonize.
Neither is Stanford University.
Around here all sorts of things are brought in with the oceanic currents of the times.
All you have to do is lift your shell a little and let them in.
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This past Sunday, for example, Las Scala's string quartet was in town from Milan,
performing music of Mendelssohn and Ravel, Pamael.
And look what else came our way this spring.
Call him Tobin, the remarkable Irish novelist from Dublin who's been a writer
and residence here at Stanford this quarter.
He joins me in the studio today to talk about his work,
and especially his most recent highly acclaimed novel about Henry James titled "The Master."
But before we turn to him, a quick word or two about the art of the novel.
We've talked a lot about novelists on this program over the past several months.
Vietnamichel Túcñé, Púst, Yzac Babel, Robert Muzio, Nabokov, Camu, or Shirley Hazard,
who was on this show back in January.
I don't want to repeat what was said on those various occasions.
I would just like to add the following by way of introducing my guest.
That these days a considerable quotient of our self-knowledge is handed over to the novelist.
One of the most distinctive features of the modern novel is that it knows me better than I know myself.
If it doesn't know me better than I know myself, it's not a very good novel.
I don't mean my empirical self, but my human self, which the novel refracts into the great multiplicity of characters at populated history.
As Flaubert put it, "Emma bovahisimwa."
That means she's you and me too.
Now, Flaubert, the person didn't necessarily have more self-knowledge than the rest of us.
He had his blind spots too, but as a novelist, he had the kind of clear voice that belongs to the genre he cultivated so assiduously.
"Madambovahis would be a feckless book and we would have little to learn from it.
If it did not know, madambovahis, the character, better than she knows herself."
Likewise, with Don Quixote, Lord Jim, Maloy, or any other great novel you care to name,
who knows where this power to probe the deeper recesses of human character and motivation comes from?
I have to believe it comes from the art of the novel itself, rather than from the psychological acuity that individual authors bring to their art.
Many of us are endowed with psychological acuity, but only few of us master the kind of storytelling that provokes unlikely revelations about our deeper selves.
If this much is true than my guest today, Colin Toybean, took on a formidable challenge indeed when he chose to write a novel whose main protagonist is Henry James.
If there was ever an author who passed through the closed doors of a character's self and entered the intimacy of its most private chambers, it was Henry James.
It's not by chance that James wrote one of the greatest ghost stories in the history of literature, the turn of the screw,
for only ghosts can pass through as many closed doors as James did in his fiction.
To attempt to do to James what he did to his characters, namely to inhabit them from the inside, is an almost reckless undertaking.
The risks of failure are huge, especially because any such novel about Henry James must conceal as much as it reveals about its character.
James was a master of discretion after all, even and especially in those moments when he dealt with his characters most intimately.
I don't know how Toybean has done it, but he has produced a book that maintains an extraordinary tension between discretion and revelation.
It enters into James's private selfhood without violating the sanctity of its solitude.
Above all, it's a book that avoids hitting false notes, where even the slightest false note is bound to provoke the scorn of readers who love Henry James.
The master appeared in 2004.
Column is the author of four previous novels including the Blackwater Lightship, which was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize.
As I mentioned, he joins me today to talk about why he chose to write a novel about Henry James and how he went about negotiating the potentially treacherous pitfalls of such an enterprise.
Column, welcome to our program.
So we do begin with that question of why you chose to write a novel about an author, Henry James, who in his own personal life, its family background and so forth, as well as the kind of
social world that he represents in his fiction is so very different from the one that you grew up in. Am I correct in stating that?
I think that when I started to read, it was a time before post-colonial studies had developed when you were really entitled to read any book as an ordinary reader.
So when I read the project of a lady first at 19, I felt I wasn't an Irish person reading it. I was a reader reading it.
And the book entered into my spirit very fundamentally.
I was from a small town in the southeast of Ireland in a scorecy, where there was no duplicity of any sort because everybody knew everybody else.
There was no glamour and there was no style.
And yet that book at that time took me over. I read more or less the rest of the novels and most of the stories in the few years afterwards.
And noticed that the author, not sure you did notice, but the author was absent. There was no author.
And this interested me. And I felt that James had deliberately left himself out of the books because there was no person there to start with.
He wasn't like James Joyce who put all his love life and his obsessions and his travels into the books.
Or he wasn't like Conrad or he wasn't like George Elliot with mixtures of travel and opinion.
But he simply had stood back because there was an emptiness within from which the books were written.
Realising that wasn't the case that the books came from very deep things within James himself, which you learned first if you read the five volume, a Dell biography.
But you learned, especially in the late 90s, as a number of other biographies came out and books came out and the letters to Heinrich Anderson appeared for the first time.
You learned that with James that these novels came from somewhere very mysterious to start with, but very personal and deep also.
And the gamey play between that mystery, between them, the emptiness which seem to produce them, and the sense of suffering and real life and autobiographical matters which also gave rise to them, that tension in them.
To start absence and presence as it were produced and therefore that really began to interest me as an idea.
I was reading something that you wrote about coming to Henry James in which you said when you started reading the portrait of a lady that at first you thought it was all about style, about literary style, about the social style that you have in the world and even moral styles.
And then somewhere in your reading you actually were shocked to see that it actually turns into a very different story altogether, which is really not so much about style, but really about good versus evil and about telling lies and so forth. And that seemed to have made an impression on you.
And I think that sense in James are being an old Puritan in some way or other, and somebody who was also interested in the glittering surface of life interested me.
Also the idea of a secret which if told if unfolded would be explosive which some people knew and some didn't.
And the fact that you inhabit it is about Archer's consciousness in the project of a lady say, fully.
Not knowing what she didn't know and finding out what she found out at the same time that this was an immensely powerful idea.
Which I hadn't got from a book before that and I haven't really got with the same intensity from a book since that idea that you add detail after detail after detail and slowly the reader becomes the consciousness of the protagonist.
And that is a very powerful thing if you can get it right.
In the case of the portrait of a lady and most of James's work, but I believe also in your own novels, not only this one, but previous ones, there is one central character and getting into the consciousness is limited really to one character, not several.
I don't know how you would do to some people can do to, but I have five novels in which each time there's, I mean it's just I'm talking now as though I haven't written them, but I've just read them that there's quite a complicated person morally intellectually, spiritually and sensually involved in which almost everything has its opposite in the same character.
I've been working with this and that you try and concentrate very hard on this.
So when in the case of the master or even of some of the others which deal with a single consciousness, do you find while you're working on the book I know it took you a few years to write the master that do you feel like you're really inhabiting a consciousness of in the case of James, did you feel that you were inhabiting a
the consciousness of a historical individual Henry James as far as we know him through his works or was there a sense that whatever consciousness comes forth in your telling in the master is somehow a combination of perhaps the real historical Henry James and then this character who like all characters and fiction has an autonomy of his own.
I think there's almost no outcome involved and there's no historical sense involved either, but I was trying to do really was and I left the book for a long time to think about it, I wrote the first chapter having taught about it for a year, then I left it for about 18 months.
What happens then is that you're a dream time, you're lying in bed in the morning, you're walking along the street that you start to think more and more deeply into that consciousness you've developed.
But it's a question then of just cunning and style of just trying to add detail after detail after detail that seems to you to be true to what the next thing was that happened.
And you're inventing, you're inventing, you're inventing, but the main thing is that the sentence structure and the sound of the words equals a tone that you establish from the very beginning almost in the first sentence.
And that adds up strangely to something or doesn't, but you can't really judge that and you can't really suddenly say, oh this is the historical James I'm doing, no this is the next sentence I'm doing that you only really can think in detail.
You cannot think in an overall personality you're developing. If you were asked to summarize the personality that would be the most appalling idea to summarize it because it's only that morning at that time when he woke what he thought.
And that's all you have to get right the larger picture comes from that but that doesn't come from the larger picture you must not have a larger picture.
How much I hear what you're saying that it's a sentence structure and it's establishing the right tone and it's the next sentence.
But one thing I think is really admirable about the way you said about writing the master is that you didn't try to echo or reproduce James's own literary style.
I think that would have been, you know, far too distracting at the very least for readers to see you trying to measure up to that kind of register, stylistic register of James.
You have your own style and yet there's something in the sentences and the tone of the master which is deeply sympathetic with what I feel is Henry James both as an author and as a personality.
And that has to come from some deeper sense of a connection to this dead author now.
Well, I don't have the skills to do the pastiche. I simply wouldn't know how to do it. Also, James's style comes in a number of guys's and the late style is really very different from the style of something like the Bostonians and there are so many of them quite different from the terms of the score of the European.
So it isn't possible to do. I think the main thing is to try and forget that having re-existed.
That to try and write a slightly more ornate prose than sort of writing after having a way has been.
And to then try and surround yourself with the books that I'm writing about a sedentary solitary life where many things were imagined and worked on.
He was a worker, James. He was what he himself called a constant producer.
And that business of him has a most determined individual working slowly, skillfully, every day.
That was really what I was trying to get and how memory would work, how everything would feed into fiction, how fiction, writing fiction would become a way of dealing with pain or dealing with difficulty would always be go back to the desk and work.
And so I wasn't paying homage to him and I wasn't trying to get him right because there's no him, there's no core.
I mean, as I said, there's only the details I was working with. But I was alone.
I was back in Dublin when I wrote the body of the book when I had left New York and wasn't sure why I was in Dublin, except that I was surrounded by these books.
And I worked every day and it became, writing the book became a substitute for many other matters, which for him often was the case too, as far as one could make out, that the writing of the book became a substitute for other things.
So I was living like that at the time. There was nothing else happening.
You mentioned in that piece I referred to earlier that when you went to Florence for a period and stayed in a villa there and that you realize that the first thing you needed is to meet posh people as you put it because so much of James's world had to do with posh people.
But it's still, I'm very impressed with the way that you get that world, I don't want to say right, but there's a certain persuasiveness about a world which, as you have declared, is not a world that you necessarily knew firsthand in growing up by any means.
And how did you manage to bring it animated in a way that has that kind of credibility?
Well, I suppose for anybody from the north, whether you're from Boston or from Ireland, going south and being in Spain or Italy and entering those countries and then they're savoring that life and that atmosphere.
That's, you know, once you do that, you can appreciate anybody else's doing it from Girth as you know, Italian journey to Henry James going to Italy.
And I was a joke really about wanting to see posh people, but I was interested in the idea obviously.
Despite the wars and everything that's happened, having a sort of intact aristocracy or an intact sense of old money, of old houses, of people recognizing each other and having only two friends in Rome, but both of them being of immense importance.
And also the sense initially that people constantly asking me if there are writers in my family, as though somehow the business of writing would have to arise from having been entitled to do so by the fact that your uncle was, was, you know,
or that somehow the viscontees were somehow cousins of yours. And the great surprise people would express when I'd say, no, no, no, there was nobody like that ever before me.
That sense initially that a peasant or somebody from a peasant background could not just emerge, or unless you want to write peasant fiction, that that puzzled me and interested me.
And therefore, I think in the business of being Irish, in England, in the United States and initially, you can slip in anywhere, no one's ever sure who you are, in the sense that you've come from a country that really invented itself.
And it's clear you're not an aristocrat. For the same time you behave as though you own the place, and that gives you certain advantages.
Well, one last sort of preliminary question before we turn to some issues in the book itself, James came from a Puritan background. I mean, his genealogy goes back really to American Puritanism, one degree or another. You come from a Catholic, right.
It was that a divide that, because that is a divide in sensibilities, if nothing else. So, is that something that entered at all?
I think I was partly brought up in the 19th century. In the sense that I was brought up in a house, for example, where there was no telephone.
We had electric light, obviously. The house was new, but there was no telephone.
That the sense of family and the fixity of family was very close. It was a family of five, just like the James, is there was a sense of the wider family.
And there was a great sense within your education of the religious aspect, whether that was Catholicism or in James's case, the inquiring mind of his father about theology.
But nonetheless, that was an important ingredient in the life. And there were books in the house. And there was a sense of the written word as being important and a sense of your own early reading.
It's been something that your parents were, it was very important. I also didn't have an aunt, Kate, I had an aunt decathling, I still do.
And so that that sense of ants and all that wider thing was important.
So, in the sort of freedoms we were offered at that time, I'm talking until I was about 12 or 13, there was a sense of living really in a world very similar to the world of saying new port.
F, this might sound bizarre, but the world of new port in the aviation 50s or 8 are our aeration 60s. It changed very quickly then.
But the early part that really matters to you was a sort of 19th century life.
Well, column your book doesn't deal with the entire career. It really focuses on essentially these years between 1895 and 1899.
Although there are flashbacks to deeper paths and intimations of things to come in the future.
But basically you tried to limit the temporal limits within 1895 and 1999.
And you begin with what you take to be one of the crucial events in Henry James's career as an author, which is the failure of his play in London,
a guy, Domville, that you take at least in the master it seems to be something that James experiences with such a sense of devastation that it causes him to swerve into a commitment more to the novel and abandoning the theater.
I presume that all this is completely true to the facts of the way Henry James actually experienced with the debacle of that play.
Yes, James had a disaster in the theater in 1895 and he wrote a number of letters afterwards to people, aligning the disaster in really knowledge of color and saying I am now determined to do the work of my life. It somehow strengthened him.
But I wasn't as interested in trying to be true to that experience as realizing this is a golden opportunity in a book because it's a public event in which you can bring James onto a stage of a crowd.
He's not Napoleon. It's very difficult to get him out there where there's color. If you're painting a big canvas it would be where you could get some red and bright yellow in suddenly.
It's a great opportunity to dramatize, dramatize something in a life which is otherwise going to have to be a novel which is going to have to be otherwise very quiet, grey, very sedentary using very earth tone colors.
I took the opening for that reason and I thought it was exciting and I thought that the opening of a novel like this could do with some excitement.
It's also very well documented so I could choose the details I wanted and then also realizing this is actually very important.
Henry James, how do you spell your inner theater in January 1895? He himself on the opening night attended Oscar Wilde's play, an ideal husband. His play was his own play, Henry James's play was a disaster.
It was replaced by a new play by Oscar Wilde called the importance of being earnest. Oscar Wilde now had two successful plays running on the West End of London. Henry James wrote to his brother saying he must be waking in the money.
Wilde of course was being pursued by his creditors. Wilde also believed he was invulnerable because of this great success because Henry James describes the beauty of the great engine of the theater in London in those years.
It was the biggest show in town to have two plays on in the West End of London.
So January 1895, Henry James has his public disaster, witness by all his friends, critics that night included people like George Bernard Shaw, Arnold Benish, wrote about that night and everyone remembered it.
But it led indefinitely, almost like a butterflies wings could lead to a storm to Oscar Wilde going to prison.
Because if the play had been successful it would have run longer, the same producer, the same actors and the same theater for the first production of the importance of being earnest.
So you have January 1895 and in the wild case starting in April 1895.
And then I realized just going to look at what happened in between was, hey Henry James went to Ireland, Henry James went to Ireland.
He stayed a week with the Lord Lieutenant and a week with the commander of her Majesty's forces in Ireland.
And I realized, wow, I can work with that.
And then I saw, hey, just soon after his disaster, he was told the story of the turn of the screw by the arthmish for Canterbury.
And you have then, I realized, four chapters because you can bring in the wild story and you can bring it in indirectly about what would be like for Henry James to hear that story.
It's like watching, again, you have to do it very carefully. You can't have him confronting Wilde or being in the courtroom with Wilde, but being home.
And of course, they don't telephone parts. They don't have to come around and tell him and then they discuss the case.
And then he starts to imagine Wilde and Wilde and Wilde's wife and Wilde's children.
Because everybody at that time took different angles on that whole story.
The importance of these five years, from my point of view, where the friend that went over, he produced the three masterpieces, the wings of the dove, the ambassadors in the Golden Bow.
He produced them very quickly a year each. So what I can do is I can find images from those books and I can bury them in the text of my book.
So he's seeing little moments from especially the Golden Bow, little things that would turn up in the Golden Bow.
If the reader hasn't read the Golden Bow, it doesn't matter. If the reader has read the Golden Bow, it will almost be a game, a sort of joke, that in the 1897, a crucial image from the Golden Bow of a flawed tapestry or of a scene of sexual intrigue in an old shop in the middle of London, that that will feed its way into the Golden Bow.
And so I'm playing partly with years of failure because these three years when he writes these three books are not of interest to a novelist.
In the sense that he stayed at home, he wrote beautifully, he worked wonders. He produced masterpieces. There's nothing much to be said about that, whereas the five years before when he was floundering artistically and was traveling much more.
And things therefore could be dramatized and worked with that were more interesting from my point of view.
Yeah, I can't think of sensibilities being more antithetical really than Henry James and Oscar Wilde.
And in that first chapter, it's just brilliant the way that their juxtapose and the way Henry James suffers almost physically from the vulgarity of his perception of
Wild's vulgarity. And I'm curious whether that play was deservedly booed or has it ever been re-performed? I mean, is it deserved to be that?
It's the second 18th century and it's about a papist who's the last of his line and he wants to become a monk.
I mean, it's unbelievable and his family wanted to marry. Should he marry or should he become a monk?
Now, why James wanted to write about a papist in the 18th century? He wrote about the 18th century because of the costumes.
But of course, the 18th century dialogue meant everything was much more stilted. The audience had absolutely no interest in papish renunciation.
And he realized when he went to the wild play that they were not people who took any interest in renunciation.
And he wanted a good night out of the theatre that the dilemma of this young man bore them tremendously. And there were no jokes and the costumes were too elaborate and they began to laugh.
And it was a play that once you begin to laugh at that play, it is only funny where as James took it immensely seriously.
It's, I mean, the business of renunciation turns up again and again in his fiction.
But luckily, in his fiction, he always believed a novel should be set in the near future.
He never set a novel in the 18th century. So it's a curious business of how he got away with it.
How it was decided to actually put it on the first place, spending such an amount of money on him.
That makes me think that maybe renunciation is such an important thing of his own art.
Yeah, that's exactly, yeah. Renunciation is really how the culmination of this story, very good.
Yeah, well, it's there in the Golden Bowl. It's there, the wings of the dove. It's there in the ambassadors.
It comes up again and again, there weren't characters.
It's such an unmodern.
Yes, who's offered the possibility of a sensual freedom,
who realizes at a given moment that it's too late or it's wrong or too much has happened and they withdraw.
They hold back.
And of course, you're a book the master by the time one reaches the end, one gets a very strong sense of the degree to which James's whole kind of mature life as an author was one of a daily renunciation to life for the sake of his art.
If I'm not putting it too strongly.
The moving to rye in 1897, two hours outside, I mean, Evan goes told him,
"I don't have to imagine what would be light down there in the winter."
I mean, the house was beautiful in the garden and he longed for a house in a garden,
but it was two hours from London in a time where there was no one like him,
where he could greet people on the street, but he would not have that evening's company that he was so used to in London.
He was a act of astonishing renunciation and he was only 54.
He was tired dining out.
And he did really stay in rye a great deal.
And the trains were slower.
People came to see him, but I think sometimes meetings were worse because they came to see him for two days and they couldn't bear it either.
And so, yes, that instead of finding a way to match his solitude and his need to work with an act of social life,
or a social act that suited him, James at the age of 54, really for 10, 15 years with Drew from the world to produce his work.
It was a very large price to pay.
Not only did he withdraw from the world during those years, but the way he retailed the story of even his earlier years prior to 1895,
there were a number of significant relationships to which he never really committed himself.
And I don't know if you want to call that part of this ethos of renunciation or not, but I'd like to talk a little bit about some of these,
especially mini-temple. She is completely wins them in very seductive character, at least for me in the way that you portray her.
Who was mini-temple? And then I'll ask you some further questions about.
I'm still bored and produced a book, I think around 1998 or 1999, called "The Private Life, Henry James and Two Women."
And this book really changed everything because it just was a micro-history using Henry James's relationship with mini-temple, who was his first cousin,
and his relationship with Constance Fannie-M. Wilson, who we'll talk about in a minute.
Mini-temple, if you look at the history of the novel, and you look at the novels James was reading, that he was deeply alert to Jane Austen, and so alert to George Elias.
The idea of bringing in an American woman into England and indeed Italy, who was not interested in rank in marrying for money,
was not interested necessarily in finding a husband, but wanted somehow to be taught how to live, to know how to live, that she came from Emerson and Thoreau, which he came from Concord into a world where people were used to people coming from Jane Austen, or people were, you know, Henry James had just read, say, Daniel DeRonda, where Gwen Delen is looking for a husband.
And so he brought a new thing into the English novel, which was someone who was interested in her spiritual life more than in a material life.
And he got some of this from his cousin Mini-temple.
A lot of his cousins were orphaned, for various reasons, and the temple girls were left orphaned when they were young, and their mother, their resource cousins.
And Mini was a particularly attractive, interesting, and he thought new American girl in the extraordinary variety of her curiosity, the way she would devour the new George Eliot books as they were coming.
The way she inquired about life, the way she wanted men to speak to her about life. Her ringing laughter, the summer that was spent with her of 1865, where Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr,
a lawyer called John Gray, and Henry James were there watching her, watching the life in her. There was like nothing they had seen before, not like their mothers or their sisters.
A great freedom, not necessarily beauty, but something that became beautiful as she spoke, and as she listened as she read.
The idea of getting somebody like her, and bringing her into the English novel, especially when she died young in her twenties, so that the places she wanted to go to England, she wanted to go to Italy.
So he brought her there in the years after her death. And that was something new for English writing, the bringing in of a character like her, whose spiritual inquiry,
whose way of seeing the world was so much more interesting than the dull way in which Elizabeth Bennett had slowly followed a given role that Jane Austen had given her that she would eventually, through a quiet sensibility and quiet intelligence that she would get her man.
But Henry James wanted to usurp this by bringing in a version of his cousin, Mini Temple, and making her Isabel Archer.
What I like about your chapter there on that is that it's the real mini temple who dies young, just as Henry James is going to set off to England, to Europe for the first time on his own.
And there's a sentence or two here that really struck me. He felt that he asked himself, Henry did, if the intensity of her personality and the sheer originality of her ambitions placed against the dullness and banality and penure which surrounded her might have unsettled her will to live.
He felt this especially when her sisters married for security rather than love and when Mini was forced to depend on their husbands for her upkeep as her lungs began to hemorrhage and her health began to fail.
And then when he is telling her that he's going to England and that he may have a visit with George Elliott whom she idolizes, there's a devastating line, she tossed her head and laughed at the enormity of her own jealousy.
This is a very real mini temple for me and this becomes alive in a way that is even more intensely than Isabel Archer that he may have.
Well I had the real advantage of the fact that he wrote about her in his autobiography and that Linda Gordon then pursued that and the letters that she wrote to John Gray.
So we have a real sense of this woman's voice.
We're talking about the way we do. But speaking here now about renunciation and the way James dealt with human relations.
In the case of Mini Temple there is a scene later when Wendell Oliver Holmes comes to visit him in rye and basically accuses him of having been heartless towards her at that moment when she was ill, he was taking off to Europe that she wanted to go with him and thought that it'll lead the climate and it'll lead to the climate.
The climate in Italy would have done her good and without ever coming out and saying so she made it quite clear subsequently to him in the letters of hers that he rereads.
This is after her death no and in things that she told Gray and Holmes himself and there's a sense of Henry James having been quite guilty of a refusal to let anything get in the way of his own.
His own experience of Europe, his own sort of vocation as a writer and so forth. There is a heartlessness at the heart of this character Henry James which might be the heartlessness that an artist needs to have.
He or she is going to preserve the sort of solitude and isolation that would be most conducive to work. But it seems that Mini Temple is a victim of that.
Yes Linda Gordon blames him and she produces loads of evidence to do so. And I was terribly interested in that.
I'm not good at judging people and I'm not good at ever deciding what's right and what's wrong.
And so when Linda Gordon blamed him I thought well she must be right to blame him.
So one day walking along the streets and he will hold on a minute. And then I loved there's a moment for Picasso as somewhere in Spain and Colorado there's a rumour of Colorado.
And he's working very well. He just gets up and goes. He disappears. He's gone that day when he hears his collar. And I loved that idea of Picasso just not hanging out around to see if it might come his way or if he could do anything to help.
And he's gone and he's gone and he's gone. And with James the idea that he was going to go alone for the first time away from all that enclosing family the cluster phobia of them all around him to Italy.
And suddenly his chibberchler cousin wants to come too. Well I know what I would do. And I had no trouble giving him a the determination to go.
But be the guilt later everyone accusing him because this is more or less what's happened in this book I had just been reading.
So I was playing with the mixture of determination and guilt which I thought as long as you need to be very careful with it because if you produce deliberate images in a book of pure determination and selfishness.
The reader will set it against the hero so much you have to go very gently towards what it might have been like for him on the morning when he did it.
And you have to go a bit harder on the guilt more than you would say if you were just writing a letter to a friend because these these images really do large in the mind.
So I had to try and force the reader to think well yes that is what he did but also force the reader to think that's what might not not certain.
I don't mean that's what I would have done. I don't want the readers to think that but I want the reader to lodge enough money in James's consciousness to actually feel the value of the interest as it accrues.
You do it very well that balances is maintained and of course that involves a lot of cutting later sometimes where the writing isn't the important thing it's the reading over a number of months afterwards to actually judge it.
You can get that better by making sure that you don't publish the book too quickly after writing.
And of course that could be one instance in which renunciation did not prevail in his case because the renunciation gesture would have been to bring his tuberculosis along with him.
However the fact is that there is also this lingering guilt and this gives many temple in many ways a status of a person who is dead but at the same time is still undead in so far she's still haunts.
He was so lucky to have her. Very lucky to have her. I mean I'm even put her into the winds of the dove which has written almost 35 years after her death that she is again.
And therefore if it is indeed the case that she refuses to die at least in the realm of the imagination.
I don't know what word, I'm going to have to coin a word. You know vampires are dead people who live by sucking the blood of live people.
But I'm wondering what the contrary is because here we're speaking about you and author living author writing a book about a dead author Henry James.
And it's very much a story about the way in which the dead for James are souls or shades that he feeds off of for his fiction.
So in the case of many temple for example she continues to nourish his isabella Archer she's as you say the wings of the dove and so forth.
And there are other dead and of course the relationship that James had with the dead. What would you call a necropire or as the opposite of a vampire and so much of literature is the way in which the living author finds nourishment through the power of the dead.
And in James case I was particularly pronounced would you agree.
Yes that for anybody dies you can find his letter from Robert Louis Stevenson who was very close when Stevenson dies.
The letter is just saying the astonishing idea that this life has been extinguished that he cannot imagine this great life and with many temples that was certainly the case.
And of course it's a double thing involved here because I'm following his dramatization of these people but I'm using my own shades as well.
So I'm doubling it I'm finding a metaphor sometimes in something that he was using for something that I was trying to deal with personally.
So that you're summoning up quite a lot once you start that business of letting the dead walk freely in a novel.
And there's another dead woman, Constance Fenimore Wilson.
Yes she's the second part of the Linda Gordon book and I mean this this my book could not these two chapters could not have been written without the Linda Gordon books.
But I take precisely the opposite view where as Linda Gordon really does blame him for both and much more perhaps with the Constance Fenimore Wilson perhaps even who committed suicide.
Yeah for almost causing her suicide I then realized wow if someone thought you called someone suicide what would that be like for you if you felt you hadn't.
And then you go detail detail, detail meeting meeting meeting and you have so much to go on because you have the aspirin papers where he very cruelly depicted Constance Fenimore Wilson you have the ambassadors where he made a Maria Gostry.
You have the beast in the jungle the late story where he put Constance Fenimore Wilson.
And but Linda Gordon's book is really ingenious in that he burned her letters and he's just a herdom exists.
So we very little to go on but she's absolutely right Linda Gordon when she says that this was the most important relationship between about 1880 and 1894 in James's life.
And it ended in suicide even more than you to afford. Yes yes it was not in your book for no no no even more even even even much more than he just wore it.
It is it is a very happy sweet relationship it had its complexity especially when Morton Fullerton came on the scene but James was happy with the war and he was in the games immense pleasure.
They went about to get their word buddies this I have no interest in this sort of happiness.
The Constance was a gnarled and difficult relationship that they went through phases that was almost like love that that ended in suicide for a friend novel is like well for me this is much more interesting than going around France in a car with his word laughing when I was jokes.
I mean I I wouldn't know what to do with that and but you know it was never with either's war that just that level of difficulty.
So this this relationship this certain real life this life that seems to have no events you certainly realize this man's closest friend committed suicide and then you realize wow I can work with that so I got an island is an island of the west coast of Sweden.
Which is empty for most of the year no cars just a few houses a lot of wind and I love for that chapter I deliberately went there it's called South Costa and I'm going there to do the Constance chapter and I'm not leaving until it's done.
And just a bicycle there was one shop open a few hours a day and I'm there and it's see wind everywhere the most the rest of the book is more less written I mean this is chapter what is this chapter nine.
Why was that the appropriate place for this had to be somewhere where there could be no telephone there's no coverage for for cell phones.
And where there was no television there was no part there was no one else there that could only be the day in day our dullness of doing it which are because I knew this is.
Where building up the novel is building to this and this has to be absolutely crucial has to be got absolutely the mixture of guilt sorrow pain and the pleasure they gave each other and where they saw each other all the things that happened it was also the chapter most worked on.
And the amount of revision that mainly cutting or adding little phrases or trying to get the extent absolutely right of his.
And I think it's the longest chapter but I did know when I finally took the ferry from the island what I've done that and that's fine.
Did you do all the revising and cutting still on the island no no because that you really need to leave things for a month or two and you almost need to get someone else to read them and look at them and you need to sort of operate as a reader.
You start reading the book in the beginning to realize is too long is it's a patterning wrong here before you do that.
So how long did you spend there?
Do you have a bad amount of months?
About a month there.
Did you feel writing the novel the way maybe Henry James felt that that you were living with ghosts.
I was living with personal things.
My past all these people in your book are ghosts sorts.
Yeah but a lot of them are actually metaphors for things that matter to me personally that no one ever know about.
I mean while this book might seem like a piece of pure invention it doesn't seem like that to me because almost everything in it comes out of an area of my own experience that must remain by you know has to remain mysterious sometimes mysterious even to me.
Oh yeah well that's probably why it works so beautifully as a novel but I would never say that this is all invented.
I would say that this is very meticulously researched and that these people are on the one hand characters in a novel but on the other hand they're very much the real people that they were in life.
It's hard to research feelings.
You know and it's um that's why they're ghosts.
So I'm interested in what has to animate the uh I'm interested in the level getting the laws of emotion right.
It's very difficult to research a level of emotion so you can go up and you can look at all the details but sometimes a detail hits you emotionally and then you write out of that emotion.
If it doesn't hit your emotion you can't use it.
So that is what makes the difference.
You've got to know that.
If something so there's so much left out but every so often something that happened to him would take me over emotionally and I will start using everything I knew to get that down as well as whatever researcher had done.
I would try and match them.
Sometimes not knowing what I was matching. I knew what his side of the story was but not knowing sometimes what my own side was until the book was finished not really knowing sometimes what I was using of my own.
Did you suspect when you began writing this book how intensely personal it would be by the end?
No not even slightly not even slightly.
I mean I've I've begun the book part of because the previous novel had taken lumps out of me.
It was set in you know black world of ladship has six characters set over six days in a place that's very like where I was brought up and it's a very intense novel.
It might look intense but there's a I mean someone's dying and all the family have gathered around and there was a very difficult book to finish the I mean the last and it was published quite close to the time was finished.
In other words I probably finished it in you know January and was published in September it was very raw and doing the readings from it were really really difficult.
I thought I will do anything not to do this again not to go home and write a novel about where I'm from and write a novel with that level of intensity.
So I was quite ready to play a literary game at this James book just as a way of evading and the level of emotional commitment it took to write the previous book.
But unfortunately it didn't work out like that.
Well there are all sorts of other characters that we haven't had time to talk about Henry James's father for example fascinating figure and foolish, foolish and other suicide.
There's a great foolishness about him which you feel James is constantly as you get older trying not to copy the business of working and finishing things, the business of getting up early in the morning and working all day, the business of selling his stories and making money and actually working like that.
I think that is one way where James actually tries not to be his father.
That his father is constantly not finishing things or not getting things right.
I think that will make a difference to him.
And of course at times I have sympathy for him and he has that incredible vision of the obscene bird of night that you reproduce so powerfully.
But then there's a moment when he's speaking I guess and many temple he's making an argument for the superiority of men, the natural superiority, intellectual, physical and spiritual and some sort of...
He's still directly taken from something.
And here someone who was looking after the genealogy and philosophy and the great enlightenment, it's from that moment on there's kind of blood on his character.
Alan takes that about James that he knew all of Freud before Freud came on the scene which is really a wonderful idea about James that he is he can be read really fraudently and he is the most fraudian writing.
Well, how come he can be so Freudian since Freud you know but that idea was in the air somehow that his father's breakdown is father seeing the obscene bird of night.
Some are deeply affected both Henry and William who were children in the room almost when that happened.
Very strange.
So, Colin we've come more or less to the end of our hour.
I know that there's so much more in the book that we haven't been able to address but this is just an invitation to our listeners to go and read the book.
I'm sure many of them have already done so but if they haven't they really should do so.
And you mentioned earlier that there's always in James a secret that's working itself out and sometimes is never fully disclosed.
And I would say the same thing about the master that there's a way in which with all the things that are brought out into the light through your treatment there is also an inner question.
Also an inner core of a secret that still preserves this discretion by the end of it.
I wish I knew what it was so I could do it again.
I think what would be a sequel.
We don't do sequels.
We don't do it.
Well then we'll look forward to whatever form the continuation will take.
Thanks for coming on I appreciate it and have a good stay at Stanford.
We didn't even get to ask you about what you're doing at Stanford and how long you're staying.
Teaching Henry James and I believe that the English department would be delighted to have you back sometime in the future.
So hopefully we'll be seeing you here at Stanford soon.
Thank you.
Thanks, Hall.
This is Robert Harrison for entitled opinions.
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