Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"The Master" and" Mistler's Exit"

As I said at the conclusion of my entry covering our river cruise, one of my favorite pastimes on board any vessel is to read some good books.  Alas, a river cruise is such an active one, reading time was limited, but between various ports, I managed to read two novels by familiar authors.  They were purposely selected for the trip because I admire their fine work and they share Europe as their geographic focal point.

First, I enjoyed The Master by Colm Tóibín, and a hat tip to my son, Chris, for sending it to me after he had read it. Chris is a writer of sorts, and this is a writer's book, an interior exploration about how one's life experiences subliminally enter the writing process.  I had read his book, Brooklyn, a couple years ago and at that time said "there are similarities to the work of Henry James, contrasting the old world to the new, and written by a man about a female protagonist -- a remarkable novel well worth reading. One cannot help but contrast Brooklyn to James' Portrait of a Lady." 

The Master is in fact a highly fictionalized account of Henry James' life during the last decade of the 19th century.  Born into a family of wealth and intellect, Henry essentially becomes condemned to a life of inner loneliness, although he was well traveled and had family and friends.  Tóibín shows the subtle absorption of those relationships into James' fiction, particularly his sister Alice, his attraction to Minny Temple, his cousin, and later, to a relative of James Fenimore Cooper, Constance Fenimore Woulson (all three of these women die during his lifetime, Constance by suicide). But James' life was one of sexual ambivalence -- as he was equally attracted to three men.  There is Hammond ( a manservant), Oliver Wendell Homes (after he had returned from the Civil War), and Hendrik Andersen (a sculptor).  Tóibín walks the line as many historians do -- that perhaps James was "hopelessly celibate" (as James described himself in one of his own letters). 

These relationships, as well as his travels -- to America and throughout Europe, are incorporated into his fiction, and Tóibín imagines how and why in this spellbinding novel, so exacting in its prose.  As an example, here is what he writes when Alice dies: Alice was dead now, Aunt Kate was in her grave, the parents who noticed nothing also lay inert under the ground, and William was miles away in his own world, where he would stay.  And there was silence now in Kensington, not a sound in the house, except the sound, like a vague cry in the distance, of his own great solitude, and his memory working like grief, the past coming to him with its arm outstretched looking for comfort.

In many ways, The Master shares some of the characteristics of the next novel I managed to finish during the trip, Mistler's Exit. This is also a tale of loneliness, written by one of America's most unique novelists, Louis Begley.  I say "unique" as here is a novelist, a very fine writer, who came to his craft decades after being a renowned international attorney, an unusual path for a writer (although ironically Henry James attended Harvard Law School -- as did Begley --, but for only a year as James had no intentions of becoming a lawyer).  And I say "loneliness" as the protagonist's sense of solitude is suddenly self-imposed after he receives the diagnosis of inoperable cancer and decides to make a clandestine visit to Venice for a week, keeping the reason for the visit from his wife and only son, in order to take in the city one last time and to think about how to break the news to his family.  Instead, he is followed by a young female photojournalist with whom he has intense sex in Venice, although he remains emotionally removed from it.  Characters come and go, old acquaintances, including a girl he loved in college, but never slept with at the time.  He would like to do so now, but "this time he would not cheat," a double meaning in the work.

Thomas Mistler was born into a privileged family, his father a successful banker, but Mistler charts his own course, breaking from his father's expectations of a successor and instead builds an international advertising business.  Begley writes with an eruditeness that is only rivaled by his classmate in Harvard, John Updike, unique in American literature where the norm is great writing often coming from authors not nearly as well educated. 

It is a fine introduction to Begley's style, very reminiscent of the "Schmidt" trilogy.  In fact, sometimes I thought of Mistler as "Schmidtie," but if you like this work, you will like his trilogy.

The epigraph to the novel, taken from Jacques Chardonne's Demi-Jour, makes a fitting ending to this entry, a reminder to live every moment as one's last and how meaningless "things" are in one's life.  I certainly found that out when we returned from the trip.--.......

Too bad about what men will lose; they'll never notice it,  Everything ends well because everything ends.