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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Tóibín reads ‘The Master’ to a captivated audience

Published: April 20, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

Esteemed novelist, playwright, journalist and scholar Colm Tóibín visited campus on Wednesday to read from his novel, “The Master.” Tóibín has won various awards from the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award to the Los Angeles Times Book of the Year Prize for “The Master,” a novel that delves into the life of 19th-century writer Henry James. “The Master,” details James’ insecurities and follies, and seeks eventually to humanize completely James.

Sponsored by the Creative Writing department, this event was very well-attended as Brandeis students and faculty alike came to see this seasoned author read. Professor Steven McCauley highly praised Tóibín in his introduction, describing his effect on audiences when he read out loud, claiming it caused people to inch forward in their seats, hold their breaths and remain poised in this way, mesmerized by his reading.

As Tóibín began to read, he did not disappoint. His voice is low and moving, at once soothing and yet impossible not to pay attention to. While Henry James has long been dead, Tóibín’s prose and his voice bring him entirely back to life. Tóibín read two sections of “The Master,” one describing James’ experience during opening night of one of his plays, and another sentimental piece about a woman’s clothing. Tóibín described how James did not witness his show’s opening night, instead choosing to go watch an Oscar Wilde play and return after the show’s conclusion. His play was a complete failure and public humiliation, something Tóibín shows that James at once highly feared and hoped against. Tóibín’s prose is utterly descriptive—it is easy to imagine James nervously walking back and forth between the two plays, wondering what his fate would be as a playwright.

Tóibín described how it was necessary to immerse completely himself in James’ life, to surround himself with all accounts of the man. Tóibín is indeed such a master that he artfully twisted a short radio segment aired in 1956 into an entire section of his novel. In the radio segment, an old woman spoke about how she knew James briefly. Tóibín understands James’ motives and psyche so well, that the short segment is enough for him to create entire scenes and dialogue.

Professor Kathy Lawrence led a discussion with Tóibín following his reading. She quizzed him on James’ life, uncovering that Tóibín certainly knows even more about the man than what is in his book. She also uncovered facts about Tóibín himself, such as his political history in which both his grandfather and his uncle were involved in the Irish IRA. Prompted by Lawrence, Tóibín talked about his homeland explaining how Ireland does not seem that small if one lives there. In a way, Tóibín’s writings often have a political undertone. He does mention the treatment of the Irish people by the hands of the English, and he describes how in Ireland, America was considered “glamour” while England was simply “necessity.” Lawrence also questioned Tóibín on why he decided to take on Henry James, saying it was an audacious topic since many think they “own” Henry James. She asked him whether he was concerned about taking a very private man and making his life public, or how Tóibín was ever able to get inside this great writer’s mind so fully.

Tóibín was not fazed by this question, instead pointing out the similarities between himself and the man who was called “The Master” by his fans. Tóibín points to the fact that James, like himself, was balding, the second son in a family of five, and had a very similar relationship to family, community and religion. Tóibín also seems to have had similar experiences. He describes how one of his novels was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, which basically means he did not win the Booker Prize. He described that night where they announced the winners as one where he hoped he would win, but realized once he had not that he was facing a night of misery and embarrassment and wondered why he bothered going at all. Tóibín compared this to James himself, on the night of James’ play release, at which the public booed him and James wondered why he turned to writing plays at all. It seems as though Tóibín, who has researched James immensely, has managed to bring him to life not through hard facts but because he understands James as a person.

With an easy to listen to voice, Tóibín is as much a writer as he is a public speaker, and both are entirely captivating.