From the moment Colm Tóibín took the stage yesterday to discuss Henry James, the subject of his 2004 historical novel The Master, the crowd that filled the San Carlos Institute auditorium was electrified. In a voice inflected by Enniscorthy in Ireland’s County Wexford, where he was born and raised, with the fast pace of the international cities where he has lived, Tóibín launched his talk by rattling off a litany of books by and about the James family that preceded the publication of his: among them, Leon Edel’s five-volume biography of Henry, Jean Strouse’s biography of Henry’s sister Alice, along with F. O. Matthiessen’s collective biography of the peripatetic clan of philosophers and writers. “What the world needs now more than anything is a novel about Henry James,” he said dryly, recalling his original conception of the book and evoking one of the many belly laughs that filled the room during his talk.
Tóibín began writing about Guy Domville, Henry’s epic failure of a London stage production, in March 2000, just a few months after what he considered to be his own public humiliation in the same city. At the hands of that year’s Booker Prize judges, his hopes for renown and success—along with the opportunity to thank his mom, thank his agent—were dashed. He wasn’t shortlisted for the literary prize, as nominees usually say; he lost it. And it was all caught on film by television cameras documenting the evening’s speeches and dinner.
“When I wrote that section of the book, I was writing my autobiography. And I was telling the truth by handing the truth to Henry James. I was telling the truth in a way I couldn’t have done otherwise,” he said.
From that Booker dinner, Tóibín wandered into the streets of London heavy with shame, as James did after suffering abusive heckles from his Guy Domville audience. He questioned who he was and what he was doing, went home, and took years to recover. Tóibín found his footing again by researching, imagining, and writing the life of Henry James. “Something moves into a rhythm, something within you has matched the material,” he said, describing the experience of sitting down with blank paper and a pen and going deeply into himself and the work.