Portrait of a portrait artist

Henry James paid the cost of a life spent watching others.

In "The Art of Fiction," Henry James advises the beginning novelist, "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" Unfortunately, much of James's insight is now lost on us. He grows more revered and unread with each passing decade. Shifting tastes, including a century of sensory overload, have rendered his social and emotional precision almost invisible. Students still struggle through his ghost story, "Turn of the Screw," but he's otherwise drifted off high school reading lists. When forced to confront "Portrait of a Lady" or "The Ambassadors," college students find him effete, boring, obsessed with irrelevant issues of class structure and manners. It doesn't help that we pretend there is no class structure in America; there are certainly no manners.

James was not unaware of the problem of finding an audience. His older brother William, the legendary psychologist at Harvard, suggested that his novels were insipid and priggish. His effort to take London by storm led to one of the most disastrous opening nights in theatrical history. He depended on the family fortune to sustain him when - frequently - writing couldn't.

Whatever his struggles for an audience, he enjoyed particularly good fortune in attracting a biographer. Leon Edel spent the better part of his career chronicling James's life in five volumes, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.

And now James has seduced a novelist commensurate with his own sensibilities. "The Master," a new biographical novel by Irishman Colm Tóibín, reflects all the brilliance and challenge of Henry James's work, sweeping through the author's life and mind with a scope that's both broad and precise. It's not likely to win any new fans for James, but lapsed ones should feel roused by it, and members of the cult will embrace "The Master" as a new testament.

Tóibín narrates in the omniscient third person, focused on James's perspective, a kind of "What Henry Knew." The carefully labeled chapters, starting with "January 1895" through "October 1899," belie the novel's extraordinarily complex and fluid structure.

Tóibín seems to have memorized the voluminous journals, letters, and published works of the whole eccentric James clan, allowing him to re-create conversations and interior monologues with remarkable fidelity. He enjoys total command of the decades that were the foundation for these five years, and tends to refer to events and people long before they've been clearly identified for us. Indeed, anyone less familiar with James's life, which is likely to include everyone but Leon Edel, will experience periods of bewilderment, but for those with the stamina to persevere, the rewards here are extraordinary.

The novel opens in London during preparations for "Guy Domville," a play James wrote when he sensed (incorrectly) that his days as a novelist were over. "He awaited the opening night," Tóibín writes, "with a mixture of pure optimism - an absolute certainty that the play would hit home - and a deep anxiety, a sense that worldly glamour and universal praise would never be offered him."

Too nervous to watch his own opening, he attends Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" nearby and loathes it. "The writing, line by line, was a mockery of writing," he thinks, "an appeal for cheap laughs, cheap responses." Leaving Wilde's smashing success, he walks back to his own theater in time to receive a torrent of boos and catcalls.

The experience - with its particularly public dimension - devastates him and throws him back into fiction with grim expectations. But Tóibín catches in James's response a mingled sense of humiliation and superiority: "He had failed, he realized, to take the measure of the great flat foot of the public."

Meanwhile, Wilde's spectacular success aggravates his disappointment and envy further (another one of Wilde's plays opens in the theater that "Guy Domville" exits). It also introduces a major theme in "The Master": James's ambiguous sexual orientation, treated here, like everything else in this story, with exquisite subtlety.

James listens hungrily to news of the playwright's outrageous behavior with a strictly enforced air of casual detachment. He's too elegant to gloat over Wilde's trial, too terrified to pant over Wilde's exploits. This portrayal of intense but unarticulated desire is a triumph of wit and psychological precision. Another scene of James lying awake all night next to a naked and presumably straight Oliver Wendell Holmes is even funnier and just as brilliant.

As the novel moves through James's relationships with his sister, his cousin, a friend's butler, and a young sculptor, we see again and again the same tension between his attraction to these people and a desperate need to withhold himself from them. "He found the waiting for them, the sense of expectation before a visit, the most blissful time of all," Tóibín writes. "He also relished the days after the guest had departed, he enjoyed the peace of the house, as though the visit had been nothing except a battle for solitude which he had finally won."

What's most touching, even heart-wrenching, is the way those closest to James accommodate his detachment as the price of his friendship. He and the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, for instance, enjoy a passionate meeting of minds in Italy. But as she sinks deeper into depression, she never dares to ask outright for his help, and he never stoops to answer her veiled cries. In every case, the people who desperately need him allow him to perpetuate the illusion that they're as self-sufficient as he is.

Only as the casualties mount and a few friends have the nerve to confront him with his own ruthlessness is he willing to consider the fear of entanglement that cauterizes his affections.

Tóibín's work displays the kind of depth and sensitivity that few authors can offer - or demand. After all, writing a novel that captures Henry James is like deriving an equation that calculates Albert Einstein. It's an audacious attempt that manages to beat the master at his own game, while avoiding the perils of parody or sycophancy. The result is a beautiful, haunting portrayal that measures the amplitude of silence and the trajectory of a glance in the life of one of the world's most astute social observers.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.

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