In this program the author Colm Toibin (author of the best-selling novel The
Master) fielded questions from a specially selected panel of listeners, while offering an insight into James’s technique
as an author.
Toibin took the opportunity to reflect on James’s reclusive persona as he gradually withdrew from public
life (especially after the failure of his play Guy Domville) and pursued a solitary
existence. Toibin argued that James’s behavior seemed paradoxical; while seeking to present himself as the novelist
immured in an ivory tower, working out his ideas on paper, he was also preoccupied with making money and acquiring a popular
reputation – even at the end of his life. Toibin explored the consequences of this paradox in relation to the late novels.
He claimed that James drew on popular dramatic forms: The Wings of the Dove was
basically a three-character melodrama. At the same time he explored his characters’ behavior and motives in exhaustive
detail. Toibin likened the experience of reading a James novel to viewing an Impressionist painting – every detail could
be treated as a composite image in its own right, prompting the viewer/reader to reflect on its construction. At the same
time we are encouraged to meditate on the relationship between the image and the complete whole. Sometimes that relationship
can be problematic, even ambiguous; this is what gives James his reputation as a ‘difficult’ novelist. However
Toibin argued that readers should approach James in a certain way; rather than reading the novels from cover to cover, they
should reflect on each incident, how the narrator interprets it and how they themselves respond to it. They should form their
own impressions of an Impressionist text.
Perhaps the program could have devoted more time to Toibin’s novel, and how it dealt with Jamesian themes.
Nonetheless it provided a fascinating analysis of James’s technique and the demands it places on his readers. The program
can be accessed on the web at the address below.