'The White Rose' and 'The Master' Two That Almost Got Away
Here are two novels worth reading that I almost didn't read. Colm Tóibín's The Master (Scribner $25) is a semi-fictional narrative from the point of view of Henry James. Jean Hanff Korelitz's The White Rose (Miramax $24.95) adapts the plot of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's opera Der Rosenkavalier and updates it to present-day Manhattan.
There are advantages and disadvantages to this sort of enlightened opportunism. In the case of The Master, it helps to have a protagonist who is already a known quantity to most readers, even those who have never read a word of Henry James. The advantage becomes a disadvantage if readers are so busy comparing the established figure with Tóibín's version that they lose touch with the essence of the work at hand. Although it seemed doubtful at first that Tóibín was going to produce anything compelling enough to keep me reading 300-plus pages of sound but not particularly stunning prose, I decided to read on because people whose opinion I respect had passionately recommended it.
In both The Master and The White Rose, there are defining moments that not only reveal what their authors are up to but that make you sympathetic to the problems they face. In The White Rose, what could be called the defining moment certainly the richest moment in the narrative comes two-thirds of the way through the book when Oliver and Sophie, the contemporary equivalents of the young lovers in Der Rosenkavalier, connect over the question of the flowers to be used for Sophie's marriage to someone else.
The defining moment in The Master comes when the youthful Henry James and Oliver Wendell Holmes, both naked, share a bed. It's an extraordinary scene, one you can imagine the author might have written the whole novel around. Not that anything happens. Nothing really does. But the extraordinary restraint the situation demands made me respect the dimensions of the task Tóibín had set for himself. It also made me more aware of the passion brewing under the placid, measured surface of the narrative. While it might be argued that Tóibín has compromised his subject by resolutely suppressing the elegant mannerisms associated with James's work and what we know of his personal style from his notebooks and letters, it seems more likely that by refusing to exploit those mannerisms, Tóibín has created the tension that holds the book together. Just as James never comes out of the closet here, Tóibín never comes out of the closet of his implacably restrained narrative. His inner James stays inside, and with it the virtuoso style required to truly express the "coming out" of James's elegant genius in various real-life situations. When James truly "came out" it was in the audacity and extravagance of his work.
The Rosenkavalier connection does not always work to the advantage of The White Rose. Because the first act of the book had to correspond to the first act of the opera, the all-too-familiar situation of the older woman and her young lover results in a relatively superficial opening. Readers who enjoy observing how the novel and libretto interact may find nothing lacking in the comic dynamics wherein Oliver dresses in Marian's clothes and catches the wandering eye of Marian's cousin and Sophie's fiancé, Barton Warburg. The lovers would have been more sympathetic, however, if we'd had the fuller account of Oliver and Marian that, in order to conform to the sequence of the opera, has to be put off until page 65 for Oliver and page 83 for Marian. Worse yet, it's not until page 173 that we meet Sophie, easily the most engaging and convincing character in the novel.
One of the charms of The White Rose is its Manhattan locale, which becomes a character in itself, and like the other characters, one that sometimes seems to be at the mercy of the borrowed plot. New York and Oliver come to life when Oliver enters his element, a flower shop in the West Village called the White Rose. In the same way, Marian comes fully to life when we read more about her discovery of Lady Charlotte Wilcox, the subject of her wildly successful book. A letter from an unlikely young fan takes us to another side of the city in the person of Soriah, an 11-year-old who lives in Harlem with her grandmother, her mother being in prison. If the upper class, Park Avenue/Hamptons side of New York seems sterile and superificial, it's probably because Korelitz's heart simply isn't in it. But her heart is definitely in Sophie and one of the best moments in the book comes when we share with Oliver the sweet-disorder shock of encountering this unlikely heiress in her hastily pulled on, misbuttoned flannel shirt, a most atypical Jewish princess in her Upper East Side tower.
Part of Sophie's charm is in her very discomfort with that more limited, less appealing New York. Another great moment comes when the stranger-in-a-strange-land situation is reversed as Sophie ventures south of midtown (seemingly for the first time in her life) in her quest to find Oliver's Commerce Street flower shop. Even so, it's hard to believe that a New Yorker as spirited as Sophie would never before have explored Soho and the Village, not to mention Chelsea. But then this is another of the restrictions the author is dealing with. She has to make some obvious adjustments to convince us that a girl as independent as Sophie would allow herself be married off to a man she doesn't love.
There is an emotional magic all too rarely found in contemporary fiction in the moment Sophie and Oliver recognize what's going on between them. It's the defining moment I mentioned earlier. Up to this point, the various characters have been talking, acting, reacting, making love, being nice, being nasty, but it's the chemistry connecting Oliver and Sophie that lifts the novel to a higher level. The subject of the scene is the choice of flowers for Sophie's wedding. In the throes of his art, flowers being an art form for him, Oliver becomes too assertive and Sophie feels suddenly pressured and patronized (though we know what she's reacting to is her attraction to Oliver) and she lashes out at him for his "floral elitism," saying "Maybe we're not all obsessed with flowers" and "maybe a rose is just a rose as far as normal people are concerned." For Oliver, though he may not yet realize it, it's as if his muse has rejected his art. Seeing how stricken he looks, she wishes she could take back what she said. What follows may be the two most remarkable sentences in the book. It's too good a passage to quote, since its impact depends on our having read all that has gone before and the irresistible momentum of our interest in the characters.
That said, I wish Korelitz had invested as much in the Barton character as she has in Marian, Oliver, and Sophie. He could have been a great creation, a sort of modern-day Baron Charlus cruising through the gay world, rather than a shallow buffoon. Also, again because of the construction dictated by the opera, the denouement suffers, and the author is forced to do nearly as much scheming as her characters to bring it off. But she does.
Jean Hanff Korelitz lives in Princeton and is married to poet Paul Muldoon, whose last name is slyly inserted in the text at one point. She will be reading from The White Rose at the Princeton Public Library at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 8.