Dear friends and readers,
It’s about time I wrote in praise of Colm Toibin, of his biographical and critical essays, of his novels, his biographical fiction, his travel books. I can’t think of any writer as originally thoughtful, perceptive, humane, quietly iconoclastic, informative, absorbing, who reads authors as interesting or simply writes as well so consistently. When I see his name on a list of contributors to any periodical I subscribe to, I go to him first and he doesn’t disappoint. This morning I was lifted out of bleak loneliness (Coping) into a consoled companionableness by his review of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (for New York Review of Books LIX, 8 (May 10, 2012)9-11 where he quoted Larkin in ways that resonated with my feelings, validated them.
Toibin an Irish journalist who comes from precisely the area he has set his story in; he is himself gay or homosexual and he has written out of this perspective more directly at times. While he does write about overt politics, there is much travel writing and three of the novels at least center on this business of the compromises and concessions you must make if you want to stay in a family circle at all, or the difficulties of being in a family setting. He is interested in colonialists and hybrid-identities and literature: Anglo-Irish, Anglo-Indian, French-African, Irish-American. Catholic by faith, liberal-leftist in outlook, sympathetic to revolutionary movements, he’s a gifted writer: delicately powerful stories. He now lives in Dublin.
I can’t list all the essays by him I’ve read, over the years especially on Henry James, Oscar Wilde; his arguments stay with me and I use them in my essays and postings and they become part of my thinking. I’ve not read his short stories, but I have read The Master (a fictional biography of Henry James, see my blog on Kaplan’s biography), The South, Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn. I wish I had read more, and now that my reading time at night is limited I shall have to turn to him during the day.
I remember parts of the book vividly still. Reading The South made me choose to read his The Master and teach Blackwater Lightship and most recently (as my Christmas treat) Brooklyn.
The heroine in The South leaves cold husband and unsympathetic son to make a new life for herself in the south with a wholly unconventional painter who had fought on the left side against Franco; he had been tortured, is now under surveillance and the way he leaves is to retreat to the mountains to live very meagrely (since he has little money and no way of getting any kind of middle class income-producing job). She loves the escape, release, life with him, and herself begins painting. Much on Spanish landscape and customs of a leisured pattern of days. Eventually she gets pregnant by him and years pass and they do improve their (what some would say) squalid living arrangements. Alas, the authorities decide to come after the man again, he is again trying to do some good in the political world. He is again imprisoned, perhaps tortured (I’m not sure on this latter detail), at any rate deeply distraught once more. He has retired from society as a reaction to what he saw in the thirties. (The texts to read here is Orwell’s Reflections of the Spanish Civil War and the Homage to Catalonia). Alas, a horrible accident kills both this man and the new son — we are to see this accident is also wanted; the man wants out and he takes his son with him.
The devastation to our heroine is for a time crushing — though her behavior manifests the same pragmaticism of approach. Some wandering, and meandering and eventually she does return to Ireland, partly lured there by her son by the first husband. Not forgiven (for what should she be forgiven? is the sense of the text) nor forgiving (they are not sorry for what they are), nonetheless, her older family finds a place for her to live in Ireland.
Meanwhile (I’ve left this part out) her career as an artist has gone on quietly flourishing with paintings recording her sense of Spain and experience. She has lived an authentic life and continues to do so until the book quietly closes and at whatever price she had to pay in others’ refusal to countenance this since they did not.
The reverse is true of the heroine of Brooklyn. Indeed the slightly shocking close shows the heroine returning to Ireland and her originally intended husband because 1) she had promised to, and under the stress of circumstances been pressured into literally marrying the first lover, he having surmised she might just not come back when she sees improved living standards and freedom — he had been her only choice; no jobs anywhere that are fulfilling or money-making for such as someone from her family); and 2) the authority figures in Brooklyn discover she has married elsewhere and threatened to expose her; she knows she will become a pariah because this is the way such people as a group work, so home she goes, leaving then the man who had come to love her in his compromised way (he needs her, she fits in &c&c).
I remember the devastatingly accurate assessment of her relationship with the mother, used and she knows using her. We had been thinking the heroine was better than all these, but she is exposed as just like everyone else. And we are to feel for her, deeply feel for us all in her case.
The heroine in The South escaped all this; hers is the reverse story. But she did for much of her life live hard, in poverty, alone, her beloved man tortured, hounded and escaped through killing herself and she ends in this cottage provided for her, silent again (as the kind of talk in her Irish family is once more irrelevant to anything that matters to her for real).
But the meaning inherent in The South and Brooklyn is the same, the perspective out of which they come and the ultimate message about the obstacles to living an authentic life.
I love candour and hard-truth telling in a book; the unexpected ending exhilarated me. So many falsely easy and happy pseudo-optimistic stories are told; rather than give hope, they irritate and depress me as having the effect of throwing the blame on people who don’t do well. On the the other hand, wanting to think very well of the heroine, Eilis Lacey, when she was in the very final pages of the book obviously willing to overthrow her Brooklyn husband, Tony, and marry the new Irish man, Jim, who owned a pub and was admired by all, in a situation where she saw that instead of being ignored as the useless superfluous second sister, she would get a better job than in NYC (the competition in NYC was too keen for her to rate an office job), I liked her less. I was anxious for her because I thought it would matter to her so much to lose the beloved Tony, but when I was shown how she would give this up, I acceded it was truthful but cared less.
I loved the portrait of the mother who knew or had enough to suspect all along
her daughter had formed new ties in Brooklyn but ignored it, pretended not to
know in order to pressure the girl into lying and staying. But when the girl was
to go because her marriage in Brooklyn was found out, instead of showing affection, the mother shut the door on her. Here we see how people really value one another and what for. Now she can’t get from the girl what she wanted: not just a companion but someone who this pub owner would marry so she the mother would be admired in public.
On the immigrant patterns: I grew up in the south east Bronx mostly, in a slum which at first was heavily Irish but by the time my parents moved out was heavily black. The patterns of Irish life were to me no different than the working class Italian life I saw in Richmond Hill, a neighborhood near the one we moved to. I didn’t dislike them; they seemed to me American catholic working class by the time I was in my teens, only on the surface different from middle to upper middle class Jewish life in Kew Gardens where we did move. The Kew Gardens neighborhood I did hate and had a hard time getting used to: much snobbery, ostentation, and we lived in a 3 bedroom apartment on the ‘low end’ of life there. My name, Ellen, is partly the result of my mother imitating the names she heard around her in the Bronx. (It’s also the name of the mother in Gone with the Wind, which however she denied knowing and said it was just the people around her. I doubt she would have called me Colleen though as my mother was Jewish and that would have been gonig too far.)
Toibin sets the two other novels I’ve read by him partly or wholly in Ennisworthy. It’s where he comes from. And he has a poignant statement about missing it (boyhood memories) in Blackwater Lightship.
The Brooklyn New York parts were truth to life. My mother’s people lived in Brooklyn and for about 2 years (one year when I was small) I lived in Brooklyn and did on occasion visit these relatives growing up. The climate would seem extreme after the British Isles.
I read with an intense anxiety on behalf of Eilis, worried for her as succumbing to pressure. I had to peek ahead to assure myslf she broke away and returned. But when I experienced why and how my feelings for her changed dramatically. But this is a truthful probable portrait. It showed me patterns in my family’s reactions to me I’ve seen repeatedly.
Blackwater Lightship throws yet another permutation and light on this central experience — as does The Master, only then the partial escapee is James. This novel is about a homosexual young man who returns to his family for a weekend just before he died. They had nothing to do with him until then because they didn’t want to know or allow anyone else to know he lived a gay life. We see all their estrangements from one another too.
It’s been criticized for not centering more emphatically on the issue of homosexuality, even marginalizing it. To my mind that Toibin presents Decclan’s sexual orientation, and condition as another important element in the life of the family, not more devastating or central than say the father’s death (Mr Breen) or Lily’s long time adjusting to being alone and her giving her two children to her mother, Dora Devereux while she coped is one of its strengths.
It’s realistic: no false sentiment about family life, but that biological ties are there and for reasons that are hard to explain pragmatically except that people turn to families and families take them in as a matter of survival; there is no alternative to rely on so people come through for one another most of the time. Not all. Homeless people not uncommon. People living away from families and managing to support themselves and find company and worlds with friends happens a good deal.
Still the family pattern is the dominant one whether in a modern country and culture like the US or traditional one like Zimbabwe and India (there we have an arranged marriage and couple who come to live in the US.
Key theme of this and two other of his books, The South and The Heather Blazing (I’ve read about it), and his fictional biography of Henry James called The Master are The key themes, “are the compromises and concessions involved in belonging to a family and in calling somewhere “home”.
The DVD cover of the TV movie adaptation
Three complex female characters: Helen (now married to Hugh O’Doherty), her mother, Lily Breen, and the grandmother, Dora Devereux. All three have similar characters: proud, standoffish, determined with the ability and knowhow of domineering, running a situation, self-contained, self-possessed, but like most people wanting affection, support, and Helen shown as having sensitivities like her older son, Cathal; Manus has mean bullying personality from the get-go, huge ego. You might say it’s about the problem of mothering; by no means does this come more naturally to women than men though the task is forced on them by social arrangements and expectations.
There is no easy reconciliation. The family’s fumbling attempts at change are set against the natural process of erosion that is eating away the coastline close to the family home in Cush. The liminal space of the beach as a setting for the beginning of Helen and Lily’s reconciliation, and the novel ends with the muted triumph of Lily spending the night at Helen’s home after returning the now severely ill Declan to the hospital in Dublin.
It’s a delicately powerful story of a family’s failure to face difficult feelings and their stubborn refusal to admit need (especially the grandmother). He through them delve into memories with a visceral, unsparing depiction: main character through whom we see action is Helen: snapshots of the family’s fraught past are filtered through her memory.
When Helen was 11, she had had to deal with her father’s illness and death virtually alone – she was left with her 8-year-old brother at her grandmother’s house for six months while her mother nursed her father, or tried to. Gradually Helen withdrew from everyone except Declan into a watchful guardedness. She “trained herself to be equal to things, whatever they would be.” But her defenses against the pain of the past are a barrier against present life. She mothered Decclan, came into his room at night the way she does for Cathal and Manus. Helen’s memory of the day before her father’s funeral when she arranged on her parents’ bed a suit of his clothes complete with underwear, tie, socks, hat, and shoes, then lay down beside the father figure she had made.
There is no father figure here; Hugh kept from us; Helen and Decclan’s father died young, we see almost nothing of the grandfather. We have instead Decclan and his two friends, three male characters match three female ones: the strong Paul (a counterpart to Helen) who tells us of his marriage with Francois, and Larry, who has had bitter experiences with his family about his homosexuality and shows us the hypocrisy of the world, but is bright and cheerful in temperament and gets along very well with the grandmother, planning architectural changes to the house we know she’ll never do, and she and he know it, but he does teach her to drive a little a stick-shift car.
The theme is not coming out but coming to terms with oneself. And humour — evolving from camp Larry’s unlikely affinity with the grandmother and from her own sardonic wit–leavens a sombre load. Each has a story:
Larry tells how he came out to his family on the six o’clock news. Paul tells how he and his mate were married by a priest in a traditional Catholic ceremony.
Granny Dora tells how she got the switchblade knife that’s in her apron pocket. Helen’s mother, Lily, who fled into a fast-lane business career and a huge designer house she occupies alone, tells Helen about her father’s last days.
Then we get Declan’s graphic deterioration. The family members and friends do not avoid him
It is about homosexual man regarded as other and I understand the frustration of some gay critics because Decclan is kept at a distance from us: he seems dependent, unable to make a permanent relationship like Paul, acting out as a child to Paul. But there’s revisiting the same theme over and over: Toibin has written novels focusing on a gay man, the one I’ve read is The Master, and Henry James lived away from his family, estranged. Looking at otherness is kept away to some extent
The sense of place, here, is germane and its adjoining strand–close to a disintegrating cliff, caught in the reiterative sweep of the lighthouse–permeate the book with an elemental atmosphere.
Beautiful spare graceful prose: measured and restrained as a Victorian memoir yet poetic in precision-“extraordinary skill for rendering time and place. This quiet novel achieves its effects gradually and with subtlety
The presence of Decclan’s homosexual friends influence the behavior of his family to one another and him as he lays dying in Blackwater Lightship, and we discussed pretty fully of the six main characters, three women, daughter who is now a mother, Helen, mother, Lily, and grandmother, Dora; and we went briefly the three men: Decclan, Paul and Larry.
Decclan is dependent, not strong, looks for help from friends. He has no permanent relationship with a significant other unlike Paul and perhaps Larry. We don’t learn much about his private life for the past years. He is the person in the book dying about whom we learn least. He is kept away from us, except to give us these graphic descriptions of his suffering as perceived by the other characters. Who does he seem to depend upon? Paul.
Paul knows what to do; he finds the emergency room to bring Decclan back to at the end. He is in charge. And he and Helen, as a similarly strong character exchanges stories. Thing is they are not that strong: they need someone depending on them. We see that it’s Helen’s husband Hugh who has the friends, who is the open more giving person, really there, and she needs that. Paul’s partner. What is his story? Francoise who was an only child and needed to be married to have security. Waiting for Paul to return.
Larry, you might call him the comedian, but he’s getting through life that way. Let’s look a little more carefully at the passage where he tells his parents and family he is gay: he gets involved with public politics and finds he appears on the six o’clock news as a gay person, which his family was watching. What is the hard thing? Not the actual event or even the retelling, but the reaction in the room to when he tells of his present love relationships with a nearby family where the men lead overtly heterosexual lives.
The book is named after a lighthouse that no longer exists. Helen and Lily are talking. We don’t learn much about Decclan’s private life nor about him directly; when we learn about Larry’s life it’s indirect and the powerful stuff is about here and now and yet what is not there matters; so too Paul’s relationship with Francoise. About how important memories are and the intangible invisible lives we don’t show publicly shape the public. At the close of the edition I ordered into the bookstore, we have Toibin’s statement about his book: he gains meaning and solace through reliving his memories, and bringing them alive again.
There are eight chapters with some of the stories (memories plus present time) achieving a kind of quiet climax in the 7th, with 1st as prologue, Helen at home, and 8th as the denouement as they prepare to and bring Decclan back to the hospital and Helen brings Lily back to her house. her mother has never been there before. For those working on Blackwater Lightship for this coming journal entry: a series of inset stories or memories embedded into the narrative. People talking with Helen present, Helen and Paul confiding. Then Helen and Decclan’s story from when their father dies We see grandmother and grandfather watching TV and arguing over what they see. Then Larry’s story, Lily’s story, Paul’s story (Toibin a Catholic and has written about Catholicism in travel book on Barcelona central here); Helen’s story (Decclan the spoilt favored child as the boy). Back to Lily’s story; how Blackwater Lightship as a long gone lighthouse is central; Helen’s story again; Helen’s portrait of Lily.
Our cat (Ian) facing forward
The cats — They run away and to the Grandmother this is a bad loss. Cats are affectionate clinging creatures; Lily’s story again; told to Helen, talking of grandmother and past, signals some understanding
Book about the rhythms of the night, and how people cope with death: the Grandmother turns to these mediums who feed people’s desire to reach the dead. A dark theme of redemptive power of death runs through all his books.
The comfort in The Master is James got to live his own life to some extent. He lives as the heroine in The South, only because he has money, property and connections he manages far better than our heroine and ends up with his measure of independence, until of course he’s done in at the end by terrible sickness and death and again finds himself taken over. We see how he lives a life apart, the price of it and the achievement he managed by remaining apart.
I find I don’t have separate notes on The Master, but I do on an essay he wrote for the LRB: The Importance of Aunts. in his usual cagey or elusive way Toibin manages to say what he pretends would be “too crude” to say: especially with respect to James. The problem with Austen’s getting rid of the useless mother (which Toibin does connect to her relationship with her own) is the caricatures she creates are in danger of being taken non-seriously; you can laugh at Lady Betram, which would be to misunderstand or ignore her effect on Fanny Price.
I particularly like how Toibin deals with James’s family: he says how James loved his mother, but in the same breathe, how he kept away from her as it was all too painful to contemplate or let touch (and destroy) him. In Washington Square despite the understatement and careful avoidance of offering the readers ways of not reading what’s in front of them, her heroine has to cope with a loathsome father, a morally idiotic scheming aunt and her own pent-up sexuality. Her nobility comes from her enduring steadfastly being alone in the world. She escapes the fate of Isobel Archer because she knows how to feel and is not to be dissuaded by those around from to violate herself.
She is then a cynosure for James himself.
On Austen’s use of aunts: Austen feels free, on the other hand, to make Lady Catherine de Bourgh both imperious and comic, her wealth and power serving to make her ridiculous and unworthy rather than impressive; but she is not meant merely to amuse us, or to show us an aspect of English society that Austen thought was foolish. She is an aunt who does not prevail; her presence in the book succeeds in making Darcy more individual, less part of any system. Her function is to allow her nephew, who refuses to obey her, a sort of freedom, a way of standing alone that will make him worthy of Elizabeth ….
From the 1983 BBC Mansfield Park: Mrs Norris (Anna Massey) berating Fanny (Sylvestre le Tousel) in front of the whole family
The reader is invited, then, to dislike Mrs Norris for her cruelty and to admire Fanny for her forbearance. Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin sees Mrs Norris as `one of the great villains of literature'; Tony Tanner thought she was `one of Jane Austen’s most impressive creations and indeed one of the most plausibly odious characters in fiction’. All this is clear, at times rather too clear. What isn’t clear is what the reader should feel about the other aunt, Lady Bertram, mistress of Mansfield Park. Tomalin dislikes her. `Fanny’s experience at Mansfield Park is bitter as no other childhood is in Austen’s work. Her aunt, Lady Bertram, is virtually an imbecile; she may be a comic character, and not ill-tempered, but the effects of her extreme placidity are not comic …
Just one from James: This sexualisation of an aunt figure is what gives the book its power. James radically destabilises the category, moves Madame Merle from being Isabel’s protector, who stands in for her mother without having a mother’s control, to being someone who seeks to damage and defeat her
More generally: The idea of the family as anathema to the novel in the 19th century, or the novel being an enactment of the destruction of the family and the rise of the stylish conscience, or the individual spirit, has more consequences than the replacement of mothers by aunts. As the century went on, novelists had to contemplate the afterlives of Elizabeth and Darcy, Fanny and Edmund, had to deal with the fact that these novels made families out of the very act of breaking them. It was clear that, since something fundamental had already been done to the idea of parents, something would also have to be done to the idea of marriage itself, since marriage was a dilution of the autonomy of the individual protagonist. There is a line that can be drawn between Trollope and George Eliot and Henry James: all three dramatise the same scene, each of them alert to its explosive implications. What they are alert to is the power of the lone, unattached male figure in the novel, someone with considerable sympathy, who moves unpredictably, who keeps his secrets and ego intact …
Photo of Henry James as the master, late in life
Toibin’s greatness also lies in his quiet unassuming style. He gets so much in
and yet does not seem to stretch or have to overwrite at all. It’s part of what makes the novels seem so truthful.
He teaches we must find and live out our own identities at the same time as he compassionates those who do not as the cost can be so high.
From the movie adaptation of Blackwater Lightship
I need to read his Homage to Barcelona next. See the LRB archive for treasures.
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