Colm Tóibín

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Boyd Tonkin (review date 31 August 1990)

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SOURCE: Tonkin, Boyd. “Asylum for Modern Times.” New Statesman & Society 119, no. 3099 (31 August 1990): 37.

[In the following review, Tonkin praises Tóibín's portrayal of Barcelona in Homage to Barcelona.]

“Where ya going?” someone sings at an air stewardess in one of those tuneless dirges that fill Stephen Sondheim musicals. “Barcelona,” she drawls. And so, during the 1980s, did everyone. What Paris had once been and Prague may soon become, the Catalan capital was, and is: the “one living point of the earth” where, for fashion-conscious travellers, “modern times have found an asylum.”

So wrote Le Corbusier, praising the doomed Catalan republic of the early 1930s. As Colm Tóibín, twice a resident, explains in his travelogue-cum-cultural chronicle [Homage to Barcelona], the city has shone as a beacon of European progress three times inside a century. First, the vain but ruthless bourgeoisie of the years after the 1888 Great Exhibition bequeathed the sinuous vegetable architecture of Gaudí and his peers. The Sagrada Familia, Gaudí's unfinished stone forest of a church, was designed as a penance for the sins of godless, revolutionary Catalonia. No wonder the anarchists burned his plans in 1936. Tóibín, his Irish eyes skinned for the symbolism of nationhood, remarks that one of the parties thrown up by the class strife and economic chaos of the 1910s called itself Nosaltres Sols. That is Catalan for Sinn Fein.

The half-decade before the Spanish civil war saw secular radicalism briefly prevail over the canny, Catholic face of Catalan identity. (This tension, which today sets socialist city hall against a centre-right Catalan government, recurs as a motif throughout this quietly learned book.) If the honeymoon of modernity had lasted, Le Corbusier and his friends might well have bulldozed much of the flowery stonework that now adorns each postcard home. But in July 1936, Pau Casals was conducting Beethoven's Ninth to open an alternative, anti-Nazi Olympic Games, when news came of Franco's uprising in Morocco. The audience fled, and the night descended. It stayed dark for 40 years.

Tóibín tells the story of that night well, if laconically. He seems to share the Catalans' enduring reticence about the Franco era. (Consider the depth of their trauma: even after a mass exodus of Republicans, 35,000 people were shot when Barcelona fell.) Much later, dictator and regime slid into senility, while the rising class sharpened its political skills in bars and clubs. In Gothic corners where backpackers now sip cocktails, a successful revolution was hatched. Evoking the transition to democracy and Catalan autonomy—more swift than most had dared to dream—Tóibín strikes the Wordsworthian gong: “Later, it would be called history, but then it was sheer joy.”

Elsewhere, he delivers the standard cultural package—Picasso, Miró, Dali and the rest—with some deft personal flourishes of anecdote. He writes tenderly, and a shade earnestly, as if going native has meant picking up a touch of that dour pride that lets Catalans look down on the flamboyant machismo of the Spain beyond their gates. The legions of Andalusians and other migrants, who populate the city's raw belt of high-rise suburbs, rate a few curt paragraphs. How would Tóibín feel about a book on historic and artistic London that scanted the vast Irish working class in this way?

This snootiness makes a rare lapse in a work that otherwise shuns the vices of its genre: egomania, pedantry, trivia. It will please the first-time tripper and reward the hardened buff. What it doesn't try to define is the city's special appeal for a generation of foreign intellectuals. That would make a separate study. One suggestion, though:...

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for them, Barcelona redeems the idea of a non-aggressive local patriotism, with cultural politics as powerhouse of a thriving civil society. A cynic might call it the dear departed GLCin excelsis. To visit is to join a story that, after two false dawns, has at last reached its happy ending.

Eamonn Wall (review date fall 1991)

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SOURCE: Wall, Eamonn. Review of The South, by Colm Tóibín. Review of Contemporary Fiction 11, no. 3 (fall 1991): 288-89.

[In the following review, Wall offers a positive assessment of The South, noting that the novel “succeeds brilliantly.”]

When her husband, against her objections, insists on taking a local Catholic family to court for allowing their cattle to graze illegally on their land, Katherine Proctor leaves him and her son and travels to Barcelona where she becomes a painter: she is thirty-two. In Spain, in Colm Tóibín's brilliant first novel [The South,] she becomes part of a bohemian set, takes art classes, meets Miguel and has a daughter with him, and, after he dies, returns to Ireland an accomplished artist.

On the surface it appears that Spain and Ireland are completely different: Spain offers Katherine Proctor the artistic and sexual fulfillment that was impossible in Ireland. There, she was involved in an unsatisfactory marriage with a distant and silent man and forced to endure age-old squabbles over land rights. However, as more is revealed we see that although her life is expanded in Spain, though she is poorer, its people are as wounded by history as the Irish. In Spain, Katherine becomes friendly with another Irish expatriate, Michael Graves, who grew up in a small town in southeastern Ireland near the Proctor lands. Graves's presence in Barcelona is a constant reminder to Katherine of Ireland. Graves, who comes from a poor family, also exposes her to an underprivileged Ireland she is ignorant of. On her return to Ireland, after the deaths of her lover and daughter, she realizes that the Ireland she left fourteen years previously has all but collapsed. The religious and racial barriers which divided and sustained Catholics and Protestants no longer exist: her son has married a Catholic woman and converted to her religion. In Ireland, Katherine rediscovers the local landscape of the area where she grew up, which Tóibín lovingly recreates, and has a successful show in a Dublin gallery.

Of modern Irish novels, The South most closely resembles Brian Moore's The Doctor's Wife (1976), though Tóibín's work is the better of the two: it is more imaginatively conceived, and Katherine Proctor is a more fully developed character than Moore's Sheila Reddan. But, as Moore does in all of his works, Tóibín too moves forward from a position of personal crisis to the unpredictable events that follow it. The South succeeds brilliantly and with it Tóibín has produced one of the best Irish novels I have read in a long time.

Julia O'Faolain (review date 4 September 1992)

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SOURCE: O'Faolain, Julia. “Keeping the Peace.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4666 (4 September 1992): 19.

[In the following review, O'Faolain discusses what The Heather Blazing reveals about Ireland and the Irish social conscience.]

The title [The Heather Blazing] comes from an old song. “A rebel hand set the heather blazing” has a lilt from the days when Irish reality was in alien hands and language could more easily subvert than confront it. Today, narratives coming from the Republic are cooler, and their prose is as likely to be notable for precision as for panache.

In his impressive first novel, The South, Colm Tóibín used both to quicken old themes: a repressive community, a woman painter's break for freedom, exile, memories of the Irish Troubles, and a great house burned down. His writing throughout was of an almost painful exactitude, and it is intriguing to find him now turning his limpid scrutiny on to less romantic and indeed anti-romantic material.

The Heather Blazing is about a High Court Judge, a careful man and a conformist, whom earlier writers might have been tempted to portray with the sneer of a Gogol but whom Tóibín handles with respect. Eamon Redmond's father and grandfather were active in the Troubles. All his life he supported Fianna Fáil, the party of de Valera and Haughey—both make cameo appearances—which in turn supported him. Honest by his lights, he represents an Establishment riven by a bisected consciousness whose brief is to keep the peace while paying obligatory tribute to the rebel nationalism of the old songs.

Such double-think inevitably devalues words, which may be why Eamon uses them sparingly. Tight-lipped even with his wife, we see him rule on cases involving a changing morality, taking a conservative line, then irritably dismissing the liberal velleities of his daughter and son. Deft flashbacks to a childhood as pious as that of Stephen Daedalus reveal what might have happened to a Stephen who stayed at home. Redmond has lost his faith. The sea is eroding the cliffs around his house. His emotions are blocked. The law is his bastion—but, as he is himself helping to shore it up, he must proceed like a man walking on a crumbling cliff.

Repression has reached inside him. Walking from his rooms to the court, he makes sure “not to look at anyone … not to offer greetings … or nod.” Keeping what the Jesuits used to call “custody of the eyes,” he is a married monk, a man who, in the desolation left by his wife's death, feels “a bond with his children for the first time in his life.”

Language, which served Daedalus, forsakes Redmond. Silence and cunning do not. Secretly, he “helped to shape government policy on security throughout the 1970s.” Leery of the nationalist feeling which wins his party votes, he warned then “never to allow public opinion to become inflamed,” and was “briefed … by British and French security experts who had worked in Israel and Algeria.” Later, he “did not want this to come to light, felt that it would be misunderstood.”

Eamon's is the generation which had to put the djinn of nationalist feeling back into the bottle—stoically, and while pretending to support it still. Their Ireland is a place of shrugs and winks. How could it be different? The romantic legacy is explosive; there is a telling little scene in which a historian, trying to pump Redmond about his own and his father's memories, is gently fobbed off. Afterwards, Redmond feels relief that his report which “would seem too cold and calculating, too pragmatic and cynical” has been destroyed. It “was history now; all the lessons had been learned; the state had been protected.”

For—and this is what gives the novel depth—his motives are patriotic. He is grappling with an unpromising reality, and doing his best for it. In his private life, meanwhile, painful scenes with his dying wife and father show his essential decency—which is the great quality of ordinary, as opposed to “romantic,” Ireland. Solidarity is what tight communities provide in exchange for the repression they inflict. Fiction glorifies outcasts, but societies consist of those within: Redmonds rather than Daedaluses. Though the sobriety with which Tóibín rightly presents his pillar of community makes this a less seductive novel than The South, it has more to tell about today's hidden Ireland.

Jeff Danziger (review date 17 March 1993)

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SOURCE: Danziger, Jeff. “Caught between Past and Present in an Irish Landscape.” Christian Science Monitor 85, no. 76 (17 March 1993): 13.

[In the following review, Danziger praises Tóibín's humor and skillful characterization in The Heather Blazing.]

Colm Tóibín's first novel, The South won the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Irish Literature Award—no small feat in a country with a strong literary heritage. His new novel, The Heather Blazing, gracefully depicts the beauty and loneliness of the Irish experience.

Eamon Redmond, an Irish judge, is trying to make sense of his life. His family was in the fight for Irish independence. They were members of the Fianna Fáil. The old men are described as the last of the old Fenians, the fierce mythological Irish warriors, the same name used by the later group who fought English rule.

But where have these battles brought Eamon? They don't seem to have given him any personal independence. Daily modern life crowds in upon him, and the politics of the day are more querulous and led by shallower leaders.

The Fianna Fáil party has made him a judge in the Four Courts of Dublin. But he's not the man his ancestors were. He's grown old, passive, introspective. His legal senses have dulled. Then he's given the chance to take a brave departure from the cramped way Irish law affects women.

A pregnant girl is fighting her school's decision to throw her out. Since the Irish Constitution defines the family as the most elevated institution in the land, Eamon could, he thinks, decide that this girl and her unborn child are indeed a family. Thus their rights would outweigh the school's. In the end, he takes the conventional way out, though he knows it to be unfair.

He escapes Dublin to the West of Ireland with his wife, Carmel, where he wanders the ageless seacoast cliffs. Even here the sea is cutting away below, and from time to time the old farm cottages are undercut and tumble down into the waves. Eamon is caught between the past and the present.

Facing death, Eamon's wife, who has been the most loyal of companions, tells him that she has to talk to him about the most basic question of marriage: After all their years together, she is unsure of his love. Because of his reserved, almost cold, character, she has never known him. He professes not to understand this and says he has always loved her. “I have had this conversation in my mind so many times. …” she replies. With just a few words, Tóibín says so much about their marriage.

Eamon hangs on to old bitter opinions until it's nearly too late. Finally, when almost all else is lost to heartbreak, he is redeemed, more or less, with the arrival of a grandchild. It's an unexpectedly gentle and rewarding resolution.

Tóibín's characters are sketched lightly but with care, like Irish conversation where the main point is arrived at by indirection. Things happen more slowly in Ireland. Tóibín shows remarkable dexterity in balancing the events of his characters' lives with the stories of their past.

Tóibín, who is rapidly emerging as a principal Irish writer, writes with a good deal of humor. The book laughs at itself and brings old Irish stories into the conversations.

For example, one character tells the story of an uneducated young man who was not allowed to succeed his father as the village gravedigger because he could neither read nor write.

He emigrated to America where he struck oil and got rich. But in his business dealings, the young man still had to rely on others to read his contracts.

“Here you are one of the richest men in American and you can't sign your name. Where would you be if you could read and write?” he was asked.

“A gravedigger in Ireland,” was the reply.

Mark Harman (review date 13 June 1993)

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SOURCE: Harman, Mark. “The Irish Struggle Within.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (13 June 1993): 2, 8.

[In the following positive review, Harman evaluates the strengths of The Heather Blazing, complimenting its clear prose and intense plot.]

We Irish are often said to be obsessed with the tangled history of our small island. Over the past few decades historians have been busy revising the simplistic version of Irish history that pitted ever virtuous Irish natives against evil foreign conquerors. That traditional scenario is still accepted in some Irish-American circles. The more differentiated or revisionist view of Irish history informs this splendid new novel by Colm Tóibín, a well-known journalist in Ireland and author of The South, winner of the Irish Times/Aer Lingus literary award.

In The Heather Blazing, Tóibín explores the impact of changing Irish attitudes toward history, religion and sexuality on the life of a successful but troubled judge. The main character, Eamon Redmond, has climbed from relatively humble origins in the small but historically significant town of Enniscorthy to a seat on the High Court in Dublin. His early life is characterized by traumatic losses: His mother dies when he is a baby, and he has to care for his devoutly Catholic father, who is felled by a stroke during—ironically enough—Mass. Deprived of his childhood, he learns “to wait, to be quiet, and to sit still.”

One could see in this story an Irish version of what psychoanalyst Alice Miller calls the drama of the gifted child. Having endured two great shocks in the course of his childhood, Redmond finds it safer to avoid the risk of emotional intimacy with others by burying himself in his legal work. In the process, however, he loses touch with his true self.

This theme might seem like old hat. After all, there are countless novels about emotionally constipated older males. Tóibín, however, has hit on a simple but effective device that greatly increases the emotional impact of his tale: In alternating chapters he switches back and forth between the judge's youth in the 1940s and scenes from his life in present-day Ireland. Since the narrator refrains from any overt commentary, it is up to us to figure out the relationship between the two phases of Redmond's life. We are the ones who must fill in the blanks left by the hero, who for all his intelligence, is lacking in self-insight. This increases our empathy for Redmond, who isn't an immediately likable sort.

In the chapters dealing with his life as an older man, we learn that his private life is by no means as successful as his legal career. He keeps his wife, Carmel, and two grown children at arms's length. Although he genuinely cares about Carmel, he is incapable of expressing his feelings. He is secretive about his own past and a bad listener too, since he fails to register basic facts about her history. He has no idea, for instance, that she came from an unhappy home. Carmel doesn't know much about him either: “You've always been so distant, so far away from everybody. … I watch you sometimes and wonder if you will ever let any of us know you.”

Redmond's professional work as a judge is marked by similar contradictions. He has long since ceased to believe in the religious and patriotic pieties of his childhood. Yet he is incapable of striking out for new moral ground. A case involving a pregnant schoolgirl hits close to home: His own daughter is a single mother. For a moment he considers issuing a ground-breaking ruling that would radically reinterpret a few clauses in the sectarian Irish constitution, originally introduced by his namesake Eamon de Valera in 1937. However, he rejects this possibility on the grounds that he would have to be an entirely different person to issue such a novel ruling.

Tóibín widens the resonance of this fictional psychobiography by linking the main character to the ambivalent legacy of Irish nationalism. The very title of the novel evokes the sectarian streak that has dogged Irish Republicanism. Taken from a rebel ballad, the image of the blazing heather refers to the insurrection by the United Irishmen in 1798, which began with idealistic speeches in Belfast about the need to unite Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter but subsequently degenerated into sectarian violence in Wexford, the setting of much of the novel. To this day Irish Republicanism has remained tinged with a similar brand of sectarianism.

The hero, however, is unwilling to tackle the tainted legacy of Irish nationalism in his own family. Even his father, a gentle teacher and local intellectual, was implicated in the burning down of mansions owned by Protestants during the struggle for Irish independence, Tóibín didn't invent this episode: 192 such houses were destroyed in Ireland in the 1921-23 period. In the novel the hero is clearly embarrassed by these dubiously patriotic deeds. So when a historian—no doubt a revisionist—starts grilling him about his family, he is careful not to mention that his father and uncle were involved in those activities.

This is on the whole an artfully constructed novel, full of unobtrusive foreshadowing and subtle allusions. Little is there by accident, even the seemingly inconsequential reference to a novel by the Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell, which Redmond stumbles across in his uncle's house. It's only much later on that we come to realize that the book, which is marked “Ex Libris Lord Carew,” was taken as a trophy from one of the torched Protestant mansions.

The extensive flashbacks to Redmond's past, however, which give us a welcome peek into the inner life of this tight-lipped hero, aren't always entirely convincing. For one thing, Redmond is such a haunted figure that it's hard to imagine him recalling his past with the lucidity that Tóibín attributes to him in the flashbacks.

In the closing pages of the novel Redmond experiences an emotional renewal of sorts. This is heralded, appropriately enough in a novel that has been so attentive to the vagaries of the Irish weather, by his joy at seeing a sudden break in the clouds:

He recognized the exhilaration: it came each day unless there was rain. It came, he thought, from walking a long distance and then turning towards the light, or witnessing a sudden brightness in the sky. He walked faster now, breathing in the rich sea air. He sat down and took out his sandwiches and flask again, but kept his eye on the sea as much as possible. It was so still now, grey-blue and glassy.

The hero's sharp eye for the physical world—people are another matter again!—lends the novel an engagingly crisp texture. That effect is accentuated by the steady beat of the prose, which owes something to Hemingway.

Tóibín tells this moving tale in such a deceptively straightforward manner that it would be easy to mistake The Heather Blazing for a good read and nothing more than that. Yet the more one thinks about this clear-headed yet intense book, the stronger the impression it leaves.

Peter Stanford (review date 11 November 1994)

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SOURCE: Stanford, Peter. “Madonna Fan Steals Show.” New Statesman & Society 123, no. 4210 (11 November 1994): 36-7.

[In the following excerpt, Stanford commends Tóibín's ability to present a personal, though critically detached view of the Catholic Church in The Sign of the Cross.]

For an unashamedly personal view of the Catholic Church, Colm Toibin's The Sign of the Cross cannot be bettered. Many authors have recorded a pilgrimage across Catholic Europe in search of the soul of the church, that elusive something behind papal pomp and dwindling mass-going statistics. But Colm Toibin is in another class altogether.

His prose is never anything less than a joy: informal, relaxed, uncluttered by detail but redolent with meaning. His account of his own boyhood in Catholic Ireland, of his slow drift away from the official church, of his remaining emotional attachment to Catholicism, will ring many bells. From his vantage point as a well-informed but semi-detached observer, Toibin is able to move beyond the rows that often disguise Catholicism's true significance. His visit, for instance, to Jasna Gora, the shrine in Poland, combines a reverence for the mystery and the rituals of the papal visit he witnessed there with an eye for the more absurd details. “This was a religion I only half recognised,” he comments. “There was something about the singing, the colours and the beauty of the words which reminded me of strange, hard-won moments of pure contentment I had experienced in the church as a child.”

But then he is moving on to describe an extraordinary press conference called by the monks of Jasna Gora to inform a waiting world that Danuta Walesa, wife of the Polish president, had not slept the night within their walls and hence broken their centuries-old tradition as an all-male club. And later:

I stood looking down into one of the cloisters as the 12 cardinals and over 200 bishops … were disrobed of their splendour by a swarm of nuns. A few others gathered by me to watch. A prelate, fresh from the altar, would stand with his arms in the air while two nuns removed his richly coloured vestments and carried them to a long clothes-rack to hang up, leaving the prince of the church with his hair tousled, wearing only black.

After such a passage, details of the debate over women's role in the Church are unnecessary. Questions of birth control likewise fade into insignificance as Toibin probes some of the questions that John Paul is also tackling. But where the Pontiff is bullying, insensitive and seemingly blind to what goes on around him, Toibin sees in otherwise insignificant incidents a broader human struggle to understand. The contrast could not be greater. As Toibin himself commented at the (commendably low-key) launch of his book, he felt as if he had published the memoirs of a concentration camp survivor in the week that Mein Kampf came out.

Malise Ruthven (review date 18 November 1994)

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SOURCE: Ruthven, Malise. “The Virgin Speaks Only the Purest Croatian.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4781 (18 November 1994): 27.

[In the following review, Ruthven criticizes Tóibín's prose style in The Sign of the Cross, commenting that his language is sometimes too simplistic for his subject matter.]

At Vinegar Hill outside Enniscorthy, the Wexford rebels of 1798 made their last stand against the English—and lost. Colm Tóibín could see Vinegar Hill from his childhood home. Like every other Irish child, he had been told how “the English poured boiling tar on the scalps of the Irish and when the tar dried they peeled it off, whereas our side, the peasant Catholic Irish, had been noble and brave.” The names of the towns and villages surrounding Enniscorthy were canonized in the history books as places where battles had been fought or atrocities committed. One place that was never mentioned, however, was Scullabogue where the rebels had herded a large number of Protestants, men, women and children, into a barn and set fire to it. “Its memory was erased from what a Catholic child should know about 1798. It was a complication in our glorious past.”

In The Sign of the Cross, Tóibín sets out to explore the faith he lost when he grew up. The conflation of religious allegiance with nationalism, so rife in Eastern Europe at present, is an important part of his agenda. In Poland, he finds a triumphant Catholicism represented by the Carmelite order laying claim to Auschwitz “as though the whole complex were a Catholic institution,” completely undermining its purpose as a memorial to the victims. He visits the brave new world of post-Christian Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi, the media magnate Prime Minister who owns three television stations, has assumed a godlike status. He experiences the beauty of holiness in Germany, where the “overwhelming harmonies” of Bach's St John Passion are contrasted with the soaring buttresses of Regensburg Cathedral (“Protestants one, Catholics nil”). He attends the Easter parades in Seville, and is surprised to find Communist and socialist supporters taking part. In Ukraine, he visits Orthodox churches; in Lithuania, he discovers affinities with Ireland (potatoes and Catholicism). He visits Slovakia, where Catholicism defines identity, and Slovenia, where a more secular understanding of nationality prevails. The pace is dizzying, and in the hands of a less gifted writer the sheer ambition of this itinerary would pall.

The best chapters are those which are not merely descriptive but engage the reader in questions of belief. In the Balkans, Tóibín joins the pilgrims who brave the Bosnian war to make their way to Medjugorje. Although it is situated in western Herzegovina, Medjugorje's citizens consider the town to be part of Croatia, and the Virgin, who has been appearing regularly to a select group of young people, speaks only the purest Croatian. Tóibín attends a session with one of the visionaries, Ivan, whose rather suspect sun-tan and flashy clothes mark him out as an entertainer or television presenter rather than “a peasant touched by the shock of an apparition.” The Virgin's advice, conveyed by Ivan in answer to pilgrims' questions, is predictable, orthodox and bland to the point of banality:

He talked about the problem of drugs and alcohol and mass media and moral issues and the influence of these on young people. He spoke about the need for parents to spend time with their children, and to teach them to pray. At the age of four, he said, you could begin with three “Our Fathers” and one “Hail Mary,” at five increase this to four “Our Fathers,” at six to seven “Our Fathers,” at seven to a whole Rosary.

The Virgin is a “little bit sad” on Good Fridays, and on feast days she appears in gold. At Christmas she has little Jesus on her lap, and, yes, there are angels with sparkling wings.

At Jasna Gora, Tóibín is impressed by the way Pope John Paul II sits for six hours in front of the arc lights and television cameras, apparently oblivious to them and the crowd, “as if he was alone in prayer and contemplation.” After the Gospel reading, the Pope raises the Bible high in his hands. Tóibín the traveller is enraptured: “If you knew nothing about this religion, it would seem oddly attractive, wonderfully speculative, the rituals exotic, appearing to place beauty and spectacle—the colours, the poetry, the music, the setting—above all else.” But Tóibín the Irishman knows better. At the summit of Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain in Co Mayo, he laments the passing of Ireland's native Christianity, which grew organically out of the druidic soil until the late twelfth century when it was Romanized by religious orders introduced from Europe. It was “the first and most significant invasion of Ireland, making the subsequent Norman and English invasions easier.”

Tóibín's quiet scepticism is informed throughout by a sense of the Irish Church's distinctiveness, the sectarian corner into which it painted itself through centuries of conflict with England and Protestantism. In a remarkable chapter of autobiography, which provides the book with its title, he describes a kind of exorcism by group psychotherapy through which he comes to terms with the trauma occasioned by the death of his father in childhood. It is also a kind of religious conversion. For Tóibín, psychotherapy, the secular religion, has the power of absolution and healing which the Catholic Church of today so manifestly lacks. The same experience of loss and bereavement was plundered in his wonderfully restrained yet moving novel, The Heather Blazing (1992). In The Sign of the Cross, it provides a ballast of private meaning to balance what would otherwise have been a bewildering tourist's gallop through European cities, festivals and shrines.

The writing is economical and deceptively plain, as cunningly artless as an Eric Rohmer film. But, at times, the subjects he touches on cry out for a weightier, more intellectually challenging approach. In the chapter on England, he recounts a meeting with Ann Widdecombe who left the Anglican Church for Rome on the issue of women priests. The High Tory lady used to the orderly queues formed by Anglicans as they line up to receive the host, has difficulties—to put it mildly—with the “shuffling. … during the collection and then people criss-crossing and falling over each other during communion.” This is revealing so far as it goes, but the chapter lacks any sense of the religious dimensions of English Catholicism, the faith of Manning and Newman, despite some illuminating remarks on English Catholic identity by Terry Eagleton and a predictably conservative apologia from Piers Paul Read. There are few surprises in this book, few illuminating encounters or meetings with remarkable men or women. It is less an exploration than a panorama, a series of postcards rich in surface decoration but short on perspective or quirkishness. Tóibín's instinct for the obvious sometimes defeats his purpose. Religious faith is by definition elusive and lurks in unexpected places.

Edward T. Wheeler (review date 3 November 1995)

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SOURCE: Wheeler, Edward T. “An Unhappy Traveler.” Commonweal 122, no. 19 (3 November 1995): 20-1.

[In the following review, Wheeler offers a generally negative assessment of The Sign of the Cross, noting that Tóibín seems to grow weary of his subject.]

The Sign of the Cross is part story of a pilgrimage, part travel book which offers to take us in the company of its author on “Travels through Catholic Europe.” We go with Colm Tóibín, the forty-year-old Irish novelist, critic, and journalist, to many places: to Lourdes to bathe in the waters, to Seville to see the Palm Sunday procession, to Vilnius to try to understand the Lithuanian church, and, with dangers of war as backdrop, to Medjugorje in Croatia to a shrine of the Virgin. With the author we interview believers, converts, professors of literature, visionaries, and politicians; and with Tóibín, we “cheat” in various ways on peregrination to Saint Jacques at Compostela. There are some remarkable moments: his characterization of the pope's effect upon the crowds at the monastery of the Black Madonna (Jasna Gora); the careful exegesis of his response to the Bach Saint John Passion sung in a Regensberg chapel; an interview with an Austrian theologian. And there is a topicality to it all, especially the travels through the former Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

However, in a book about so many different places the recourses the writer adopts run the risk of becoming formulaic—a contact in a foreign place, an interview, rambling about the city, going to a service during Holy Week, exploring the connections between Catholicism and politics, and alternating between lapses into mysteries of the soul and lapses back into lapsed Catholicism. Tóibín also does a great deal of unhappy late-night drinking in bars. In fact, he seems to be very unhappy with much of what he does. There is a Hemingway-like toughness to the narration and much reporting of dialogue without comment. And with that (pace Hemingway), a sort of gracelessness under pressure of grace which is the worrying tone of the book.

If a Catholic who has lapsed from his faith sets out on a pilgrimage to look at “Catholic Europe,” what, we may ask, is he likely to find? Not the Heavenly Jerusalem in any of its manifestations. It's fair to hazard that he will discover estrangement from the faithful. We can infer that the motive which drives the pilgrim has got something to do with strong childhood experiences in the church, so we can also guess that the traveler will find his past self in memory, also estranged. And the third likelihood is that he will find others like him, strangers in lands of the spirit which they once called home. He will also find himself back where he started; very much an inhabitant of the inns and taverns of this world.

Another question comes to mind: why would we want to follow him? The Sign of the Cross is not a conversion story, nor is it a wrestling with theological issues. Colm Tóibín can claim attention as an observer of character and place. His audience appears to be those who lived deeply Catholic childhoods which were crossed by Vatican II and by coming of age. Adulthood for them meant growing out of faith. Tóibín is offering them witness: he wants to record histories, personal and national, of distinctly Catholic communities like that of his own Enniscorthy in Ireland. In doing so he is finding himself, through similarity and through difference. The reader might find a similar opportunity for self-discovery, especially those of us who like the author are unhappily lapsed. There is one point where Tóibín seems to center on the purpose of his book: he questions Jim McCormack, a middle-aged Glasgow University student, as to why, astonishingly, there is but one Catholic Scottish novelist. In the course of the conversation, the rich details of life in a minority Catholic community emerge. Tóibín remarks: “I don't remember if I said that there were at least two or three novels in what he had told me, and more, perhaps, in what he had left out, and that his country, despite itself, needs Catholic novelists, especially lapsed ones.”

The Sign of the Cross tries in nonfiction form to answer that need, for Scotland and for all the many places Tóibín visits. Experiences defined by Catholicism should be made public. Consider the minute particulars; don't let the details slip; record what is unique and share it as such.

Tóibín's two novels, I must admit, promised a great deal. The South and The Heather Blazing are powerful tales which work on many levels but are particularly successful in evoking worlds the narrator is too young to know. They are acts of a strong imagination and I recommend them highly. Whatever happened when the reporter replaced the novelist, I am not sure, but some of The Sign of the Cross suffers from spareness that borders on weariness. The book is not slackly written; the writer has a job to do and gets it done. He has filled out his form, kept his contract to meet and discuss issues with whomever his contacts in Catholic Europe might be, but as the narrator indicates, often he would very much like to cheat, finish early, and get home.

There is a second book framing the travel book, unsettling as much of the latter is subdued. It marks a pilgrimage into the past to recognize suppressed grief. Sorrow over his father's death lies buried with Tóibín's memories of the funeral rites. The central chapter in which he records this quest gives the collection its name; it is anticipated in the first chapter and in a sense is bidden farewell in the last. The synecdoche involved is deliberate and shows something of the novelist's craft: the journey within which mimics the journey without, desire for reconciliation with the earthly father recalls the need for unity with the heavenly father. In the moment of crisis presided over by a priestly psychiatrist, Tóibín finds a sort of healing in dredging up a sign, the sign of the cross. Ambiguously but not transcendentally, the cross that is the mark of his religion marks also his family heritage and identity. The last chapter, “The End of Time,” tells us that the profound passions and allegiances which made him what he is exist no more; what was is the stuff of novels. The Great Book of Life is literature. And his unhappy message is that indeed.

Paul Elie (review date 11 December 1995)

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SOURCE: Elie, Paul. “Smells and Bells.” New Republic, no. 4221 (11 December 1995): 39-41.

[In the following review, Elie argues that Tóibín fails to bridge his personal religious experience with his critical observations in The Sign of the Cross, resulting in “an account of strangers scarcely met, a pilgrimage barely begun.”]

The lapsed Catholic is “as boring a figure as the stage Irishman, and sometimes the same figure,” Anthony Burgess declared in his memoirs.

What makes him a bore is his lachrymosity, especially in drink, about being a bad son who has struck his mother and dare not go home. There is also the matter, also in his cups, of claiming to belong to an international club to which he will not pay his subscription (this, in the form of obligatory communion, falls due every Easter).

Yet the lapsed Catholic's claim that he still belongs to the Church, Burgess went on,

is not entirely false; indeed, it does not go far enough. For Catholicism is, in a paradox, a bigger thing than the faith. It is a kind of supranationality that makes one despise small patriotisms.

Burgess was himself a lapsed Catholic of Irish extraction, and the faint note of contempt he struck about his own kind was rare. For another trait common to lapsed Catholics is the way each tells his or her story as a personal triumph, a victory against great odds, even at a time when it seems that more Catholics lose their faith than keep it. The tropes are as worn smooth as the feet of a plaster Jesus in an old parish church. The Church is communal, often suffocatingly so. Apostasy is a breaking away from the group. The lapsed Catholic falls upward, and he falls alone.

The Irish writer Colm Tóibín conforms to the type. Born in 1955 in Enniscorthy, a small Irish town, and the author of two travel books and two novels, he too is a lapsed Catholic, and the traits identified by Burgess are his guiding lights in The Sign of the Cross, an account of his travels to manifestly Catholic places across Europe. There is drink, lots of it. There are Tóibín's efforts to make his Easter duty in his own fashion by visiting sites of pilgrimage during Holy Week. And there is his sense that he remains a member of the Catholic “supranationality,” and so can regard his travels as encounters with those of his Catholic relations, so to speak, who persist in believing. As foreigners, they are strangers to him. As Catholics, they are kin. As believers they are (depending on his mood) either a mystery or a people whose small patriotisms offend his cosmopolitan sensibility. His task in the book is to make sense of all this. It isn't easy.

After a friend announced that he had lost his faith, Tóibín realized that he had never had faith at all. He was 14. “I had always known that the interest all around me in security, money, power and status was greater than any love of God or belief in his mercy,” he writes. “Religion was consolation, like listening to music after a long day's work; it was pure theatre, it was a way of holding people together.” He followed the lapsed Catholic's familiar course through literary modernism, went to university (“I knew no one who believed”), then left Ireland for Barcelona. “I did not think about Catholicism again for some years,” he tells us. “It did not cost me a thought.”

He must be exaggerating, you think; then again, maybe not. When Tóibín did think about Catholicism again, in his own account, it was as a subject for a piece. He was in Dublin, the pope was coming, he needed work. A year later he returned to Barcelona by way of Lourdes—due to the flow of Irish pilgrims, the fare was good—and the curiosity he felt there evidently led him to write the present book. During his boyhood his relatives had made the trip to Lourdes, and the souvenirs they brought back—“large plastic bottles of Lourdes water with shoulder straps, or smaller bottles in the shape of Our Lady of Lourdes with a blue screw-cap top”—were his “first intimations of the world outside Ireland.” Here he is not just caressing the not-so-divine details of Catholic kitsch; he is announcing his themes. His pilgrimages will be trips to “the real Europe,” and reckonings with his Catholic past, such as it is.

A series of travels to places where Catholicism is still seen as “an aspect of the rich fabric of things”: it is a good idea for a book, and one with a long pedigree among Catholic writers, from the peregrinations of Greene and Waugh to Richard Rodriguez's superb account of his visits to the California missions in Days of Obligation. Tóibín's itinerary is impressive: he visited Poland (including Auschwitz), Seville and Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Estonia, Lithuania, Croatia, Bavaria, Slovenia, Slovakia, Italy, and Catholic Glasgow, and sojourned among Irish and English Catholics as well. He takes the Granta approach. He arrives in a country and wanders and looks and listens, scrupulously honoring his own impressions. He meets a local expert, and their conversations allow him to fold in background material and the best bits from books on the region. He trails the faithful on their formal pilgrimages—the climb up Croagh Patrick in Ireland, the pilgrimage of St. James in Spain, the trip to the site of the Medjugorje visitations in Croatia. From all this he aims to bring out the religious dimensions of conflicts that have made headlines in the West.

There is also the matter of Tóibín's own negotiation with Catholicism. From time to time he rubs his lapsarian's faith against the living faith of the Catholics around him, to see whether sparks fly. As he has confessed, however, even when he had faith it was vague and grudging, all atmosphere and no content, and his journalistic reckonings with religion have a similar character. At their best they are efforts to fill an empty vessel, to give depth and weight to his own sense of the faith whose hold on him was once as strong culturally as it was weak theologically. At worst, they are sneering asides. When he was a boy, Tóibín's Catholicism consisted of watching Catholics stick out their tongues for the communion wafer; now he is a man, and he is free to stand aside and stick his tongue out at them.

The book's opening pages are its strongest. On a return trip to Lourdes, Tóibín decided to “take the waters” (the baths that are believed to cure the sick through the Virgin Mary's intercession) and his account is a model of its kind—shapely and entertaining, with just the right balance struck between reportage and personal experience, reflection and low comedy. As he stood in line, Tóibín wondered if bathing suits would be provided. Surely the pilgrims weren't expected to wade in naked—it was a Catholic shrine, after all. Told to strip to his underwear, he panicked: “I wondered if I was wearing underpants, and when I realised that I was, I panicked once more, wondering if they were clean.” Finally he dropped his drawers, and a handler wrapped a towel around him and held him down in the waters. As he came up, he was shaking—from the cold, and from the elemental nature of the act: he had “felt something of the power of the place, the amount of hope and spirit which had been let loose within these walls over the years.” Lost in thought, he put his underwear back on with the fly in the rear. The handler kindly interceded. “He … suggested that I come back and do it right,” Tóibín recalls. “There was all the time in the world, he said,” and then held up the towel as a shield while Tóibín put on his pants the right way around. It is a funny, touching episode, and even the false note at the end (“Outside, the light seemed blindingly sharp and intense”) doesn't spoil its effect.

Tóibín's record of his stay in Poland, by contrast, is a jumble of impressions, and in his effort to convey them to the reader he abandons his gift for precise, lyrical writing in favor of truculent generalizations and descriptive shorthand. We can't quite see what he saw, but we are asked to think what he saw, but we are asked to think what he thought. (Wisely, he does not try to be clever at Auschwitz, and leaves his shifty subjectivity behind.) In Krakow, the young Catholics waiting to make their confession “were so well-behaved, so mild and obedient-looking, I wondered what sins they had committed”; in the Catholic church in Danzig, “the faces again were serious and intent; no one looked around, or allowed themselves to be distracted.” When Tóibín emerged from the church, he was dismayed to find the commercial district shut down for Easter, and had no choice but to go to the café in the railway station (it was “dreary and underlit”). He was relieved when, some hours later, his train reached Berlin: there, going to “the trendy places” with a friend, “I could relax, feel at home.” The travel writer is tired of strange places and people who aren't like him, and he has many stages left on his pilgrimage.

Tóibín's weariness of what he calls “the twilit world of half-medieval Catholicism” and the people who inhabit it comes to dominate The Sign of the Cross, but this has less to do with their Catholicism than with his own. Perhaps he was simply overwhelmed by the scope of his project. Who wouldn't be? A dozen countries, each with its own mix of religion, culture, and politics, often a thousand years in the making; the barriers of language, and the limitations of brief visits; and the flaw in the working method which supposes that other cultures can be adequately understood through their Palm Sunday processions or Guy Fawkes' night revelries. (Only a foolhardy journalist would base an analysis of Italian-American Catholics in New York on a visit to the San Gennaro festival.)

Given all this, it is remarkable how much background material Tóibín does manage to bring into the book. His chapters on the formerly communist countries are thick with the details of ground-level religion and politics, which he introduces through transcriptions of his talks with local leaders and intellectuals. In Vilnius, a monsignor and labor-camp veteran explained to him why Catholicism atrophied under Communism in Lithuania while it thrived in Poland, even though both were technically parts of the Polish church. (Paradoxically, the two peoples were brought together in fondness for the pope when the Vatican recognized Lithuania as an independent diocese in 1992.) In Croatia, an American Franciscan in residence near the shrine of Medjugorje derided the Serbian Orthodox Church as “a store-front religion,” but gently mocked his coreligionists as well: “Only Croatian Catholics would live on this rockpile,” he told Tóibín with a smile. In Bratislava, Juraj Mihalik, a former deputy prime minister of Czechoslovakia, told why he would rather make pottery than serve as Slovak ambassador to the United States.

When he is left to his own devices, Tóibín's accounts of his travels are listless and enervated. Here and there he comes up with passages of sharp, telling observation; but more often his eye for the particular is trained on the petty details of his own itinerary. The trains are slow, the rooms shabby, the food unsatisfying. His hangover is “a new sort of hangover. I did not have a headache, or an urge to get sick. I felt, instead, that I had been run over by a train.” In Seville, he stands at the feast-day processions “dreaming of an L-shaped bar in the heart of the old quarter to which I had developed a special devotion.” Whether in Galacia or Bratislava or Medjugorje, he is desperate to find a clean, well-lighted place where the beer is good and the spirits are high and the patrons are people like himself. He seeks the exotic, but he craves the familiar.

In the nearly 300 pages of Tóibín's book there is no emerging story, and little deepening of his understanding of Catholicism or the European cultures that it has shaped. He is honest, though, about the limitations of his inquiries. In the next-to-last chapter, having attended Easter Mass at St. Peter's Basilica, he confesses his disappointment over the plainness of the liturgy—it was as plain as it had been in Ireland in the 1960s. He had expected the Roman pomp and splendor “to take me somewhere I had not been before, to give me a sense of what it is like to be at the centre of things. Instead, it had taken me home, and made home seem like the centre of things.” He wonders whether that was the point. “Maybe that was important and instructive,” he writes. “I did not know.”

His candor is appealing, but it is an unsatisfying conclusion to a book about places that are distinctive (in his own set-up) because Catholicism is seen and felt to be vital there. While Tóibín is intrigued by the expressions of Catholicism he finds abroad, he is less than curious about what is actually being expressed. For its adherents, the Catholic faith is a way of understanding the world, and what it proposes in some way governs how they act, whether in festal processions or civil wars; but Tóibín never really examines “Catholic Europe” at the level of belief, never presses beyond what he sees and hears to explore the ideas and the symbols beneath.

His own lapsed Catholicism seems to be the reason why. When Anthony Burgess wrote of the lapsed Catholic's habit of despising “small patriotisms,” he was referring to the way the Catholic of his temperament (and, it may be said, of his generation) had been trained in a set of propositions about the world which, even after he had lapsed, led him to see Anglicanism or positivism or liberalism as full of holes, and to find them unsatisfactory. For a lapsed Catholic of Tóibín's temperament (and of his generation), Catholicism is mainly smells and bells, a matter of context rather than content; it is easily shaken off, and easily sentimentalized later on. Tóibín has the manner of a war correspondent, but he is writing about a war that (in his own soul at least) was won—or lost—long ago. Once he found Catholicism wanting, so now he finds it unworthy of full penetration.

What is most distinctive about the Catholics whom Tóibín meets abroad, perhaps, is that they regard Catholicism as transcultural, a bearer of normative truths. Yet it is precisely the transcultural aspect of Catholicism that keeps Tóibín from seeing this. His background and his sense that he remains a member of the Catholic “supranationality” lead him to take faith for granted and to focus on its manifestations. One can't imagine him writing about the religions of Asia, say, without exploring doctrine as well as spectacle; because Catholicism is still his in some way, however, he feels free to do what he likes with it. But Catholicism, even as it sponsors the individual's impulse to order and judge the world, is notoriously resistant to the lone writer's desire to subjugate it for his own purposes—and that, in better books than this one, is the source of dramatic tension. Tóibín isn't dead to this tension; he just doesn't care enough to summon it up.

There is a point in The Sign of the Cross when Tóibín does reckon viscerally with his childhood Catholicism and its claim upon him as an adult. In the chapter that gives the book its title, Tóibín tells of the time he underwent a group therapy session led by a Jungian friend. The group assembled in a dark church, and over two days, aided by fast breathing exercises and spontaneous painting—and an injection of the drug ketamine—Tóibín was transported to the time after his father's death, when he was 12. “I felt the shock and the powerlessness and the grief; fierce, absolute things,” he writes; and suddenly he found himself compelled to make the sign of the cross over his vision of his father's dead body. “And then I did it. I made the sign of the cross in the air, over and over. I had no choice.”

Twenty centuries of European Catholicism are found wanting in favor of that? It is a loopy, moving episode, but its effect is to call attention to the way Tóibín hasn't managed to connect his own experience of religion with those of his subjects. Religious writers have struggled in every age to reconcile the experience of the divine with its expression, and Tóibín's failure to do so is hardly unique; even so, this book feels like a lost opportunity, an account of strangers scarcely met, a pilgrimage barely begun.

Michael Kerrigan (review date 13 September 1996)

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SOURCE: Kerrigan, Michael. “In the World of Men.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4876 (13 September 1996): 25.

[In the following review, Kerrigan asserts that Tóibín fails to fully connect the personal and public stories in The Story of the Night.]

The most striking moment in Colm Tóibín's new novel [The Story of the Night] occurs only a few pages in, when the narrator-protagonist, Richard Garay, recollects a homosexual encounter in the Bũenos Aires of the Generals. Hearing the loud yet unaccountable sound of “car engines revving over and over,” he asks his partner of the hour what the noise is. “He brought me to the window to show me the police station opposite and the cars outside, driverless, but still revving. They need power, he said, but I still did not understand. They need extra power for the cattle prods, he said.” As disturbing as the fact itself is Garay's failure to respond: “I did not pay much attention to what he said, and I remember the pleasure of standing at the window with him, my hands running down his back, more than anything else.”

The anecdote embodies what is most memorable in Tóibín's tale of two cities: the sense of the “ghost city, a shadowy version of our own,” which emerges at night, when the prosperous daytime streets of a modern, aspirational capital have emptied to become a playground for society's most deniable elements. Secrecy—and the shame of secret complicity—bring about this alliance of the torturer and the lover. Despite its title, The Story of the Night evokes a world far removed from the gentle Athenian wood in which Shakespeare's fairies have traditionally dallied. Rather, it recalls that frightening forest in which the speaker of Neruda's poem “Lone Gentleman” found himself besieged by heavy breathing, hemmed in by the near-tangible tension of a society dedicated to the feverish yet furtive pursuit of sexual gratification. Richard and his night-time city suggest the same alienation, the same melancholy, monotonous pursuit of a release which is somehow never a connection. “There is no society here,” he says: “just a terrible loneliness which bears down on us all.”

Half-English, half-Argentinian, Richard Garay embodies a cultural duality in himself, though the Englishness represented by his mother, a lost, lonely widow (and an unforgettable character) left stranded on an uncongenial foreign shore by the death of her Argentinian husband, is the half he most loves to hate. There is a hint of Miss Havisham about his mother's bitter retrospection and about the dusty, decaying flat she will bequeath to her son—who then leaves it unchanged, a gloomy memorial to his own inability to break free of an unhelpful inheritance. Richard's other duality is of course sexual, and he does tend to see his homosexuality in these doubling, Tiresian terms; as a teenager he puts on his mother's mantilla so as to act out Jackie Kennedy, identifying with the widow's condition and imagining the wife's. Yet he also enjoys dressing up as a man. Under the careful tutelage of Donald and Susan Ford, a chillingly sinister American couple attached to something called the “Institute for Economic Development,” the effete intellectual acquires the suits and the masculine manner that enable him, as translator and “consultant” to the various foreign economic advisers and businessmen who have come to carve up his country, to move with confidence in a world of men.

An interesting character in a dramatic situation, then, yet this is a novel which seems to fall apart even as its plot thickens, its evasions coming to match its protagonist's own. The disappeared disappear; having once offered their implicit warning of the consequences of such self-absorption as his, the Chilean refugees Garay meets early on during a Spanish holiday drop out of the action completely; even the Fords—so full to begin with of Mephistophilean potential—seem to lose the novelist's interest, dwindling into a standard suburban unhappy marriage. Garay himself becomes a problem. His bleak yet compelling narrating voice is initially the novel's most important asset, its easy frankness and fluency a welcome change after the faintly dandified austerity of Tóibín's earlier fiction. As a character, however, he becomes a source of confusion, thanks to his peculiar progression from knowingness to naivety, and the reader's mounting conviction that, though poetic punishment is coming to him, it isn't going to fit the crime. Less schematic than The Heather Blazing (1992), The Story of the Night also lacks the earlier novel's coherence—procrustean as it may have been. Tóibín's writing, a well-tuned engine, roars gloriously in places, yet the charge of the opening section is never recaptured; nor, while the matter of 1970s Argentina certainly makes for an impressive set of noises off, does the novel ultimately engage any more seriously than its protagonist does with the implications of this “background.”

The bogeymen of the Generals' state and the US spooks who assisted behind the scenes were real and dangerous enough; here, however, as events unfold, and homosexuality itself is revealed as the novel's central, even exclusive, theme, it becomes increasingly difficult for the reader to see in the spectres of state repression anything other than the tricks of strong imagination, giving a local habitation and a name to some of the airier anxieties of the gay condition. It would be unjust to accuse Tóibín of trivializing the outrages of state terror. A nation like Argentina and an individual each have their stories, and each is worth telling. Yet in bringing together public and personal histories without ever satisfactorily delineating their mutual relationship, The Story of the Night raises uncomfortable questions without any apparent attempt to resolve them. In the end, indeed, it is the individual's story that loses out, so dwarfed is this novel's protagonist by the vast national stage on which he is presented.

Victoria Radin (review date 20 September 1996)

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SOURCE: Radin, Victoria. “The Secret Agent.” New Statesman 125, no. 4301 (20 September 1996): 48.

[In the following review, Radin compliments the prose in The Story of the Night, but criticizes Tóibín for patronizing his readers while discussing the subject of AIDS.]

Colm Toíbín is a writer's writer: fastidious, unshowy and capable of thrillingly accurate perceptions. His view of life is stoically tragic—an unfashionable stance in this age of grievances—and his range is wide. He can have as protagonist a young Irish woman who reinvents herself in the early years of Franco's Spain; Toíbín stays by her side, entirely plausibly, until her final years as a respected painter living on the bounty of the son she deserted. That was, astonishingly, Toíbín's first novel, The South.

In his second, The Heather Blazing, Toíbín anatomises an Irish judge whose harsh decisions may be accounted for by his disjointed childhood. The judge's wife is lovingly animated, for Toíbín is good with female characters.

He is also a wholly reliable guide to childhood, which is recalled with all the original pain by the adult. Childhood is that period when none of us has much of a map, or control; when the lingua franca isn't quite our own; when we are all outsiders. It is this terrain, hidden within the outsider-adult, that fascinates Toíbín.

“It has to do with how at a certain age I began to see the world as separate from myself, I began to feel I had nothing to do with anything around me,” recalls the narrator of The Story of the Night with typical lack of self-pity. In this novel Toíbín develops the story of the outsider (who here shades into outlaw) most explicitly.

Richard/Riccardo is the son of an English mother and an Argentinian father. Tall, blond and English-looking, he attends an English school in Buenos Aires and hears about Queen Elizabeth in the kitchen, slipping uneasily between national identities, “so that I never had to be a fully formed person.” We follow him through the shamed secretiveness of the time of the Generals and of the Disappeared, the united Argentina of the Falklands War, and the apparent progress of the postwar period.

The father dies when Richard is 12: the early death of a parent and the child's refusal to grieve is a familiar Toíbín theme. Rejected by the rich Argentinian in-laws, his mother drags Richard off to the farm where her sister lives as the wife of a field worker. This interlude—where Richard undergoes the first sexual experiences that will become a template for the adult ones—is also richly comic. The mother abruptly terminates it when it is suggested that she work as a servant for the estate owner. Back in Buenos Aires she finds more suitable employment as a reservations clerk with the Home Counties Hotel. The mother is a robust creation, an antidote to Richard's and perhaps his author's parsimonious making-do. One is sorry when she dies.

Strange home life, bilingualism and bizarre homeland notwithstanding, Richard is an outsider most of all by dint of his homosexuality. Toíbín shows him cursorily cruising the gay saunas, but only after two-thirds of the novel does Richard get together with Pablo, son of an aspiring politician. By this time Richard has been taken up by a CIA couple and is functioning as an “adviser” to the American oil companies who will buy up Argentina under the privatisation engineered by the US and their choice of president, Carlos Menem.

Richard is rich, suave, and knows how to shoot the cuffs off his disguises. After weaving so intently the skeins of self-concealment and emotional dandyism with the complexities of US excursions into Latin America, Toíbín suddenly rounds a corner and we are in a gay romance. Quite soon, with the arrival of a very camp couple from San Francisco, we are brutally in Aids country. The novel, as all of Toíbín's work, tries to insert a grace note at the very end, but here it feels desperately banal and forced.

It is possible that Aids, like the Holocaust, remains impervious to fictionalisation. It silences criticism and, alas; self-criticism. Slabs of dialogue take the place of Toíbín tight prose; Richard is turned into a witless Candide (“It's not possible, it's unbelievable,” he exclaims of the disease) and the reader is suddenly patronised by this least patronising of writers as if none of us had ever known anyone who died of Aids or read a paper. (I have always wanted to say in print how much I admired Oscar Moore, the Guardian PWA, who, sadly, died last week.) Catastrophe stifles other conversations.

James Simmons (review date 21 September 1996)

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SOURCE: Simmons, James. “Sex and Oil in Argentina.” Spectator 277, no. 8775 (21 September 1996): 52.

[In the following review, Simmons praises Tóibín's writing style in The Story of the Night, but expresses disappointment regarding the “public side” of the novel's plot.]

If Colm Tóibín were a singer you would say he had perfect pitch. [The Story of the Night] leads you through its somewhat meandering plot clearly and tactfully and interestingly, with no hint of obscurity, no bombast, no showing off … and yet it is original and disturbing, with a satisfying ring of imaginative truth. I know that this Irishman was once a journalist and has written a book about walking the border between Southern and Northern Ireland. I hear he spent ten years in Barcelona, but that would hardly prepare you for a book set in Argentina during the invasion of the Malvinas with a good deal about American diplomacy and the privatisation of the oil industry.

The hero, Charles, whose mother is English and father Argentinian, is an uncertain young man who discovers early on that he is homosexual, and the main thread of the book charts his homosexual love-life, patiently and interestingly. In the pursuit of sex, Charles is confident; he is at ease visiting saunas and gay bars to pick up lovers. This is a part of life outside my experience; but I have just finished a biography of Auden and was much exercised by the apparent coarseness of most of Auden's sexual experience. Tenderness and responsibility didn't seem to occur much until the later stages of his relationship with Kalman. I worried about there being no children, no sense of family … about his campiness. I wondered if this related to superficiality in his poems. I am probably prejudiced, because my own life has been taken up with family, and I see that as the great arena of human drama.

What Tóibín achieves is to draw one in to this world in fiction, something a biographer can hardly do. Charles is not camp at all, and luckily finds Pablo, with whom he can have a long-term relationship as delightful and lyrical as any heterosexual relationship. He doesn't avoid descriptions of sex, which are on the whole reassuring to an innocent hetero … we have so much in common, apart from vaginal penetration. As with Auden, Charles's affair comes more easily into my imaginative world when suffering is involved, jealousy, separation and illness. Perhaps this shouldn't be so, but it is for me, and I was much involved when Pablo brought his American friends down from California, one of whom was dying from Aids. Then the range of their relationships goes far beyond sexual gratification, though the fact that the four of them go to a gay disco and Charles and Pablo find casual lovers (though I would call it ill-advised) somehow cuts away any possible sentimentality.

This is the thread of the novel, but Tóibín is equally interested in placing these people in society and business and politics at a certain time in history, and this is well done. Charles is invited to visit a rich Argentinian family through his pupil Jorge (brother of Pablo). The father is interested in getting into politics, which results in Charles meeting an American couple who have come to Argentina to influence the elections and advance American oil interests. This is complicated and believable. The dissatisfied young teacher of English in his shabby flat, still echoing with his parents' deaths (the mother was a fanatical supporter of Margaret Thatcher, and yet much loved), suddenly finds himself of use to charming, rich and powerful people, and the steady frustration of his life changes to an uncertain but exciting sense of possibilities, to a good deal of money and some corruption.

I misinterpreted the blurb, which concludes that ‘The Faustian bargain [Charles] has made with experience gradually becomes a nightmare.’ There is talk of political corruption and people being tortured at the beginning of the novel, and I presumed that Charles's wheeling and dealing would end in such horrors; but the nightmare is no more than the certainty of early death by Aids for both lovers. For me, sickness and true love are happy familiars rather than a nightmare.

Some friends who have read the book recalled particular scenes with relish, and I usually try to quote something to give the flavour of the writing, but this is such a seamless book where everything is interesting that I don't have a feeling of big set-pieces. Susan, the American diplomat (agent?) invites Charles to her bed, and he goes, but feels no desire. That is well done, but it is the lack of sensationalism that makes it so good. She is hardly even irritated, and their relationship remains cordial. Later, Pablo's brother Jorge becomes her lover and she wants to use Charles's flat:

I told her how untidy it was. I told her that the paint was peeling off the walls. I gave her a key. That night I cleared a load of junk out of the spare room. I changed the sheets on the bed and I swept the floor and then washed it. The curtains were musty and loose, and the paintwork was old, the wardrobe was like an oversized coffin. Nevertheless, I thought that they might like the room. I enjoyed the idea of them making love there, or, at least, I thought I did. I never let myself think about it enough to be sure.

I was disappointed that the public side of the novel disappeared in the last chapters, but perhaps that is the point of what I thought was a weak title, that the night life takes over and that in the end the characters don't care about public life and all those worried parents, and their little sins don't catch up with them.

Robert Ellis Hosmer, Jr. (review date winter 1997-1998)

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SOURCE: Hosmer, Jr., Robert Ellis. “Dreams in the Dark: Fiction Chronicle.” Cross Currents 47, no. 4 (winter 1997-1998): 531-41.

[In the following excerpt, Hosmer argues that The Story of the Night is not as strong as Tóibín's first two novels.]

Like [John Banville's] The Untouchable,The Story of the Night, Colm Toibin's third novel, takes as its narrator-protagonist a male homosexual. Toibin creates the character of Richard Garay, son of an Argentinian father and English mother, living through tumultuous times of war with Britain over the Malvinas (a.k.a. the Falklands) and repression wrought by military dictatorship. Whereas the politics of the past loom large in Banville's novel, the politics of the narrative present figure most prominently in The Story of the Night, at least early on.

After the death of his mother, Richard is left alone in the family's downtown Buenos Aires flat; when not giving the occasional English language class, he spends his time cruising gay bars and baths, a deliciously dangerous game for him in the political context. He lives in a Buenos Aires where people mysteriously disappear in the night, never to return, but are mourned by mothers, wives, and children who protest and keep vigil in the public squares. Into his life come Donald and Susan Ford, American political operatives, perhaps CIA agents, who masquerade as economic advisers. The Fords recruit Richard as tour guide, minder, and political propagandist charged with the care of visiting American businessmen. Richard seeks to advance the political aspirations of a friend's father while supplying the Fords with information about political parties and candidates. Eventually, the Fords set him up in a consulting business of his own, a convenient front for them and a lucrative endeavor for him. Meanwhile, his private life shifts from one-night stands in the baths to a long-term relationship. In the end, though, the specter of AIDS intrudes as night descends.

Toibin has serious problems connecting his two main narrative lines; the personal and political are held in a kind of tension for the first part of the novel, one neatly and effectively counterpointing the other. Like Banville, Toibin may too easily accept the idea that the secret double life imposed on homosexual men like Victor Maskell and Richard Garay made them ideal candidates for success in the double life of the spy; a bit simplistic, but in The Untouchable, Banville's Maskell is so richly complex and hypnotizing that in the last analysis it doesn't matter. Here, in The Story of the Night, however, it does matter, since Toibin's Richard is nowhere near so multifaceted or fascinating a character; indeed, he is a character of surfaces and affects rather than depth and substance. Utterly lacking in complexity, singularly devoid of charm and humor, and without the redeeming gifts of irony, wit, and verbal play, Richard glides through the novel, leaving neither foot- nor voice-print.

Then, too, in a novel clearly meant to be both political and personal, when the balance of Toibin's narrative shifts toward the personal in the second half of the text and the political diminishes, the narrative loses focus and edge. Too many of the questions raised in the first half of the novel receive no answer. Indeed, were it not for the first half of the book, which establishes time and place, the reader might well be unable to establish either, given the curiously detached and anonymous quality of the second half. It seems almost as if that portion of the narrative could have taken place in any one of a dozen countries. Toibin is a writer of intensity and power, capable of crafting carefully designed and satisfying fictions; unfortunately, The Story of the Night doesn't meet the standards of his two earlier novels. Ultimately, reading it is a frustrating experience, somewhat akin to having all the right ingredients for a fine dish, but being unable to measure them accurately.

Ruth Scurr (review date 17 September 1999)

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SOURCE: Scurr, Ruth. “In the Kitchen at Dusk.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5033 (17 September 1999): 21.

[In the following review, Scurr praises Tóibín's control of the narrative in The Blackwater Lightship.]

Five years before the publication of his first novel, The South (1990), Colm Tóibín interviewed the writer John McGahern for the magazine In Dublin. Passion tempered by precision, the hallmark of Tóibín's journalism and later his fiction, was manifest on this occasion in a remarkable report of a conversation about books.

He [McGahern] agrees that there is no tradition of the novel in Ireland, and no fixed settled society from which the novelist can feed; no sharp world of manners and morals. He agrees that maybe this is where the peculiar desolation in his work comes from, that this is what saddens his work.

When he could get a word in, McGahern agreed, but the extreme, almost breathless analysis was Tóibín's own. It is no surprise then to find him, four novels later, obsessively reworking themes of fracture and absence in the culture of Ireland.

The Blackwater Lightship is set in the same place as Tóibín's second novel, The Heather Blazing (1992): the cliffs near Cush, a village east of Enniscorthy and Wexford. The muck and marl slipping into the eroding sea, split-open houses and ruined outbuildings falling on to the strand; by now, these are the familiar emblems of Tóibín's unsettled Ireland. It is a society where manners and morals are all mussed, where there are rifts of silence and resentment between the generations; families are divided by history or religion, and only united in a generalized hardness of heart. Tóibín's earlier novels struggled determinedly with two unwieldy themes: the passage of time and politics. Both are resolved here through a sober combination of writerly experience and compromise.

In The South, Tóibín presented the tension between past and present by means of the long, bizarre life of Katherine Procter; a life spanning the Troubles in Ireland, and the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Katherine's edgy claim to be free from the “weight of history” was set against a careful understanding of the ambiguities of exile, but all this, on top of periods of intense civil strife in Ireland and Spain, made for a chaotic, rather brittle narrative. The Heather Blazing was calmer, because Tóibín separated his protagonist's past and present, rigidly switching from one to the other to bring a studied, explanatory light to bear on the mid-life crisis of an eminent Irish judge. The Blackwater Lightship is much more poised. Neither brittle, nor rigid, the narrative is largely composed of conversation between six people brought together by an ordinary and universal catalyst: illness. Declan is a young gay man dying of AIDS. Now extremely sick after years of successfully concealing his condition from his family, he asks to spend a short period of remission in his grandmother's house in Cush, accompanied by his mother, sister and the two gay friends who have nursed him through earlier phases of the disease. This simple scenario, classically consistent in time and place, allows free rein to Tóibín's impressive emotional understanding. As though struck by lightning, the house on the cliff is suddenly alive with the cross-currents of personal imaginings, resonances, pains, dreams and prejudices. Declan and his sister, Helen, still resent their mother's behaviour at the time of their father's death from cancer years before. Helen has never allowed her mother, Lilly, to meet her son-in-law and grandchildren. Lilly's relationship with her mother, Helen's grandmother, is also complex, centring on unseemly disagreements about who owes whom, what and why.

The presence of three gay men in the house, each with a unique and hard-won understanding of the peculiar predicaments of homosexuals in Ireland, is a brilliant foil for the corroded remains of the traditional family unit. Here at last is a narrative completely under Tóibín's control, and so much so that even the humorous conversational exchanges serve to intensify and not to dissipate the tension which is his theme. “‘I think I prefer your granny to your mother,’ he said. ‘I did that for a while too,’ Helen said. ‘It's a mistake.’” Politics has always had a place in Tóibín's fiction. His novels don't centre on politics. (They aren't like Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark, for example.) But the earlier novels refer to it prominently, and this can be a problem. One particularly sly review of Tóibín's third novel, The Story of the Night (1996), suggested that his concern with state repression and torture in Argentina in the time of the generals might simply reflect “some of the airier anxieties of the gay condition.” In The Blackwater Lightship, Tóibín has retreated. Granny's cats, which sit on top of the china-filled dresser, one each end, are named after Garret FitzGerald and Charlie Haughey. And that is as far as the overt political references go. Instead of the far-reaching analogies between Ireland and Spain, or homosexuality and political dissidence, The Blackwater Lightship settles for a patient anatomy of the complex emotions inside an unhappy family.

This novel perhaps stands in the same relation to Tóibín's next as one of Goya's beautiful court portraits does to his painting “The Shootings of May Third.” What better foundation for understanding the politics of Southern Ireland could there be than this patient reconstruction of the fractures and silences within a single family? The Blackwater Lightship holds out the possibility of reconciliation. It has affinities with Tóibín's journalistic account of a pilgrimage to Lough Derg, when, almost against his agnostic will, he found himself caught up with spiritual forces: “there seemed to be a kindness building up between us.” Like the pilgrims, Declan's family and friends find themselves improbably drawn together around the kitchen table at dusk: “It's like going to confession, except there's no lighthouse in a confession box.”

Martyn Bedford (review date 11 October 1999)

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SOURCE: Bedford, Martyn. “Going Gently.” New Statesman 128, no. 4458 (11 October 1999): 57-8.

[In the following review, Bedford asserts that although the prose in The Blackwater Lightship can seem too sterile, the novel is overall “a fine, thoughtful, compassionate” work.]

A list of nations where a man might be glad to be gay would stretch a long way down the page before Ireland earned its place. And to be gay and dying of an Aids-related illness in rural Wexford would not be most young men's preferred route of egress from the world. But such is the lot of Declan, the fulcrum of Colm Tóibín's Booker-shortlisted novel [The Blackwater Lightship]. In terminal decline, he asks to be taken from the relative tolerance of modern Dublin to spend his last days at his grandmother's remote cottage on the coast. He insists, too, that his mother, sister and two closest gay friends are there. Three generations of a family estranged for years and riven by repressed enmity are thus forced into an uneasy coalition of palliative care. Again, a hard way to die.

However, if the stereotypes of Ireland's social and moral mores are rooted in something more substantial than cliché, the pull of even the most diasporic Irish family is a fierce one. Never more so than in a crisis. While Declan is the spindle on which the other characters revolve, the story is propelled by his sister, Helen, whose viewpoint informs much of the narrative, and snapshots of the family's fraught past are filtered through her memory.

It is a visceral, unsparing depiction. For all her sympathetic generosity towards her brother's plight, Helen has issues of her own to resolve; the others, too, bring their preoccupations to the cottage. Declan focuses their attention on him, but also on their various relationships with him and with each other. Theirs, after all, are the lives that will continue once his ceases. Tóibín understands this human tension between selfishness and altruism when a loved one is dying. He knows that immune deficiency can also be emotional and that people build defences against infection. Or they withdraw from the risk of exposure. But emotional withdrawal isn't an option for the Blackwater six.

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. This is another of Tóibín's strengths: a sensual impression of one of his earlier novels, The Heater Blazing, remains with me long after the plot and characters have become hazy. At its best, his fiction achieves a rare lyrical precision. But the writing is so rigorously pared down that the balance between sparseness and sterility can be a hard one to strike. Now and then, a flat passage of prose has a deadening effect. The protagonists' tendency, particularly Helen's, towards elaborate self-analysis may contribute to this. Some scenes are short on dialogue and deed, long on reflective introspection. This is not a plea for more action but for the author to trust the simple potency of the interaction of his characters.

Such quibbles, however, should not cast a pall over a fine, thoughtful and compassionate novel. The conflicts and compromises that surface between the women, complicated by the presence of Declan's mates, Paul and Larry, are expertly worked. And humour—evolving from camp Larry's unlikely affinity with the grandmother and from her own sardonic wit—leavens a sombre load. Declan's graphic deterioration in the final stages of his illness and its impact on those around him ought to move any reader. Those of us who have watched a loved one die will find it especially harrowing, and for anyone bereaved by Aids the denouement may be almost unbearable.

Terry Eagleton (review date 14 October 1999)

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SOURCE: Eagleton, Terry. “Mothering.” London Review of Books 21, no. 20 (14 October 1999): 8.

[In the following review, Eagleton offers a positive assessment of The Blackwater Lightship.]

‘You know, in my family,’ remarks a gay Irish architect in Colm Tóibín's The Blackwater Lightship, ‘my brothers and sisters—even the married ones—still haven't told my parents that they are heterosexual.’ It is a neat Wildean inversion, one of the few good jokes in this harrowing, deeply unfunny novel, and a flash of wit with wider implications. For this is a novel about Aids which is not a ‘gay’ novel, or indeed much about sexuality at all. It is about mothering; and this is a gay issue in the book only because those most proficient at the craft turn out to be a couple of homosexual men. Larry the architect goes on to suggest that his mother would probably rather find out he was a Provo than gay: at least that would be something ‘normal’ they could talk about. Revealing or not revealing what you are is a way of trying to make contact with a mother, not a condition in itself.

Roddy Doyle and Dermot Bolger rank among Dublin's so-called Northside realists, creating a world in which compulsively blaspheming council-estate dwellers keep cocaine in the bath and horses in the kitchen. This novel, by contrast, could be described as Southside realism, at least in its opening pages. Helen O'Doherty and her husband Hugh live with their small sons on the middle-class south side of Dublin, though Hugh is an Irish-language enthusiast from Donegal and Helen comes from small-town Wexford. Helen is estranged from her mother Lily, and fantasises about running her over in a car; indeed, Larry, despite being an easygoing fellow, would very much prefer to be taken hostage by Hizbollah than be locked in a room with Lily. It is one of those commonplace families in which, as Helen remarks, making tea is a form of power play. But as the narrative unfolds, this resentful mother and daughter, along with Helen's grandmother Dora, move edgily together over the body of Helen's brother Declan, who is dying of Aids. It was the death of Helen's father which turned her against her mother, and it takes another death to reunite them. Meanwhile, Paul and Larry, gay friends of Declan, have been giving him the care and consolation he refuses from his mother, who did not even know of his gayness. The reader, too, is allowed to know little of his sexual history; it is not that kind of novel. Paul and Larry are his companions, not his partners.

In one sense, this saga could just as well have been set in Boston or Bournemouth. In Ireland, however, it gains an additional resonance. Such suburban goings-on are not just suburban goings-on, as they might be in the fiction of Margaret Drabble or Penelope Lively. Instead, they raise questions of tradition and modernity, of pure-hearted rural Gaeldom v. decadent urban gayness, which touch the nerve of a nation increasingly divided between the Treaty of Rome and the Bishop of Rome, between secular modernity and a still powerful Church.

In a series of deft twists, however, the novel broaches this conflict only to deconstruct it. Helen and Hugh may buy their wine at a posh south Dublin supermarket, but Hugh speaks Irish to the children and Helen is sullenly nostalgic for her rural Wexford home. Ironically, it is her thoroughly modern mother, a computer specialist who favours avant-garde living spaces, who has unsentimentally sold the place off. Helen's grandmother, a magnificent creation who lives in a ramshackle old Wexford house overlooking the sea, far from being a withered crone in a black shawl, is a feisty controversialist who wears make-up, sports a flick knife and learns to drive a car. Rather than allow her daughter to become a nun, she packs her off to dances in search of marriage partners. Granny may not approve of homosexuals, but she is unshockable, reasonably tolerant and an avid viewer of the liberal-minded Late Late Show.

Conversely, Paul may be gay, but this, unusually in Irish terms, has failed to alienate him entirely from the Catholic Church. Instead, he joins a Catholic gay men's group (‘Cruising for Christ,’ as Declan scoffs), and falls in with a mysterious rogue priest who proposes celebrating a secret marriage between him and his partner. The marriage, as Tóibín describes it, is an extravagant utopian fantasy, a lavish piece of Catholic homosexual wish-fulfilment in which the church glitters richly with gold and the wedding ceremony is followed by a sumptuous Land of Cockayne banquet. The enigmatic little priest, hands folded over his paunch, then proposes an improbable toast to the Catholic Church, and the happy couple take off for a honeymoon in Barcelona. The whole scene is a magical catharsis of Ireland's moral woes. Later, Paul recalls, Declan would visit their apartment and crawl into the bottom of their bed, playing with their feet; he ‘loved being fed and looked after and listened to and protected from his former lovers by us.’ The most revered of traditional Irish roles, that of the mother, is taken over by the representatives of a sexually dubious modernity.

Declan needs this male mothering because, like his sister, he has turned from Lily in disenchantment. Finally, retching in agony with stomach cramp, he will call out to her for help, releasing something precious in himself. Helen, however, is a harder case, since her relationship with her husband and children depends partly on repressing the vulnerability which her mother evokes in her. Looking at Hugh, she knows that ‘anybody else would have laid bare, in the way that he had covered, the raw areas in her which were unsettled and untrusting.’ How does one repair a relationship whose very flaws sustain another?

This dilemma creates a flaw in the fiction itself. For Helen to come to terms with her mother means bundling Hugh and the children out of the novel, packing them off on holiday to Donegal and thus banishing Hugh from a story in which he has, as it were, some rights. There is a sense of Helen being disloyal to her husband with her mother. Hugh is defined rather patronisingly as decent and easygoing, so that the only significant heterosexual male in the book is a somewhat shadowy presence. Homosexual marriage may be affirmed, but heterosexual wedlock is correspondingly sidelined. A key relationship is never seen full on. The mother-child relationship overrides marriage, as it did so often in traditional Irish culture, though there it was usually a matter of the Mammy-fixated son, not of the disaffected daughter. But one could also read the novel as sidelining gay sexuality, offering up Declan as a kind of blood sacrifice to re-cement familial bonds.

Like any quest for a mother, Helen's is about more than a mother. What she is really seeking is unconditional acceptance, a feeling which has been associated with the religious impulse as much as with the death drive. In Ireland, mothers are more than mothers because they are symbols of the suffering nation; and though The Blackwater Lightship is not in any obvious sense a political novel, it is not hard to see in Helen's settling of accounts with Lily something of the vexed relation between past and present in contemporary Ireland. When Lily tries to comfort her tormented son, she sings him an old Gaelic song. Nothing is more fashionable in Irish culture today than a triumphalist Modernism which derides much of the nation's history as Romantic junk. But in fact the cynic for whom Ireland's turbulent colonial history is merely embarrassing is the flipside of the idealist who blathers on about the sons of Cuchulain. When the pendulum swings, it always swings too far.

Colm Tóibín is an ambivalent figure in this respect, a well-known ‘revisionist’ who nevertheless springs like his heroine from rural Wexford, and from a spot within it with a much-sung revolutionary history. Unlike some of his more hardboiled revisionist colleagues, he is aware of the need for roots and communal allegiances and aware, too, of their specious allure. Helen may have broken with her exasperating mother, but unless she returns home to confront her, she can never be truly free of her past. Her rebellion will just be the mirror image of her dependence. Disavowing your past is no more mature than idealising it. There is an important political lesson for modern Ireland here, as Helen turns back to her past not so as to dwell morbidly with-in it, but to draw it into her present and future. Lily returns with Helen to Dublin to meet her daughter's family for the first time, and the novel is audacious enough to end on a tentatively happy note.

Standing on the Wexford seashore, Helen hears ‘a sound that was almost remote, a sound that, she believed, had nothing to do with her and had no connection to anything she knew, the quiet crashing of a wave.’ Later, in the novel's only full-dress metaphysical moment, she has a Hardyesque vision of the sea as not needing her to watch it, part of a Nature which would roll on whether people were around or not. Tóibín's spare, scrupulous style tries to see things as though nobody was looking at them, to grasp them in themselves, not as filtered by the man-made, or even the human. The novel notes at one point that traditional Irish musicians play as though to please themselves, without thought of impressing an audience, and much the same could be said of its own meticulously honest prose.

It is, in short, post-colonial rather than colonial Irish writing. In the Celtic Revival period before political independence, Irish prose was typically elevated, extravagant, mythopoeic, laced with surreal fantasy or utopian symbolism. It was the style of an aspirant revolutionary nation, as insecure as it was effervescent. One could hear in this rollicking rhetoric the bluster of the underdog, as the Irish tried to compensate for their political marginality with verbal brio. If their language belonged to the English, then they would have to use it in an estranging way, defiantly asserting their cultural difference. Though some of this survived independence, it gradually gave way to the plainer, more disenchanted idiom of Patrick Kavanagh, or the self-parodic minimalism of Samuel Beckett, so fearful of writing Hiberno-English that he ceased to write in English altogether.

Colm Tóibín's austere, monkish prose, in which everything is exactly itself and redolent of nothing else, belongs to this anti-Revivalist legacy, as do his political opinions. The novel explores ambiguous feelings in an unambiguous world. Its matter-of-fact portrayal of Declan's physical decay intensifies the horror of it without being contrivedly clinical, which would be the mere inverse of sentimentalism. There are times when one wishes this tight-lipped author would break out of his extreme verbal evenness for some more costly imaginative gesture; Roddy Doyle has called his writing ‘daring and precise,’ but this is only 50 per cent accurate. Even so, it is a style marvelously adept at registering the sheer contingency of things: how one light-switch is firm and hard while another needs only a small flick, how difficult it is to find a convenient hospital car park even when you have a dying man in the back of your car. The novel shows us discreetly what a practical, complicated matter dying is, how much logistics and paraphernalia it requires, and its unflinchingly exact style is a kind of respect paid to this. The commonplace and the catastrophic lie cheek-by-jowl, as Helen notes that the specialist treating her desperately sick brother seems to have had a pudding-bowl haircut. Few pieces of fiction remind us so unpreachingly that in the midst of death we are in life.

Denis Donoghue (review date 19 November 1999)

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SOURCE: Donoghue, Denis. “Fretting in the Other's Shadow.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5042 (19 November 1999): 21.

[In the following review, Donoghue examines Tóibín's choices for inclusion in The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction.]

In the twelfth chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses the Citizen says to Leopold Bloom: “What is your nation if I may ask?” Bloom answers: “Ireland. I was born here. Ireland.” Colm Tóibín evidently agrees with Bloom about the qualification for nationality. If you were born in Ireland, you are Irish, and you stay in that condition, even if you leave the country and have no intention of going back. Goldsmith and Sterne are Irish on that consideration; so are Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, Elizabeth Bowen, Iris Murdoch, Brian Moore, William Trevor, Edna O'Brien, Julia O'Faolain, Bernard Mac Laverty, Colum McCann, and my daughter, Emma Donoghue, the youngest writer in The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction. If you were not born in Ireland, you might (or might not) gain entry to the anthology by living in Ireland for a sufficient period and by setting a novel or two there. Maria Edgeworth is admitted for that reason. Anthony Trollope is allowed to pass as an Irish writer, because he lived in Ireland for eighteen years and wrote The Macdermots of Ballycloran (1847) and The Kellys and the O'Kellys (1848). But Tóibín draws the line at Americans, apparently, and other exemplars of foreignness. J. P. Donleavy has lived in Ireland for many years and written The Ginger Man, but Tóibín has not invited him to the table. J. F. Powers lived in Greystones for at least fifteen years, by my count, and set one of his short stories recognizably in that town, but Tóibín does not think of him as Irish. If, like J. G. Farrell, you settled in Ireland mainly for the pleasure of not paying income tax on your royalties, you are beyond the pale of Tóibín's hospitality. That seems reasonable, I agree.

The anthology includes short stories and chapters of novels, chosen according to a principle that Tóibín has not elucidated. Some things chose themselves: Joyce's “The Dead,” Beckett's “First Love,” Frank O'Connor's “Guests of the Nation” and Edgeworth's Castle Backrent (all of it). Tóibín's good judgment chose an excerpt from Two Days in Aragon by Molly Keane, “Happiness” by Mary Lavin, a bit from Balcony of Europe by Aidan Higgins, “Kathleen's Field” by William Trevor, “Music : Annahullion” by Eugene McCabe, “A Belfast Woman” by Mary Beckett and six pages from John Banville's Birchwood. But some of the remaining choices are strange. The Red and the Green is not Iris Murdoch's best work. It is included presumably because it is set in Dublin in 1916 and the characters talk about Carnell, Home Rule, the Catholic Church, the Irish language, Irish rain, telephones, mixed bathing in Kingstown and James Connolly's Citizen Army, “ten men and a dog.” Bowen's The Last September is not as good as The Heat of the Day, but it is set in a Big House in Cork and Tóibín has chosen the scene in which an army officer is killed in an ambush. “Why can't we all go home? Why did we stay here? Why don't we all go home? That's what I can't understand,” a minor character called Betty moans. Emma Donoghue has written far better stories than her “Going Back,” which has chiefly the merit of being up-to-date, makes a fuss about Irishry—“What's the age of consent for being Irish?”—and is therefore given the honour of beinging this anthology to an equivocal end.

Tóibín's introduction to the book does not explain his choices. Surprisingly, he thinks that Irish writers can be recognized by their themes. But themes are not exclusive to regions and lands. A work of literature brings themes to the condition of form; it is literature only so far as it does that. Tóibín lists and describes the most visible modes of Irish writing. There is, as every scholar of Irish literature now accepts, a Protestant Gothic, represented by Melmoth the landerer by Charles Maturin, Uncle Silas and Sarmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu and Dracula by Bram Stoker, emanations of dread for which political explanations have been offered in the past few years by R. F. Foster and W. J. McCormack. Tóibín might well have included Yeats's “The Crucifiction of the Outcast” to illustrate the continuity of a bizarre genre. Then there are, in Tóibín's view, native themes and scenes: fathers and sons, melancholy, “a sense of quiet desolation,” joyless scenes of dancing, houses being burnt down, sexlessness and men who dream of killing women. “How is it,” he asks, “that we can make the following statements about Irish writing: there is almost no version of domestic harmony at the end of an Irish novel; there is almost no version of domestic harmony at the beginning of an Irish novel; there is no Irish novel which ends in a wedding or a match being made? Irish fiction is not like that; Irish fiction is full of dislocation and displacement.” Working up these notions, Tóibín claims that, apart from The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith and The Snapper by Roddy Doyle, “it is hard to think of any other good fathers in the canon of Irish fiction and drama.” These sentences are sociologically intriguing, I suppose, but they lend themselves mainly to intellectual parlour games or examination papers for undergraduates. Name three good fathers in Irish fiction since Sterne. Compare and contrast the sense of quiet desolation in Irish fiction and in Russian fiction. I am reminded of a more suggestive observation of Padraig Colum's, which Marianne Moore liked to quote, that “hindered characters seldom have mothers in Irish stories, but they all have grandmothers.” Discuss, referring to at least three stories on your course.

Inevitably, Tóibín raises the standard question: “Is it possible to talk about a national style, a way of approaching language, form and character, which is specifically Irish?” Like other commentators, he refers to the encounter in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man between Stephen Dedalus and the Jesuit Dean of Studies. They discuss Epictetus' lamp and Newman's use of the verb “to detain.” The dean refers to a funnel, and Stephen tells him that it is called a tundish in lower Drumcondra, “where they speak the best English.” “A tundish! said the dean reflectively. That is a most interesting word. I must look that word up. Upon my word I must.” This episode sets Stephen thinking about his relation to the English language:

The little word seemed to have turned a rapier point of his sensitiveness against this courteous and vigilant foe. He felt with a smart of dejection that the man to whom he was speaking was a countryman of Ben Jonson. He thought:—The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.

This is a familiar passage, one which every critic cites when the theme is an Irish writer's ambivalent reaction to the English language. Tóibín quotes it, but (unlike Seamus Heaney in his article on translating Beowulf,TLS November 12) omits its resolution, fifty pages later, when Stephen writes in his journal: “That tundish has been on my mind for a long time. I looked it up and find it is English and good old blunt English too. Damn the dean of studies and his funnel! What did he come here for to teach us his own language or to learn it from us. Damn him one way or the other!” Tóibín is not convinced that Stephen's resentment makes cultural sense: “Every writer's soul, including writers in Wolverhampton and London, frets in the shadow of his or her language.” True, but the fretting in Dublin or Listowel may be different. If it isn't, talk about Irish language and literature suffering from the wounds of colonial or post-colonial oppression should be stilled.

On the first page of his introduction, Tóibín quotes from Terry Eagleton's essay “From and Ideology in the Anglo-Irish Novel”: “Language is strategic for the oppressed, but representational for their rulers. Language is weapon, dissemblance, seduction, apologia—anything, in fact, but representational.” These assertions seem valid and far-reaching to me, but Tóibín soon gives up on them: “Ireland is, of course, oppressed.” The “of course” takes the harm out of the oppression and allows Tóibín to ignore the colonial issue in the choice of fictions. But the linguistic conditions of Irish writing evidently differ in some respects from those of English writing. Eagleton has meditated to much purpose on this issue, emphasizing the lack of a material base in Irish culture, “the discrepancy between the exuberance of the signifier and the meanness of the referent,” the absence of the bourgeois individualism and settled culture necessary for the realistic novel. Tóibín glances at these factors, but he only in part believes them, and he soon goes back to his native themes. He does not examine or illustrate the relation between forms of fiction and, in Eagleton's terms, the ideology that provoked them. Stephen Dedalus's argument, and other arguments that emphasize the special predicament and possibility of Irish writing, seem to Tóibín “plausible when used to describe an entire culture,” but too broad “when used to describe an individual's relationship with language.” They are instructive if you want to talk about Ireland, but not if you want to read The Barracks by John McGahern and “Night in Tunisia” by Neil Jordan. I think Tóibín gives up on the ideological question too quickly. He may be right, that there is a gap, maybe a discrepancy, between the large theory and the local fiction. Ideologists of Irish writing should think again about that. But readers of this anthology are likely to ask themselves what accounts for the metaphorical exuberance not only of Joyce and Flann O'Brien but of The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry. Eneas is a young policeman in Athlone, like my father a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary in the days of the Troubles, the Black and Tans, and Michael Collins:

So Eneas finds himself in Athlone with the bright peaked cap and the shining boots and the black suit. For a brace of months he is drilled and perfected in the barracks square. Out at six they are in their greatcoats, the peaks on the caps as black as blackbirds' feathers, and rain or shine the boots making the crippled cobbles ring, and they wheel and stamp and take the orders as the one animal. Bit by bit Eneas understands that a fella by the name of Mick Collins is the big man behind the wild lads willing to kill for the lovely trout of freedom.

A brace of months, the what of freedom; the crippled cobbles? This passage may be an instance of Barry's blather, but even if it is, we need a theory of it, Eagleton's or someone else's. One would expect that an anthology of Irish fiction, from Jonathan Swift to Emma Donoghue, would help readers to understand a strange country. And it does; but irregularly. You would imagine from reading it that Ireland is still a concatenation of villages and town-lands. Dublin since Joyce has not inspired writers at the level of seriousness that Tóibín insists on. Roddy Doyle's novels of the badlands of North Dublin have given voice to the unemployed class, and Dermot Bolger's The Journey Home has time for rough stuff in the gangs of Ballymun. But writers have rarely imagined what it means, that power has long since passed from Anglo-Irish gentry to middle-class professional men and a few professional women—business types, school teachers, lawyers, economists—and that the political and financial institutions that matter are in Dublin.

There are rural stories of returned emigrants, Yanks with dollars, but few stories of Ireland in Europe, the Celtic Tiger, and Aer Lingus planes to Brussels. Sean O'Faolain's The Talking Trees and Foreign Affairs tried to deal with that relatively new class, but most of the stories are frigid, as if his imagination were repelled by the task. Fiction seems not to have apprehended the new lives of Eurocrats and financiers. Meanwhile, Tóibín remarks that, “while there has been stylistic innovation in the work of, say, Anne Enright and Roddy Doyle and Patrick McCabe and Aidan Mathews, a playing with tone … most of the work being produced in Ireland now is formally conservative.” Giving reasons for claiming that John McGahern has produced “the most impressive body of work of any Irish writer in the second half of the century,” Tóibín says that “McGahern writes with the simplicity, sense of inevitability, and poetic turn of phrase of a nineteenth-century ballad.” The claim seems to credit McGahern's fiction with powers of representation that a subaltern literature, according to Eagleton, is not supposed to have.

We must continue to discuss these questions, but I'm not sure that Tóibín is much interested in the debate. His heart seems to have gone to Scotland. He contrasts “the calmness of contemporary Irish writing with the wildness of contemporary Scottish writing,” as in James Kelman, Alasdair Gray Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway, and Alan Warner. In Scotland, he says, “books are written, as in Ireland in the old days, to replace a country.” Or, as I would say, to summon a country to come forward and identify itself. Not that Tóibín would accept that formula. He claims, with evident satisfaction, that Anne Enright's Dublin, for the first time in fiction, “has become post-Freudian and post-feminist and, of course (three cheers!) post-nationalist.” Two cheers would be enough.

Kevin Myers (review date 23 June 2001)

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SOURCE: Myers, Kevin. “… And Famine and Hatred.” Spectator 286, no. 9020 (23 June 2001): 43-4.

[In the following review, Myers offers a positive assessment of The Irish Famine, praising the work's scholarship and wisdom.]

[The Irish Famine] is a book I opened in trepidation, not because of what I know of the authors, but because the Famine in Ireland is rather like those provocations which turned mild-mannered Bill Bixby into the Incredible Hulk, destroying cities with his teeth. The sweetest and most reasonable people can become profoundly unsweet and unreasonable when the subject of the Famine is broached, and it is not hard to see why.

The combined French experience of the two world wars, plus those in Algeria and Vietnam, does not even begin to compare with the scale of the calamity delivered to Ireland by the Famine. Some Irish observers, especially those who cherish oppression and woe as a badge of identity, insist the Famine was genocide, a fatuous expression which has of course been seized with glee by the professional Anglophobes in the USA. But one can see how conveniently the term comes to hand; after all, the entire cottier class vanished without trace almost overnight, and Ireland's demography and landscape were changed for ever.

The surprising truth about the Famine is how little work has been done on it by Irish historians. Whereas the Holocaust has generated a vast business park of scholarship, the Famine—the word always takes the upper case in Ireland—was for years barely more than a cottage industry in the country it ravaged. As Colm Toibin points out, the first official academic history of the Famine, to be 1,000 pages long and under the editorship of Robin (not Robert) Dudley Edwards, was commissioned by the Irish government in the early 1940s. It finally appeared in 1956, a decade late, and was a dry and spiritless affair of just 436 pages. It took a non-academic English-woman, Cecil Woodham-Smith, to light the fire of ardent faminology in Ireland, with her impassioned work The Great Hunger.

Though it has its flaws, and its simplifications grate on modern sensibilities, The Great Hunger is one of the most important books in Irish historiography, most significantly in its influence on Irish academic historians: love it or hate it, they were obliged to react to it. Yet as Cormac O Grada has pointed out, vast areas of the Famine—the connection between relief, wages and work effort, the economic relationship between farmers and employees, the nature of the food distributed in soup kitchens, how many were saved by interventions, what was needed to have saved more, and the role of the middle classes in the Famine—still await serious research.

Recent history should have made the genocide school of Irish faminologists more measured in their judgments. In terms of available communications, roadless, trainless, telegraphless, C-130-less Mayo was infinitely further away from London in the 1840s than was Ethiopia from Europe in the 1980s—and how many hundreds of thousands of people died there 17 years ago? Nor was it merely a question of a technology deficit: how do you feed millions of people when an entire crop has vanished, not just for a season but for nearly five years, without completely destroying local agriculture and making the population permanently indigent?

Lord Clarendon shrewdly observed to Lord John Russell in 1847:

We shall equally be blamed for keeping [the Irish] alive or letting them die and we have only to select between the censure of the Economists or the Philanthropists—which do you prefer?

The question is as pertinent today. Remove the landlords and the British from the equation, the horrible truth—the unbearable, but unavoidable truth—remains: something was needed to cause the Irish to abandon lands to which they were passionately attached, and which they were occupying in economically and nutritionally unsustainable numbers.

What finally triggered this historically inevitable departure was the Famine, one of the most dreadful events in world history. Even now it is difficult to contemplate the details of this calamity without experiencing those deep emotions which hinder proper historical judgment. This is what makes Colm Toibin's opening essay to this selection of contemporary documents quite outstanding. It is a very model of wisdom, of profound moral engagement and of scholarship, the very same qualities which inspired Diarmaid Ferriter's choice of documents. This small but brilliant book reaches right into the heart of the most tragic period in Irish history. I recommend it unreservedly.


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