Colm Tóibín the novelist is the master of the slow burn. His best fiction — The Blackwater Lightship, The Heather Blazing, Brooklyn — sneaks up on you, with a gradual accumulation of events, until a specific moment when you realize you’re hopelessly involved. It’s this cumulative effect that makes his novels seem most artfully lifelike.
Colm Tóibín the essayist is a more urgent but no less crafty storyteller. The mini-biographical pieces in his new collection, which were originally composed as reviews, introductions, or lectures, explore how writers’ families influence their work and how the writing life affects families. Within this common thematic foundation, Tóibín finds an engaging multiplicity of detail. And his critical voice is as seductive as the widely varying voices in his novels.
Tóibín, who was born in the southern Irish town of Enniscorthy in 1955, divides these essays into two sections: “Ireland” and “Elsewhere”. (A discursive piece called “Jane Austen, Henry James and the Death of the Mother” serves as an introduction.) The seven essays in “Ireland” entertainingly dismiss any cobwebby clichés about the Emerald Isle and its silver-tongued bards. To this end, Tóibín quotes the always-quotable Samuel Beckett, who confesses a “chronic inability to understand…a phrase like ‘the Irish people,’ or to imagine that it ever gave a fart in its corduroys for any form of art whatsoever, whether before the Union or after…”
The piece on Beckett — which Tóibín wrote for the London Review of Books as a critique of the playwright’s first volume of letters — goes on to show how Beckett sought a way to address Ireland in his work “without any reference to its mythology, its history, the amusing oddness of its people or the so-called lilt of its language.” Tóibín maintains that Beckett found more inspiration in the paintings of Jack Yeats (the brother of poet William Butler Yeats) than in the work of any Irish writer, much the same way as the trailblazing young Hemingway strove toward a new literary style by studying the paintings of Cézanne.
Lacking the sensible nature of his father or brother, the dreamy, impractical Beckett was, says Tóibín, “the sort of young man who was made to break his poor mother’s heart.” While she fretted over his waywardness, he bunked with a bohemian aunt and uncle, distancing himself from his mother’s “savage loving” as he would keep his distance from Ireland. Despite Beckett’s self-imposed exile, both mother and motherland helped to form the writer he became, and found an oblique expression in his strange and austerely beautiful theatrical inventions.
Even more moving here is Tóibín’s essay on J. M. Synge, the greatest playwright of his generation, who lived with and was supported by Dublin relatives who understood nothing about his genius and never once went during his lifetime to see any of his plays. At his funeral — he died just before his thirty-eighth birthday of Hodgkin’s disease in 1909 — the mourners were divided, as though by a yawning chasm, between family members and theater folk. (Synge was a director of the Abbey Theatre, along with Yeats and Lady Gregory, and wrote five plays for them.) Although his evangelical family sighed over Synge’s faithlessness and despaired of his politics and his unprofitable career, it embraced him nonetheless, “and he was included in all family events and outings, the silent, stubborn dissenter at the table.” Synge’s nephew wrote that the playwright’s mother and four siblings remained “serenely unaware of the importance of his work”; as they saw it, Tóibín writes, riffing on a letter William James once wrote about his brother Henry, “Synge belonged fundamentally to them; he was, first and foremost, a native of the Synge family.”
The other first-rate pieces in “Ireland” are a tribute to Yeats’s young English wife, George Hyde-Lee, and a partly autobiographical, emotionally complex rumination about nationalism and the Irish language in the works of two contemporary novelists, first published in The New York Review of Books, called “Roddy Doyle and Hugo Hamilton: The Dialect of the Tribe.”
Leaving Ireland to travel “Elsewhere”, Tóibín grows expansive on the theme of exile, whether in the case of Jorge Luis Borges, “an exile in his own country,” or John Cheever, an exile in his own suburban New York house. For Thomas Mann, exile from Germany was only one calamity in a hair-raising family story that included multiple suicides, drug addiction, cruel parental rejection, and unrequited homosexual love affairs. The story of the Manns is a tragedy of grandly operatic dimensions, best told, as Tóibín tells it, by getting out of the way as the story unfolds. He quotes Mann’s hopelessly wishful comment from Death in Venice: “It is as well that the world knows only a fine piece of work and not its origins.”
Several pieces in this section make us wish for more. The essay on Tennessee Williams tells us that the playwright’s mentally ill sister Rose was an inspiration for many of his characters, but ends before Tóibín manages to show us how. And an examination of Hart Crane’s brief life is itself too brief. Tóibín clearly loves Crane’s poetry, “in which he worked a gnarled, edgy sound against the singing line,” and we yearn for more analysis of the tension between that carefully wrought music and the chaotic life Crane lived when he was not writing.
Throughout the collection, Tóibín’s voice retains authority while also displaying some of the protean qualities of his fiction. He argues with himself often, not afraid to show us his critical restlessness, his change of mind. The sense of the writer as a perpetual wanderer is what makes these essays so lively: the house of literature has many mansions, and Tóibín is keen to tour them all.