Recently stopping by our old house, I ran into our neighbor, Mrs. Berniss, who, with her particular combination of fluster and devout resignation, informed me that her husband—a night-shift cabbie invariably encountered grumbling amiably on his front porch, flat cap on pate and cigarette butt dangling from his gray lip—is in the hospital, dying, as she put it, “of the cancer.” In truth I know little of his life, except that he and his wife have lived all their married years—at least forty of them—in the once-imposing two-family house in which Mrs. Berniss was born; that he has meticulously tended their patch of lawn and its bathtub Madonna, covering her lovingly with a garbage bag each winter and touching up her paint when necessary; that he has embarked nightly in his taxi, off into the silent streets, between eleven and midnight, for decades; and that he has smoked innumerable cigarettes upon that porch, watching the local residents come and go with affectionate contempt. He is not, so far as one could see, a reader, even of the local paper; never, in my time at least, did he accompany his wife to mass. What his yearnings and strivings may have been over these years, I suspect even his wife may not fully know.
In my youth, foolishly, I believed that a life had a trajectory, an arc, and that that arc had significance, that its meaning could be ascertained. I retained this belief for a long time, in spite of all evidence, because literature—like, but in lieu of, religion—allowed me, even encouraged me, to do so. In this sense, I have been like Emma Bovary, struggling fruitlessly to make reality conform to my literary ideals. Still in some corner of myself, I am unwilling to renounce this conviction, because I do not know what to make of a life without purpose, a life that has no arc but merely a continuing, and then, like Mr. Berniss’s, one day an end. I am old enough to realize that such a life—the mild, meandering flat line of a life—being real (as opposed to a literary fiction) should not fill me with despair; but I seem not yet mature enough to accept this.
In this context, Mr. Berniss’s days upon months upon years upon his porch, at home, apparently at peace, with his compromises—a life, in short, without any apparent philosophical neurosis, without the literary bolster of articulated longing—incites my fascination. Raised to insist that the unreflected life was not worth living, and yet aware that the reflection may impede the living, I have long struggled to imagine, even momentarily to inhabit, such a psyche. In our efforts more broadly to grasp life’s diversity, we turn to literature; but literature provides readers largely with characters like ourselves. Emma Bovary, that infamous self- conscious aspirant malcontent, is but one of a multitude; whereas Mr. Berniss is a rare protagonist indeed.
Colm Tóibín …