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Life at the Core

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Here are nine stories, one set in London, five in Ireland, three in Spain, three focusing on women, six on men, one set in the nineteenth century, the rest more or less in the present, all but two ending in a stoically endured unhappiness expressed with Colm Tóibín’s now familiar quiet and rhythmical delicacy. So dominant is the unhappiness, so exquisite the prose, that the reader cannot but wonder about the relationship between suffering and style.

Silence,” the opening story, is prefaced with an anecdote that Henry James recorded in a notebook as possible material for fiction. Discovering, only hours after his wedding, that his wife had previously been passionately in love with another man, an “eminent London clergyman” refuses to consummate the marriage but nevertheless spends the rest of his life with the woman. The cruelty and sadness of this situation work the more powerfully on the reader’s imagination for being left unstated.

We then pass to the story’s main character, Lady Gregory, a historical figure who, like Henry James, has been the object of Tóibín’s admiring attention in the past.1 Not as pretty as her older sisters, she married a man thirty-five years older than herself, achieving respectability but not happiness:

In the night…as she tried to move towards him to embrace him fully, to offer herself to his dried-up spirit, she found that he was happier obsessively fondling certain parts of her body in the dark as though he were trying to find something he had mislaid.

Later, after the birth of a son, Lady Gregory had an affair with the highly politicized poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, a man whose “talents as a poet,” in Tóibín’s version of events,

were minor compared to his skills as an adulterer. Not only could he please her in ways that were daring and astonishing but he could ensure that they would not be discovered.

This genius for deception is not entirely an advantage. Tóibín is convincing as he evokes the growing dismay of the person whose most intense and intimate relationship can never be acknowledged to others:

The fact that it was not known and publicly understood that she was with him hurt her profoundly, made her experience what existed between them as a kind of emptiness or absence…. When the affair ended, she felt at times as if it had not happened.

This is what interests Tóibín, not just in this story, but throughout The Empty Family: how to respond to a painful sense of absence at the core of life, where family and belonging should be; how to avoid the feeling that there is no difference between “life now and the years stretching to eternity…in the grave.”

Lady Gregory was resourceful. She wrote a cycle of love sonnets and convinced Blunt to publish it under his name, relishing the thought that people could read her story without knowing its source. When this subterfuge is not solace enough, she takes advantage of a moment at a dinner party to talk to Henry James. She cannot risk telling him the truth, but urgently needs to convey her unhappiness. So she invents, with the hope that he will rework it in a novel, the anecdote of the clergyman that we read at the opening of the story. It is not her life, but the aridity and sadness are hers.

That it was Lady Gregory who told James this anecdote is fact. That she was using it to refer indirectly to her own experience is perhaps Tóibín’s intuition. In any event the implication is that fiction can offer a vehicle for expressing what cannot easily be made public. To an extent it respects society’s rules even as it seeks to find consolation for the pain they have caused. Indeed its creativity in finding “a new background…a new scenario” (James’s words) that make expression possible is actually stimulated by those rules. The reader is invited to wonder, then, if Tóibín’s story isn’t itself a reformulation of circumstances and emotions its author may not wish to disclose, or if the story has been placed at the opening of the collection to make us speculate that all the stories here may have this function, since, as we saw with Lady Gregory, one reformulation is not enough; the need to express remains. We may even ask if the satisfaction of achieving an aestheticized expression of personal suffering does not preserve the pain by making it functional to the life of the sufferer turned artist.

The second story bears the book’s title, “The Empty Family,” and brings Tóibín closer to home and a possible alter ego. An unnamed, middle-aged, male narrator addresses himself to a former lover, also male. He has returned from life in California to his erstwhile home on the Irish coast, and after running into the ex-lover’s brother and his wife is excited by the thought that “you must know that I am back here,” though it seems there is no prospect of the two men renewing their relationship.

Tóibín is a master of literary tropes and very consciously seeks out images that deepen his themes and offer analogies of the way he works. The former lover’s brother enthuses over a telescope he has bought and the narrator visits his coastal home to try it out. Here he focuses the telescope on the waves out at sea, which were “like people battling out there, full of consciousness and will and destiny and an abiding sense of their own beauty.” He follows a single wave that

had an elemental hold; it was something coming towards us as though to save us but it did nothing instead, it withdrew in a shrugging irony, as if to suggest that this is what the world is, and our time in it, all lifted possibility, all complexity and rushing fervour, to end in nothing on a small strand, and go back out to rejoin the empty family from whom he had set out alone with such a burst of brave unknowing energy.

Like the narrator and his telescope, fiction sees life in close detail, but from a safe distance, and everywhere transforms the particular into the universal. On meeting the son of the ex-lover’s brother, the narrator remarks:

He could have been you, or you when I knew you first, the same hair, the same height and frame and the same charm that must have been there in your grandmother or grandfather or even before, the sweet smile, the concentrated gaze.

In California the narrator had frequently visited lonely coastal landscapes the better to miss his Irish home, which is not only the empty house but also the graveyard where he himself will “eventually…lie in darkness as long as time lasts.” In the meantime, “I will, if I have the courage, spend my time watching the sea, noting its changes and the sounds it makes.” Like Lady Gregory, that is, who could hardly see any difference between her loveless life and eventual death, he will spend his time seeking out images that express his condition. He “will not fly even in my deepest dreams too close to the sun or too close to the sea. The chance for all that has passed.” Thus the artistic impulse might seem to substitute for any return to life.

Is this satisfactory? The story ends with the narrator dreaming of purchasing a telescope “to focus on a curling line of water, a piece of the world indifferent to the fact that there is language, that there are names to describe things, and grammar and verbs.” He is

desperate to evade, erase, forget…to know at last that the words for colours, the blue-grey-green of the sea, the whiteness of the waves, will not work against the fullness of watching the rich chaos they yield and carry.

Now the sufferer seeks an escape from both the intensity of experience and its inadequate expression. Paradoxically, we feel sure he will want to write about this.

Having given us, in these two melancholy tales, a key to understanding his approach, Tóibín now offers seven rather richer stories, all variations on his theme, all calling to each other, reinforcing or undermining each other, like so many waves riding toward the shore, alike and individual. These are stories that need to be read together.

In “Two Women,” Frances, a specialist in preparing film sets, returns in middle age from New York to her native Dublin to work on a film. Her cantankerous, overpurposeful manner is soon understood to be a strategy for surviving a life without intimacy. The actor who was her one great love, though never more than a lover, has been dead ten years and in any event had tired of her long before that, marrying a woman willing to focus on him rather than her work. Without close relationships of her own, Frances has installed a family from Guatemala, whom she employs to drive and clean, in a small cottage on her property, enjoying with them a relationship of mutual respect and affection, but where she has total control.

In Ireland, which irks her because it recalls an idea of belonging that she feels neither here nor in the States (a common predicament for Tóibín’s characters), she persuades the director whose film she is to work on to use colors more intense than those found in Ireland, thus creating an artificial, more beautiful world. In particular she is anxious about using the cluttered interior of a real pub for one scene. A studio mock-up would be so much easier to control and integrate with the rest. But the director insists; he wants the real thing. Stripping the pub bare in an attempt to make it manageable for the shoot, Frances is furious with two customers who will not leave, until she discovers that one of them is her ex-lover’s widow.

If Tóibín himself sometimes seems a little too tightly in control of his material, a little too intent on pointing up colors and creating beautiful “literature,” nevertheless it is a wonderful touch when he has Frances go to her car to put on makeup before confronting the woman who married the man she lost. She needs the protection of artifice.

Three of the remaining stories are particularly effective in coming at the book’s themes of loss and dislocation from new angles. “The Pearl Fishers” has at its center a case of sex abuse by Catholic priests, something Tóibín has written about in these pages, explaining how, as a schoolboy, he knew and enjoyed the company of priests later accused of abuse.2 Here, an unnamed narrator, author of popular thrillers and violent film scripts, reluctantly accepts a dinner invitation from two old friends, Donnacha and Gráinne, once his school debating partners. It was after a school debate that he and Donnacha had begun a homosexual liaison that lasted many years. But Donnacha was very much “part of the culture that produced him,” a man with a “deep laziness or contentment” that allowed him to “tolerate” and “enjoy” his homosexual lover “until something more normal and simple moved into his ambit,” which is to say Gráinne, his ambitious and forceful wife. The narrator’s hardboiled fiction, like Frances’s belligerence in the earlier story, would appear to be a defense mechanism in response to lost affection. “You’re actually a big softie,” Gráinne will remark over dinner.

  1. 1

    See his ” Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush,” The New York Review, August 9, 2001. 

  2. 2

    The Cause that Called You,” The New York Review, December 19, 2002. 

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