Finding a Very Secret Self

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Dominique Nabokov
Colm Tóibín, New York City, April 2007

Every so often, in his captivating new collection of essays, New Ways to Kill Your Mother, Colm Tóibín allows himself moments of general (and perhaps also personal) meditation and commentary. Here are two of the strangest. The first is the opening of a vivid, compassionate essay on Hart Crane:

There are certain single volumes of American poetry, some of them first books or early books, that carry with them a special and spiritual power; they seem to arise from a mysterious impulse and to have been written from an enormous private or artistic need. The poems are full of a primal sense of voice, and the aura of the voice in the rhythms of the poem suggests a relentless desire not to make easy peace with the reader. If some of these poems have the tone of prayers, they are not prayers of comfort or of supplication as much as urgent laments or cries from the depths where the language has been held much against its will or has broken free, and now demands to be heard.

The second comes in a piece about Sebastian Barry, countering the charge that his play Hinterland exposed the lives of living Irish politicians:

Almost any imaginative writer who creates a set of motives and signature tones for a character from history ends by writing a sort of autobiography. Sometimes this can happen unconsciously; the character begins as a set of facts, and slowly melts into a set of fictions. The process is gradual and tentative; it may have its origins in speculative drafting, seeing how some new ingredient might work, realizing that, while the main character need not be changed, some of the surrounding circumstances will not fit the drama. Gradually, the play, or the novel or the story, becomes a dramatization of an aspect of the secret self.

In these highly characteristic riffs, Tóibín has invented his own language for talking about the origins and sources of artworks. This is not exactly literary criticism; the terminology is vague, even mystical (“spiritual power,” “mysterious impulse,” “primal sense,” “prayers,” “cries from the depths,” “the secret self”). The critical voice is impressionistic rather than technical—we hear a lot about tone, tones, voice, aura—though it is very interested in how writing proceeds from different kinds of origins, through drafts, to final “dramatizations.” It pays attention to mystery, tentativeness, and uncertainty. It is not quite psychoanalytical, though it clearly believes in the power of the unconscious in writing and in writing as a form of conflict or struggle, whether between facts and imagination, or between the writer and the reader, or between the secret personal life and the need to transform it: between whatever holds language imprisoned and what allows it to break free. It is quasi-biographical, hovering daringly and thoughtfully in the terrain where writers’ works and lives shadow one another.

As in his earlier collections (Love in a Dark Time, on gay writing, and …

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