Aside from being one of the greatest fiction writers of our times, Colm Tóibín writes essays which carry that vibrant charge of curiosity on the one hand, and acute perception about human nature on the other, elements which make his novels and short stories such a delight for the reader.
He spent a number of years as a reporter with- and indeed editor of - two highly regarded current affairs magazine in this country, In Dublin and Magill in the 1980s and early 1990s. Indeed, he fostered the career of the late Mary Raftery, who considered him the greatest influence on her career.
Toibin still has a newsman’s natural instinct for what the ordinary man or woman in the street is naturally curious about. So, you get the hard facts of a life, looked at in unflinching gaze (and tidbits of gossip too, of course). Many readers will go straight to the difficulties of domestic upheaval experienced by the young Barack Obama, as recalled by the US President in his books Dreams for My father and The Audacity of Hope, analysed astutely here by Tóibín.
In a chapter entitled Baldwin and Obama: Men Without Fathers, he writes sympathetically of both Obama and the novelist James Baldwin, the gay, black author of Go Tell It On the Mountain. The author deciphers a compulsive obsession with squaring the circle in the case of Obama. “ Wheras Baldwin sought to make distinctions, Obama always wanted to make connections; his urge is to close circles even when they don’t need to be closed or the closing is too neat to be fully trusted. Wheras Baldwin longed to disturb the peace, create untidy truths, Obama was slowly becoming a politician.” Baldwin gets a separate essay in his own right, entitled Baldwin and ‘the American Confusion.'
Many of the essays collected here first saw the light of day in literary periodicals such as The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books and The Dublin Review. Many of them hung first on the peg of book reviews. There is an extensive bibliography which is intended in theory anyway, to lead readers to the primary source material of memoirs and various ancillary works.
The Mann brothers both wrote fiction very successfully, Thomas won the Nobel Prize, and Heinrich, no doubt would have liked to have won it, given the brothers’ fierce competititve streak. They left their native Germany because of Nazi pogroms, and Toíbín has written about their relationship in a recent essay, which has not been included here. The fascinating chapter on Thomas and his family is entitled New Ways To Spoil Your Children, detailing their father’s gay life, suicide and general dysfunction.
The misanthropic John Cheever is also the matter of a chapter, New Ways to Make Your Family’s Life a Misery, which investigates his journals and the problems he had accepting his homosexuality. Cheever wrote The Swimmer, which short story on became a fine film starring Burt Lancaster. Tóibín probes the fault line in his character, his wish to be a happilly married man and devoted father, while enduring the nightmare “that he would come home to an empty house, that he would, because of instincts he barely understood and deeply despised, lose the domestic life he craved and the people he loved.”
Roddy Doyle’s memoir about his parents, Rory & Ita, is examined for its revelations about their individual families’ political background, post-Treaty and the evolution of the Free State. Tóibín contrasts a furtive, cautious new Ireland with the one their son decided to celebrate in his early fiction, “ a world stripped of the props that most readers associated with Ireland, and filled instead with rock ‘n roll, much wit and shouting, and sex and swearing and soccer.”
Finally, one or two mild caveats. Readers will read here of JM Synge and Henry James - but will these essays draw such readers back to the work of these writers? Let's face it, Henry James is no cake-walk. I once laboured stolidly and doggedly - a small bit at a time was all I could endure - to the bitter end of James' The Ambassadors. Curiously, I found his The Portrait of A Lady enchanting, although I believe it was the bane of many a long-suffering Leaving Cert English scholar.
Another caveat. Does anybody much read Brian Moore anymore? How many readers will be taking Tóibín's observations on that Belfast fiction writer on trust? And even if he or she wants to investigate his (mostly) fascinating novels how easy will it be to get a hold of, say, The Emperor of Ice Cream. That rather irritating novel is long disappeared, I assume, from the first year English book list at UCD. What bookshop readily stocks any Moore in fact? I read many of the late author's better novels, back when he was a popular choice in the 1970s. Is it possible that his work has dated, like say, Graham Greene's novels, or David Storey's similarly anguished works ? In sum, how much currency does Brian Moore have for prospective buyers of News Ways Of Killing Your Mother? Not that it should stop anyone reading the book at all, one merely asks the question.