Tuesday 27 September 2016

Book worm: Toibin insight into troubled life of Bishop

John Boland

Published 19/04/2015 | 02:30

elizabeth bishop 1.jpg
elizabeth bishop 1.jpg

Colm Toibin's ideal guests at his "dream" dinner party would be Samuel Beckett, along with Beckett's wife and mother, though from what I've read about the rather severe May Beckett I think I might find her hard going, as her son sometimes did. But then Toibin has a thing about mothers.

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He also has a thing about some of the clergy, as many people in Ireland have had cause to do, and when asked last weekend in a Guardian Q&A session about the living person he most despised, he replied: "I don't like the Catholic bishop of Elphin in Ireland, Kevin Doran". Possibly he was mindful of the bishop's recent statement that homosexuality was not "what God intended" and that gay people with children were "not parents".

Elsewhere in the Q&A, the Enniscorthy-born author was being more puckish. What was his greatest fear? "That Ireland will eat me". And who should play him in the film of his life? "Jake Gyllenhaal the young me, and Jack Nicholson the mature version". And if his greatest achievement was that "at least a quarter of the time I still behave like an adolescent", his biggest disappointment was that "I would like to have been a poet".

As it happens, his latest book is a study of one of the finest American poets of the 20th century. Simply entitled On Elizabeth Bishop (Princeton University Press), it offers telling insights into her troubled personal life (as a gay woman she believed in "closets, closets and more closets") and careful analyses of many of the poems, along with considerations of such other writers-in-exile as James Joyce and Thom Gunn.

And in a book that's as quirky as it's scholarly, Toibin reveals a good deal about his own upbringing and about his development both as a reader and as a writer. Indeed, in that sense it can be read as a companion to his online memoir, A Guest at the Feast.

And certainly for me it performed the crucial function, not always achieved, of any such study - it sent me back to Bishop herself and to poems that I'd either overlooked or undervalued.

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