Wednesday 21 February 2018

Books: Impressive overview of Irish writer

BEHIND THE PEN: The new book considers how much Colm Toibin’s sexuality influenced his works. Photo: Mark Condren
BEHIND THE PEN: The new book considers how much Colm Toibin’s sexuality influenced his works. Photo: Mark Condren

Emer O'Kelly

A Different Story. The Writings of Colm Toibin by Eibhear Walshe (Irish Academic Press, €24.95)


Dr Eibhear Walshe has chosen to study Colm Toibin's literary output as a kind of philosophical chronology heavily overlaid with the theme of the writer's homosexuality. And while it is legitimate, indeed obvious, to imply that the novels and short stories could not have come about without Toibin's orientation, the dominance of the pre-occupation, one feels, becomes skewed when Walshe includes the non-fiction work as also heavily influenced by the writer's homosexuality.

Even his first book, Bad Blood: a Walk Along the Irish Border, which was effectively a travelogue examining socio-political attitudes of the time (1986), is seen by Walshe as being a commentary from the perspective of homosexuality.

The subjectivity of such a view, critically speaking, can be seen if it is turned upside down and claims are made for the critical work of a Roy Foster, for instance, as being influenced primarily by heterosexuality.

Indeed, in Bad Blood Toibin wrote that during the night he spent as a "visitor" in a group of pilgrims at the Holy Island of Lough Derg, joining in the penitential vigil of fasting and prayer, "someone might spot I was an interloper". Yet, in commenting on this, Walshe does not seem to see Toibin's atheism as being in any way as fundamental to the development of his art as his homosexuality.

And Toibin himself has made the relevance seem irrelevant.

When he spoke at the launch of the Irish Queer Archive in the National Library of Ireland as far back as 2006, he spoke of "a dotted line to the past" for gay people which "becomes faint and can disappear". Walshe admits that his study is setting out to prove – at least to his own satisfaction – that it can re-appear.

It is logical within Walshe's own academic progression: in 2006, in an article in the New Hibernia Review, he referred to Toibin's statement that in our increasingly open climate there is a "post-gay moment which makes every single gay man's story intrinsically less interesting". But Walshe disagrees, saying that what he calls "the idea of a coherent sexual identity" is "a useful shorthand" to help us "deduce a shifting set of cultural assumptions around homosexuality".

If we accept this, however, we must accept Toibin's 1999 novel The Blackwater Lightship, short-listed for the IMPAC and Booker prizes, as themed around homosexuality.

It concerns the effects on a family as a son dies slowly and tragically from Aids. Yet it can equally be argued the novel is far more about the fragility of family in a crisis, and the unfairness of Aids. Only if you argue that Aids was and is a "gay plague" can you claim the book as a "gay novel". And that narrows the literary achievement to a self-justifying polemic.

Walshe also uses other critiques throughout the book to examine the Toibin output, and it is Gerald Dawe, the poet and academic, who pin-points Toibin's political centre: writing of Bad Blood , Dawe claims "the unequivocal sense that no sub-textual apology is in the offing, no extenuating circumstance drawn to excuse the IRA campaign provoked many to read Bad Blood as a simplistic response". And he calls Toibin's response a clear marker of a "distinctive cultural shift ... for nationalism was no longer viewed as the automatic cure or catch-all for political ills".

In that, Toibin was effectively way ahead of his time, in that Dawe's own trenchant vision as an unapologetic Northern Protestant living in the South, was too optimistic, and has yet to be achieved nearly 30 years after Bad Blood was written. But it serves to make clear that Toibin is and always was to an extent, an outsider in the world of which he writes. And that "outsiderness" does not spring intrinsically from being gay, but from an awareness of the need to be culturally analytical of experience, highlighting it through the senses and the soul, and filing it in a kind of art chest that will make literature possible. It is the separateness of the artist in all areas of life, and not specifically the separateness of being gay.

It is the rawness of the wound of rejection: it never heals, as Toibin re-counted in a 2009 interview concerning the publication of his first novel The South. The publisher who rejected The South 20 years earlier had recently asked to see his next work. Toibin instructed his agent not to show it to him. There speaks a holistic writer; not a gay writer, as for instance The Stranger's Child, mentioned by Walshe, the long-awaited 2011 novel by Alan Hollinghurst, predicated a world where heterosexuality is a puzzle to be avoided.

In the chapter entitled 'Evading History' Walshe quotes Toibin as saying that in 1972 he ceased to believe in "the most basic tenets of Christianity. ... I also and rather more painfully after a great deal of soul-searching ceased to believe that a United Ireland was worth even marching for." And he saw "the tradition which led from John Redmond to Conor Cruise O'Brien as one to which I owed loyalty. I came to loathe that other tradition ... that ran from the Fenians to Padraig Pearse and now to the martyrs and murderers as I saw them, of the Irish Republican Army."

That detachment from what is seen as "making us Irish" is also part of the Toibin inspiration, and what made his most recent novella (and the play which inspired it) The Testament of Mary (also Booker short-listed) such a non-polemical achievement: a woman examined in a prism of history, a secular statement examining an earthly event like any other.

Seeing Toibin's work in such a context defies Dr Walshe's assessment of The Master, Toibin's 2004 novel about Henry James, a "sympathetic and attractive view of a man" (as against David Lodge's Author, Author published the same year, and far less successful) as being a view necessarily formed because its author is a "gay writer," and because James is viewed by scholars and critics alike as having been a celibate homosexual.

But while I argue with many, perhaps most of Dr Walshe's conclusions, he has produced an impressive overview of the work of an influential Irish writer over a 30-year period that will serve as an excellent reference for a long time to come.

Irish Independent

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