BOOKS: A Guest at the Feast by Colm Tóibín

ESSAYS

Light and Shade

David O’Connor

A Guest at the Feast, by Colm Tóibín, Penguin/Viking, 2022, 299 pp, £20, 978-0241004630

Among the memory fragments in the title essay of his new collection, A Guest at the Feast, Colm Tóibín writes of his late mother’s expressed preference for novels she thought “smart”. By “smart” she seems to have meant something like energetic and clever, of constant interest. The opposite of smart was “slow-moving”. Tóibín inferred, he told a radio interviewer, that “smart” was an attribute his own work lacked. This may or may not be the case with what he calls in these pages his “melancholy fictions”. But it cannot be said of his essays. His essays are often smart. And entertaining. And much else besides. They are looser, rangier, less set in their ways than the fiction. Perhaps because an essayist need not deal with all Tóibín says a “poor” novelist must: “perspective, context, point of view and banal issues of narrative line and credibility”. Credibility is an interesting word and there are issues with that word “issues”.

A Guest at the Feast is divided into three parts. Part One is memoir and autobiography, Part Two is concerned with the Catholic church, and Part Three is mostly literary criticism. The book ends with “Alone in Venice”, a coda of sorts, obsessed with light and shade, blending memoir, travel writing, art and literary criticism and biography, in a shadowy, flickering intensification and lulling of the book’s lapped preoccupations. Throughout the collection personal reminiscence informs, enriches and complicates. In the intriguing “A Brush with the Law”, for instance, Tóibín, then editor of the current affairs magazine Magill, tells how, in the 1980s, while looking into the workings of the Irish justice system in the aftermath of David Norris’s legal challenges to prohibitive laws on homosexuality, he grew fond of many of the judges whom he met, though he disagreed with them on almost every matter.

So much that attracts in Tóibín’s writing is on display in the opening piece, “Cancer: My Part in Its Downfall”, which takes us through diagnosis, chemotherapy and eventual recovery. The narrative is deftly told, in subtle modulations, with careful attention to form and style. Tóibín does not emote. He begins in confident, downbeat, good humour: “It all started with my balls.” The humour wanes as suffering intensifies. He details the destruction wrought by “the juice”: “There was no inner self to examine or get in touch with.” Vague language and a refusal of simile convey the singular experience: “something hard and severe and relentless. It was like pain or a sort of anguish, but those words don’t really cover it.” A paragraph on food mimics the sandwiches made with “thin, cheap white sliced bread” Tóibín found he could stomach. In repeated struggles to get through “the next five minutes”, the fluency of the writing is obstructed, the usual long mellifluous sentences clogged, their rhythm aptly disrupted, reduced to a succession of spurts: “No watching films; no TV; no radio; no books; no magazines or journals. No memories; no thoughts; no plans for the future. Nothing.” This is autobiography in negative, all that is missed in a life on hold. Over time, Tóibín’s humour revives. A comparison of cancer with blood clot is particularly funny. The piece ends with a sentence whose subtle, amusing artfulness leaves no doubt that, for the patient, recovered or not, a cancer diagnosis is epochal.

In a “A Guest at the Feast”, a portrait of the artist as memory collage, Tóibín writes of his realisation, after meeting the painter Paul Funge, “that art was a way of making shape out of your own concerns”. Funge’s work was “autobiographical … it came out of himself, his experiences, what he knew”. And here we may glimpse the source material of much of Tóibín’s fiction: childhood, family, the Wexford coastline. But also, Enniscorthy’s summer of love, and a chance encounter in a Dublin pub with the composer Frederick May. The entire assemblage is effective and affecting, sometimes in its omissions. The death of Tóibín’s father, if memory serves, is mentioned only in passing, as he describes how his mother “ceased to believe in magic”. There are acts of ritualistic, incantatory recall, as writing, for Tóibín, makes “sacred” spaces that were once “ordinary”. What writing, or wishful thinking, might make of memory and the things of the past – “I am not quite sure how much I imagined and how much I remember” – is a recurrent question in the collection.

Saint Pope John Paul II with Monsignor Dan Hart, the Dumbarton-born priest who organised his visit to Scotland in the 1980s.

“The Paradoxical Pope” is a 1995 New Yorker profile of Karol Wojtyła as Pope John Paul II. The title refers to the contrasting tones of address in Wojtyła’s public statements. As pope, Wojtyła refused argument, coupling his refusal with vacuous noises of solidarity or compassion for the spurned. Tóibín attends the pope’s live performances, witnesses his magnetism at work, and invokes Wojtyła’s history in theatre to explain his practised theatrics. “Among the Flutterers” (flutterer comes from a letter from John McGahern about his visit to a seminary) is a serious discussion of homosexuality and the Catholic church. Tóibín explains in detail why he thinks so many gay men were attracted to the priesthood. The piece is not without humour. The then (2010) pope, Joseph Ratzinger, makes an appearance wearing a pair of red Prada shoes “that would take the eye out of your head”, and in the company of his private secretary, the “gorgeous Georg” Gänswein.

“The Bergoglio Smile: Pope Francis” draws on several biographies and on Tóibín’s own 1985 reporting from the trials of the military leaders who had held power in Argentina during the Dirty War of the 1970s (The reports are collected in The Trial of the Generals: Selected Journalism 1980-1990). Tóibín tells us what prompted the piece: “Twenty-eight years later, in 2013, when Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who had been in Buenos Aires through the reign of the generals, was elected pope, I wondered what his response to the disappearances had been. What was he doing, what was he saying, between 1976 and 1982?” Tóibín traces Bergoglio’s seeming transformation from hardline authoritarian to beaming pontiff: “Being elected pope cheered Bergoglio up immensely.” Tóibín shows too how Francis has not altogether shed his “inflexible side”. Tóibín’s Pope Francis is a slippery character, not to be trusted.

“The Ferns Report” is Tóibín’s 2005 piece on the report of the tribunal of inquiry into allegations of child sexual abuse in the diocese of Ferns, in the southeast of Ireland. It is murky, upsetting and all too familiar. Here, personal reminiscence thickens the murk. As a schoolboy at Saint Peter’s College in Wexford, Tóibín had known and liked some of the accused, some of whom were convicted. He does not spare the details of the report. It is horrific.

There is a puzzling moment in the cancer memoir. Tóibín tells how he resolved, unless “fully falling apart”, to tell the doctor he was well. “I enjoyed adding,” he adds, “that there were ‘no issues’. I had never used the word ‘issues’ before.” He may not have used it in speech, but he had in print. Between an intricate discussion of religion in the essays and novels of Marilynne Robinson and a review of John McGahern’s collected letters much enlivened by details of Tóibín’s friendly visits to the McGahern home, comes “Issues of Truth and Invention: Francis Stuart”, a fascinating essay on the novelist, poet and broadcaster from wartime Berlin under the Nazis. The essay is equivocal, rife with contradiction, tense with contorted strain. Nothing in its pages is not of interest. It recounts the controversy over the awarding of an honour to Stuart. It tells of Tóibín’s fondness for the man and his respect for the work. He says of Stuart’s novel Black List, Section H: “Neither before or since have I read anything that overwhelmed in quite the same way.” Of H in the novel, Tóibín writes: “This was an Irish self, and a man I had met, who seemed willing to dramatize his own moral awkwardness and his own dark search.” It was not a man he had met, it was a fictional construct, and that “seemed” is hard at work. Stuart, for Tóibín, gives an insight into “what pushes us all towards writing novels: the dramatic revelation of matters that are hidden and dark and difficult”. It becomes apparent that Stuart’s dark past was not entirely credible in its retelling. The evidence against piles up as transcripts of his broadcasts and other documents come to light, and Tóibín has cause to declare, in an oddly slouching, if emphatic, sentence: “Those of us who believed that H and Francis were one and the same person were wrong to do so.”

There is another emphatic statement in that essay: “I cannot accept that writers should be good people.” (I like that “should”.) This prompts the question: What makes a good person, and who gets to decide? This book suggests some responses. To Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and to members of the teachers’ union when John McGahern, pictured left,  was sacked on instructions from McQuaid, John McGahern was not a good person; to the priest in Saint Peter’s who promised to wipe the smirk off Colm Tóibín’s face, Tóibín was not a good person; to some of the High Court judges and the then Chief Justice in the early 1980s, “homosexuals” were not good people; to some of the people of Ferns, the reporters who wrote of the priests’ sexual abuse of children, and the families of the abused, and the abused themselves, were not good people. These are dark thoughts, the sort that this book can incite.

Tóibín goes on: “I wish the business of evil were explored more often and more seriously in fiction. Thus I cannot complain when Francis Stuart is honoured by his fellow artists. It is not a simple matter; it does not come to us pure.” What might it mean for Tóibín to get his wish? To go by this book, it would mean more novels and stories, more shapes made out of their own concerns, more works that came out of themselves, what they knew, not quite sure how much they imagined and how much they remember, by the likes of Fr Sean Fortune, Fr Donal Collins and Fr James Doyle; by the likes of John McGahern’s father, who, we read in a letter printed here, beat one of McGahern’s sisters into temporary paralysis; by the likes of John Charles McQuaid.

I have heard this book likened on radio to a Christmas selection box, by a laughing Tóibín to a sort of greatest hits. But this book is no stocking filler. It is something else entirely. And no poorer for that. This is a book with serious issues.

Colm Toibin picture by Bill Heaney

1/11/2022

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