Based on his success as a novelist, it could be easy to overlook how the majority of Colm Tóibín’s published oeuvre consists of journalistic articles and literary essays. When D.T. Max of The New Yorker asked Tóibín in 2021 how many articles he had written, he answered: ’I suppose thousands might be accurate.’ Among his staples are The Guardian, The Irish Times, The Dublin Review, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The London Review of Books, of which he is a contributing editor and where most of the essays in this new collection were originally published.
The collection’s final essay, ‘Alone in Venice’, provides a useful lens through which to view the collection as a whole. An elliptical piece that blends travel writing with art criticism, it moves between shadow and shade as Tóibín traverses the medieval churches of a desolate, Covid-stricken Venice, searching for the light that may illuminate their exquisite frescos. ‘Writers, it seems, have been grumbling about the lighting of paintings in Venice for some time,’ wrote John Ruskin to Henry James, the subject of Tóibín’s 2004 novel, The Master. Some of these writers came to recognise the aesthetic appeal of a painting partially obscured by shadow, appreciating the effect that so tantalised the great English romantic painter J.M.W. Turner. Tóibín cites the critic Rosella Mamoli Zorzi, who suggests that, in such an environment, ‘we are facing an aesthetic of darkness’. In these essays, Tóibín himself is engaged not only with drawing back the curtains of his own formative Irish influences, but in trying to devise an aesthetic by which he may navigate the darkness that was so pervasive in twentieth-century Irish life.
The collection is divided into three sections: in the first, we see Tóibín as personal essayist; in the second, as critical journalist; in the third, as literary critic. It is a diverse assemblage, offering a sense of Tóibín’s literary breadth and dexterity. The ebullience and intelligence displayed in his writings, particularly in these essays, is consistently apparent. Tóibín knows how to employ the concrete facts of his life in order to substantiate whatever nebulous feeling or emotion he wishes to articulate.
We see this in the first essay, where Tóibín recounts his cancer diagnosis and the subsequent course of chemotherapy. Initially dismissive of what he thought a benign malady, arising from an enflamed testicle, he is thrown aback on discovering the actual root of his illness. Forced to grapple with the imminent fact of his own mortality, hitherto contemplated behind what Nietzsche called the ‘pathos of distance’, all he can do is joke and revel in the situation’s uncanniness rather than trying to render it intelligible: ‘For a few days I comforted myself by pretending that, because of my abiding interest in the mysteries and niceties of Being I had to see an ontologist [instead of an oncologist].’ As the effects of chemo (or ‘the juice’) begins to weigh on him, Tóibín finds himself set against a terrible actuality, leaving him numb and bereft of any physical or mental energy to articulate the experience:
It wasn’t as though I was enjoying a period of inwardness or introspection. There was no inner-self to get in touch with. There was a surface self, and all it could do is stare straight ahead. […] People often talk about their ‘battle’ or ‘fight’ against cancer. It was really hard to know what this meant. I was sure that the nurses and doctors were involved in some battles, as were the cleaners and the kitchen staff, but I just lay there not thinking much. All I really wanted to do was fall asleep and not wake up until it was over.
Tóibín eschews the pretence for a visceral realism, one defined by pain and fear, resulting more in the dissociation of self than in the mastery of endurance.
The second essay, ‘A Guest at the Feast’, is the closest thing we have (so far, at least) to an autobiography from Tóibín. A portrait of the artist in several shades, it is a rich tapestry of individual scenes, stitched together roughly according to chronology, and coloured with meditations on Tóibín’s family history—his grandfather fought in the GPO during Easter week in 1916—and their place within the cultural geography of Wexford and Enniscorthy, Tóibín’s hometown. Although this essay is the oldest to feature in this section of the book (first appearing in 2011), it arguably provides the best reflection of Tóibín’s current preoccupations, fitting neatly between the book of verse he published last year, ‘Vinegar Hill’, and his work in progress, a novel set in a pub in Enniscorthy. Tóibín is retracing the mental landscape of his youth, and reconnecting with the people and associations which he may have sought to repudiate in his twenties, believing life to be something that happens ‘out there’, beyond the archaic insularity of rural Ireland. His mind was incubated in this milieu—his creative consciousness fostered by it—and it offers the canvas onto which his works are projected. What urban Dublin was to Joyce, or Sligo was to Jack Yeats, Wexford is to Tóibín. Vinegar Hill makes several fleeting appearances: constituting a stable rock of association, perpetually in view throughout his childhood, around which Tóibín can stitch the disparate facts of this period. Vinegar Hill also enjoys a prominent place in the Irish nationalist imagination, as the site where the Wexford rebels of 1798 made their final stand, allowing Tóibín to examine the intersections between family and national life, and personal and collective memory. He is excavating a vanquished world, surviving now only in fragments and physical remnants. When collated together, such disparate objects provide a well of insight. As Tóibín writes in the closing lines, adopting a Proustian idiom: ‘The smell on a summer’s day seems not to have changed; and the light itself, the light over the east coast of Ireland at this point in Wexford, oddly gentle, and subtle on most days, is filled for me with images and a confused jumble of memories, and then, on days when I am lucky, something becomes utterly clear, as though already shaped by the time that has passed.’
The second section offers four of Tóibín’s more excoriating works of journalism, each relating to the role and activities of the Catholic Church in Ireland. ‘The Paradoxical Pope’ is a 1995 profile of Pope John Paul II, in which Tóibín proceeds to locate the rationale behind this pontiff’s curious aversion to argument and constant prevarication. ‘Among the Flutterers’ analyses the place of homosexuality in the Catholic Church; and how, in what might at first seem paradoxical, the Catholic Church offered a place of sanctuary to homosexual men at odds with themselves and unsure of their place in society. Tóibín knows because he himself was attracted to the priesthood, in his teens, for precisely this reason. He deftly employs his own experience to substantiate his argument, as in ‘The Bergoglio Smile: Pope Francis’. In this assessment of the current pope, Tóibín draws on his own 1985 reporting from the trials of the military leaders who held power in Argentina during the 1970s. Jorge Mario Bergoglio reigned over the Jesuits in Argentina and Uruguay as an authoritarian, and was frequently criticised for his ‘ultra-conservative’ posture and refusal to comment on the activities of Argentina’s despotic military junta: ‘When Jesuit Priests visited poor areas, Bergoglio encouraged them to talk about religion rather than social conditions and to have nothing to do with unions or co-operatives.’ ‘Being elected pope [in 2013] cheered Bergoglio up immensely’; but, as Tóibín demonstrates, without shedding his ‘inflexible side.’ ‘The Ferns Report’ is Tóibín’s response to the report of the tribunal into allegations of child sexual abuse in the diocese of Ferns, encompassing the entirety of Wexford. Tóibín rightly refrains from diluting the report’s acridity, writing with an anger that never slips from his control. The result is unsettling. As a schoolboy at Saint Peter’s College in Wexford, Tóibín knew several of the convicted priests, men he once considered reputable and admirable. The report awakened him to the ‘realm of innuendo, rumour and nudges’ that protected deviant priests from the Irish authorities. Like most people in Ireland at this time, Tóibín’s initial surprise soon subsided into remorse and acute guilt. People recognised these institutional crimes, and frequently knew the perpetrators, but they were not spoken about. They were subsumed in the darkness of twentieth-century Ireland, a darkness that was now dispersing, leaving some wondering why it had taken so long, and leaving others apologetic for not acting sooner.
In the third section, along with ‘Alone in Venice’, we find three essays of insightful literary criticism that each recapitulate the central themes of this volume. ‘Putting Religion in its Place: Marilynne Robinson’ offers a close reading of Robinson’s essays and novels in which Tóibín seeks to resolve a deceptively onerous ‘technical problem’: ‘how do you create a religious or non-secular protagonist in a novel without making a dog’s dinner out of the book?’ ‘Issues of Truth and Invention: Francis Stuart’ offers a nuanced portrait of this divisive Irish writer and novelist—for a time Tóibín’s friend and link to the ‘highest reaches of Irish grandeur’ (he was married to Maud Gonne’s daughter, Iseult, and knew Yeats). Stuart was also one of the few to emigrate to Germany on the outbreak of war in 1940, from where he broadcast anti-British and pro-Axis propaganda back to Ireland. The essay centres on the controversy that followed Stuart’s election to the position of Saoi in Aosdána, as substantial proof of his alleged antisemitism surfaced in the years after his election. Tóibín had voted for Stuart, as did a majority of Aosdána’s members, and the essay allows him to redress the moral lacunae in consideration of what we now know. In ‘Snail Slow: John McGahern’, Tóibín reviews the new edition of McGahern’s letters, and considers his own relationship with this elusive and transgressive novelist. In the early 1980s, he had little interest in McGahern’s work: ‘I found too much Irish misery in it, too much fear and violence and repressed sexuality, too much rural life and Catholicism.’ In the darkness of McGahern’s novels, though, Tóibín soon found a peculiar light, coming to recognise him as a masterful chronicler of rural Ireland’s protracted demise, and finding in him a way to reckon with a history that most would prefer to let rest and decay. We bear the fruit of these ruminations in this fine set of essays.