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Tóibín, Colm

TÓIBÍN, Colm

Nationality: Irish. Born: Ireland, 1955. Career: Journalist and columnist for the Dublin Sunday Independent, beginning in 1985; essayist for Esquire (London), and London Review of Books. Awards: Irish Times Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize, 1991; Encore Prize for best second novel published in Britain, 1992; E. M. Forster Award (American Academy of Arts and Letters), 1995. Agent: c/o Publicity Director, Penguin Books, 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014. Address: 12 Upper Pembroke Street, Dublin 2, Ireland.

Publications

Novels

The South. London, Serpent's Tail, 1990; New York, Viking, 1991.

The Heather Blazing. London, Pan Books, 1992; New York, Viking, 1993.

The Story of the Night. London, Picador, 1996; New York, HenryHolt, 1997.

Finbar's Hotel (serial novel, with others), devised and edited byDermot Bolger. London, Picador, 1997; San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1999.

The Blackwater Lightship. London, Picador, 1999; New York, Scribner, 2000.

Other

Walking along the Border. London, Macdonald, 1987; as Bad Blood: A Walk along the Irish Border. London, Vintage, 1994.

Martyrs and Metaphors. Dublin, Raven Arts Press, 1987.

Homage to Barcelona. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1990; with a new introduction by the author, New York, Penguin, 1992.

The Trial of the Generals: Selected Journalism, 1980-1990. Dublin, Raven Arts Press, 1990.

Dubliners (travelogue), photographs by Tony O'Shea. London, Macdonald, 1990.

The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe. New York, Pantheon, 1994.

The Irish Famine. London, Profile Books, 1999.

The Modern Library: The Two Hundred Best Novels in English Since 1950 (with Carmen Callil). London, Picador, 1999.

Editor, Seeing Is Believing: Moving Statues in Ireland. Mountrath, Ireland, Pilgrim Press, 1985.

Editor, Soho Square 6: New Writing from Ireland. London, Bloomsbury, 1993; published as New Writing from Ireland. Winchester, Massachusetts, Faber & Faber, 1994.

Editor, The Kilfenora Teaboy: A Study of Paul Durcan. Dublin, NewIsland Books, 1996.

Editor, The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction. New York, Viking, 2000.

* * *

Colm Tóibín's four novels pose the issues of tone and style. If we call it the "plain style," we will need to distinguish it from the ironic deadpan of Joyce's Dubliners or the deadbeat of Beckett's prose, to name two important antecedents for any Irish writer. But it is also different from the bravados of Gertrude Stein or Ernest Hemingway. We will find Tóibín's prose true to his characters rather than himself.

Not since Iris Murdoch's call in 1959 ("The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited") for novelists to write about characters unlike themselves have we seen so thorough a forgetting of authorial personhood in the novel. The central character of The South is Katherine Proctor, who leaves husband, child, and ancestral big house behind. While the ostensible breaking point for her is her husband's insistence that a poor neighbor be sued for damages against her wishes, we learn that her mother also left her husband, her child, and this house behind after they were burnt out in the troubles by their Catholic neighbors. We find out later how alien Katherine felt in her home, surrounded by a hostile class and culture. Katherine's flight to Barcelona is supported by her mother.

Katherine is a painter. She begins a relationship with another painter who has suffered incarceration and torture for his revolutionary activities during the Spanish Civil War. They begin a different kind of life for themselves, centered on their work. They leave Barcelona for an isolated mountain village and have a daughter, but Miguel cannot forget the war, and Katherine finds that they are occupying a battlefield in Miguel's past. When he retrieves a fellow anarchist to recuperate with them, it brings the police down on them, upsetting Miguel's own tenuous stability. In one of the most terrible scenes in the novel, Miguel (who does not drive) takes their daughter with him in the jeep, and has an accident fatal to them both.

But Katherine's past has not been expunged either. Early in their relationship, Miguel and Katherine meet an Irish painter, Michael Graves, who is from Katherine's town. His continued friendship keeps her from losing her Irish identity in Spain, and they return to Ireland together after Miguel dies. Katherine makes an elaborate peace with her son, now married. She resumes her painting and forges a quiet companionship with Graves, but these accommodations are not presented as equal to what she has lost.

The Heather Blazing opens onto Eamon Redmond, a High Court judge who will drive off to his holiday cottage with his wife, Carmen, after delivering a judgement in favor of a hospital discharging a handicapped child into the care of its impoverished parents. The novel recovers the childhood that brought him to such a distant relation to the pain of others, to his wife and children.

Chapters alternate (roughly) between Eamon's present and his past, when he grew up in Enniscorthy. His father, a schoolteacher, raised him alone. His father was a respected teacher and local historian. When he has a stroke and goes into the hospital, Eamon cannot remain at homehe must live with relatives and go to a trade school. When his father is able to return, Eamon suffers with his father's slurred speech and diminished capacity. He follows his father's political affiliation to Fianna Fáil, and meets his future wife while canvassing. His rise in the courts is not hampered by his politics.

Carmen tries to reach him, to make him talk to her, to keep less to himself. Unexpectedly, she has a stroke; he tends to her but later, she dies. Eamon must then deal with his grief over her passing. He gradually comes closer to his children and their families through his grandson. In a beautifully understated final episode, he becomes a companion to the boy by making him a basin of seawater to play in. At the end, they go to the shore to play in the sea, repeating a custom that Eamon shared with his father.

The Story of the Night is set in Argentina during the military dictatorship of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Richard Garay's irreconcilably British mother taught him English and associated herself with the British enclave in Buenos Aires. When his father dies, their diminished income forces them to vacate their apartment for the grudging charity of Argentinean relatives she has scorned. They can return only after his mother has drawn on the charity of the resident British for a job for herself and help with Richard's tuition.

Richard feels distant from his parents, his relatives, his schoolfellows, and his fellow English teachers at the school, but he is in love with Jorge Canetto, a fellow university student who asked him to teach him English. Richard and Jorge go for a holiday in Spain together, paid for by the Canettos, but Jorge is emphatically heterosexual in his company. As Argentina destabilizes during the Malvinas debacle, Jorge's father envisions himself as the next president. To access American support, he secures an invitation for Richard to a party given by Donald and Susan Ford, two CIA operatives. Richard's bilingualism proves invaluable to the Fords, and he is woven into the profiteering of denationalizing the oil industry as a consultant.

As Richard's world widens beyond his parents' flat and their furniture, which he has kept, he meets Pablo, Jorge's brother returned from San Francisco. Eventually Pablo agrees to move into a modern house Richard sublets.

Although Tóibín's fictional characters speak as sparely as he writes, it is only The Story of the Night that is told in first-person narrative. Perhaps only the full power of his understated prose can carry what one expects or fears for Richard and Pablo. Although years are never given, Pablo's description of San Francisco recounts the initial appearance of AIDS. Pablo inexplicably leaves Richard. In despair, Richard visits in New York with an acquaintance from the oil industry who gives him sex and cocaine without complications, but Richard's apparently allergic reaction to the drugs shows how well this narrator keeps from himself and his readers how sick he is. He barely gets home on the plane. He has AIDS as well, and he encounters Pablo in the doctor's office, also being treated. The full weight of Tóibín's investment in spareness across several novels pays for a dignity of suffering at the end of the novel, in the last words Richard has for us:

We went into the house and closed the door behind us. He asked me to turn the heating on and said that he would go to bed for a while. Maybe, if he was well enough, I said, we could go back into the city in the evening and go to a movie. Maybe, he said, maybe we'll do that. He asked me to wake him in an hour or two if he was still asleep.

The Blackwater Lightship, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, leaves behind what threatened to be standard features of Tóibín's fiction as it adds the unexpected. The second novel quietly used the same area of Ireland (Enniscorthy) as his first, but his new novel consciously names properties and families from The Heather Blazing. Until we see more of his work, we cannot rule out the depressing idea that he has fallen to aspirations of an oeuvre and his own literary landscape. But the work itself is very fine, a new step, a more energetic narrating and listening to several characters good at telling their stories to each other, as if he had legacied his recognizably laconic prose style to Richard Garay's terminal narrative.

In the novel Helen's father died when she was a child, and her mother's need to tend him in the hospital in Dublin forged in Helen a separateness that she cannot relinquish. She lives her life as a principal of a comprehensive school, mother of two boys, and wife without allowing her mother to see any of it.

Her world apart is breached by a visitor who tells her that her brother Declan is near death from AIDS. Declan wants to leave the hospital to go to his grandmother's house in Cush (the locale detailed in The Heather Blazing ). The grandmother Dora, her daughter Lily, and her granddaughter Helen must deal with Declan's friends and his life in the close area of a cliff-side cottage and the unremitting last stages of Declan's illness. When he inevitably must return to the hospital for treatment, each of the women has changed enough to come closer to each other.

William Johnsen

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