“Cold grey light of the morning in Enniscorthy, the Slaney running softly towards Wexford and the sea, the Dublin train moving past the river and the Ringwood and Davis’ Mills and then under the tunnel at the Model School to cross the bridge and arrive at the station where she was waiting.”
Kafka wrote that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” But where Kafka thought of literature as being about breaking through surfaces, to “stab and wound“, Colm Toibin’s The South shows us that a feather-light touch, a “breath on glass” (to use his own words) can be as potent a tool as an axe. Toibin uses the phrase “breath on glass” to describe love – “a small pattern of grief and happiness” in a life, fragile and impermanent, leaving no trace but a memory. I think the same can be said about Toibin’s first work of fiction, The South, a story about exile, love, loss and painting, in mid-century Ireland and Spain. By the end of the book, its specific events had already begun to recede from memory, leaving behind a residue of haunting images, words, and colours. Breath on glass.
The South is the story of Katherine, who leaves her farmstead and her unhappy marriage in Enniscorthy, Ireland, and travels to Barcelona to become a painter. After weeks of aimless wandering, in which she struggles with the past (“grey and empty like the narrow streets of San Sebastian at four in the afternoon“) and her own actions in abandoning her husband and son (“she had forgotten about them now, they came in dreams sometimes and melted into other dreams“), she eventually meets another painter, Miguel, struggling with his own memories of the Spanish Civil War, hastily falls in love (“she had no context in which to place him), and begins her painting lessons. Soon after, they meet Michael Graves, another Irishman seeking sanctuary from his country in Barcelona, who attaches himself to them. Ultimately, Miguel and Katherine seek their solitude in a small mountain village, withdrawing into themselves – before Miguel’s own past and the lingering repression of Franco’s regime collide with devastating consequences.
The South represents, in fiction, something that has been a concern of Toibin’s in his non-fiction, such as Love in a Dark Time: the temptation – and the danger – of reducing complex individuals, and individual works, to a single defining feature. In Love in a Dark Time, it is sexuality; in The South, it is politics, reflected most clearly in the reiteration of an ancient debate, this time between Miguel and Rogent, their painting teacher:
“Rogent spoke about colour and form, he talked about beauty, he spoke about using paint almost for its own sake. Miguel believed that paintings should state something, should tell the truth, should be assertive. Miguel admired Goya for his Third of May; Ramon admired Goya for his court portraits as well. Their views were so clear-cut and far apart that Katherine had no difficulty understanding them. Nor had she any difficulty siding with Ramon Rogent. She felt this sharply as she moved about the gallery.”
But while it is one thing to avoid reduction, it is quite another to jettison politics as easily as slipping out of an old pair of clothes. This is something that Toibin was aware of. Both Katherine and Miguel come from deeply politicised societies, and both have borne the brunt of a particularly violent brand of politics. But while Katherine consciously pushes that away from her, Miguel is unable to avoid being defined, even as he struggles against it.
“He was puzzled by this new context he had for me, as though I was some sort of victim of history. Not a victim, perhaps, but a participant. I have failed to explain to him that I am not. I am on my own here without all that weight of history.”
And in many ways, The South is the story of Katherine trying – and failing – to liberate herself from the weight of history, whether political or personal. Towards the end of the novel, when she is back in Ireland, and painting its landscapes with their “thundery blue light“, she realises that:
“This was the land the English had taken over and tilled. They had cut down the trees, they had given new names to each thing, as though they were the first to live there. In the beginning she had been trying to paint the land as though it had no history, only colours and contours. Had the light changed as the owners changed? How could it matter? At dawn and dusk she walked along by the river. In the morning there was a mist along the Slaney, palpable, grey, lingering. In the evening at four when the light faded, an intense calm descended on the river, a dark blue stillness as though glass were moving from Wicklow to the sea, even the sounds were then muted… She began to work; she started to paint as though she was trying to catch the landscape rolling backwards into history, as though horizon was a time as well as a place. Dusk on Slaney. Over and over. Dusk on Slaney and the sense of all dusks that have come and gone in one spot in one country, the time it was painted to stand for all time, with all time’s ambiguities.”
So much for the political. Milan Kundera’s line – “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” – is often taken to be speaking about struggles over political memory, and attempts to hold on to that memory in the face of overwhelming odds. But as Jonas Lichtman argues in an essay called To Forget History, there is another way of understanding Kundera’s words:
“The first time I read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I thought it was a political book. I read it as a novel dedicated to the idea that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” as one character states. But what hadn’t occurred to me was that Mirek, the character who utters that proclamation, in fact spends most of his time not fighting the State, but trying to retrieve love letters from a former lover of whom he is ashamed. The former lover is a hardline communist, which embarrasses Mirek — but not as much as her physical ugliness. His political repulsion is a cover for aesthetic disgust. As Kundera wrote in The Art of the Novel, “Before it becomes a political issue, the will to forget is an existential one: man has always harbored the desire to rewrite his own biography, to change the past, to wipe out tracks, both his own and others’.” While the struggle of man against power is still the struggle of memory against forgetting, this struggle is not nearly as compelling, to Kundera, as man’s struggle to reshape his own past into a livable present… If the novel’s personal elements are more compelling to Kundera, critics tend to focus on the political. Kundera’s line about the struggle of man against power is almost always read as referring to the State, rather than, for example, as a statement about man’s struggle against the passage of time.”
Even unconsciosly, time past will impinge itself through the cracks of memory. As Katherine tells herself in the aftermath of personal tragedy, “reality rests in being reminded.” This is subtly reflected throughout the book, in how Katherine sees art and the world through the lens of decay: “All morning the sense of decay impinged as though it were a colour“; “Down the ridge and along the valley basin for miles were the yellows, browns, golds of decay.” Even breath on glass has its own paradoxical permanence.
Earlier in the book, Toibin engages in a neat play with words, when he has Rogent teach Katherine that in painting, “light was a form of weight.” It is intuitive, of course, to read “light” in the sense of “light and shadow”; but “light” might also simply mean lightness of touch, which only sharpens the antinomy (the reference to Kundera here is unmistakable). Rogent’s lesson resonates throughout the book. Toibin writes in lightness, deft words and phrases stating the minimum, sketching the outlines of images that the imagination must fill in: “each colour and hint of colour glittered as it caught the sun“; “governing everything was the hard light of Majorca, harder than anything in Catalonia, the soul taken out of every colour and just like its dead, hard body left glinting like granite.”
Toibin does not use the axe that Kafka is so enamoured of. But his words, and his hints of words, which glitter as they catch the imagination, warm the frozen sea without the need to break through it. Mahmoud Darwish wrote about the indelibility of the butterfly’s footprints. Toibin’s work has the indelibility of breath upon glass.