Category Archives: Colm Toibin

Connections: Julio Cortazar, Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich, Victor Shklovsky, Zbigniew Herbert

“… the feeling more than the awareness, the intuition that literary prose – in this case, I picture myself while I am writing – can manifest as pure communication and in a perfect style, but also with a certain structure, a certain syntactic architecture, a certain articulation of words, a rhythm in the use of punctuation or separation into sections, a cadence that the reader’s internal ear can recognize more or less clearly as a musical element.”

  • Julio Cortazar, Literature Class 

“And there was also something in his practice which corresponded to the poetics of Robert Frost, in so far as the thing that MacDiarmid was after in the deep Scottish ear resembled what Frost called ‘the sound of sense’, a phonetic patterning which preceded speech and authenticated it, a kind of pre-verbal register to which the poetic voice had to be tuned.”

  • Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry

“That’s where the problem begins, because if he uses the language that expresses the world he is attacking, that language will betray him. How can he denounce something with the tools that are used by the enemy, that is, the stratified, codified language, a language already used by the masters and their disciples?”

  • Julio Cortazar, Literature Class

“… knowledge of the oppressor

is the oppressor’s language

yet I need it to talk to you

(the fracture of order

the repair of speech

to overcome this suffering…)”

“At the beginning there appeared a poet like Mayakovsky. He destroyed the language of poetry and prose and created a new language, which isn’t easy to do. It wasn’t immediately understandable, and it contained dizzying and difficult images.”

  • Julio Cortazar, Literature Class

“Bits of landscape melted into – burned themselves into – Mayakovsky’s poems.”

  • Victor Shklovsky, Once Upon a Time

“… colonization, poverty, and goonish governments also mutilate us aesthetically.”

  • Julio Cortazar, Literature Class

“It didn’t require great character at all

our refusal disagreement and resistance

we had a shred of necessary courage

but fundamentally it was a matter of taste

                                    Yes taste

in which there are fibers of soul the cartilage of conscience

So aesthetics can be helpful in life

one should not neglect the study of beauty…

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Filed under Colm Toibin, Ireland, Julio Cortazar, Poland, Seamus Heaney, Zbigniew Herbert

“He saw her as merely a name in his diary”: Colm Toibin’s ‘The Master’

“It was easier to be old here, he thought; no colour was simple, nothing was fresh, even the sunlight itself seemed to fall and linger in ways which had been honoured by time.”

Previously, I described Colm Toibin’s writing as a “breath on glass“, borrowing his own words in The South. In The Master, Toibin uses another phrase that would be perfect to describe his writing. Between Henry James and Minnie Temple, he writes, there was “much that would have to be left unsaid and a great deal that would never be known.” The Master, a thickly fictional biography of Henry James, defines its protagonist by what is left unsaid and what would never be known, and is itself defined by the unsaid and the unknown. In The South, Toibin wrote of the “subtleties of silence“. The Master is an entire book filled with silences, half-suggestions that one must strain to catch, murmurs that resemble “breathing on glass in its uncertainty and its delicacy... [and to] see a pattern before the breath was cleared away.

The portrait that Toibin paints of Henry James is of a man wedded to his art, keenly aware of the opposing pull of human relationships and human intimacy, and yet determined to reject it. “We all liked you,”, reminisces the Baroness von Rabe on a late evening in Rome, “and I suppose you liked us as well, but you were too busy gathering material to like anyone too much.” “Only sentences are beautiful“, Henry says at another time, merely half-joking. Reality is to be studied, but never to be embraced – until art sublimates it into something worth embracing. And so, while his own experiences with intimacy are dilute and attenuated, full of awkward retreats and withdrawals, it is in his companions’ death that the relationship nears completion: “he had them now, all three of them, and he would embrace them, hold on to them and let them improve with time, become more complex and less vulgar, less ugly, more rich, more resonant, more true not to what life was, but to what it might be.”

Toibin follows Henry James as he moves through Europe at the closing of the 19th century, a Europe that suggests a fading, weary lustre, whether it is the “openness and grand vistas of Rome“, or the “modest and guarded proportions” of his garden in the English village of Rye, “closer to the scale of the landscape they had been moving in, and strangely closer to their range of feeling.” As someone who made his career writing about Americans abroad in Europe, Henry too feels the same dissonance, the “yearning openness of Americans, their readiness for experience, their eyes bright with expectation and promise” contrasted sharply with “the dry nature of English experience – sure of its own place and unready for change, steeped in the solid and the social, a system of manners developed without much interruption for a thousand years.” In the pages of the book, a long (and illustrious) caste of characters traipses through, never staying too long, never long enough to establish themselves in the woodwork of the novel, quickly dissolving into memories “sharp in… outline and faded in… detail”: James Gray and Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James and Alice James, Minnie Temple and Constance Woolson. With each of them, James shares a troubles and ambiguous relationship, often terminated by untimely deaths.

A number of James’ relationships are with women, and it is here that Toibin is at his keenest and most sensitive as a writer, as an observer, as a portraitist. In the most effortless way imaginable, he describes the same world that is full of openness and possibility for a man like James, and is cloying and stifling for women like Alice, Minnie and Constance:

“Considering her insistence on raising the issue of Constance Fenimore Woolson the previous evening and her insinuation that he had abandoned her friend and left her to her fate in Venice, he wondered if she, too, Lily Norton, had been abandoned, or if she lived in fear of such an eventuality. Her not marrying, not being allied with someone who could offer her greater purpose and scope for all her flair and charm, was, in his view, a mistake and would likely seem more so as time passed. As he looked at her across the table, it occurred to him that the re-creation of herself, her deliberate broadening of her effect, could have atrophied other qualities more endearing to a potential suitor.”


“‘I think it’s difficult for all of us. The gap is so wide,’ Constance said.

‘You mean between her imagination and her confines?’ Henry asked.

‘I mean between using our intelligence as women to the full and the social consequences of that,’ Constance said. ‘Alice has done what she has to do, and I admire her.’

‘She really has done nothing except stay in bed,’ Henry said.

‘That’s precisely what I mean,’ Constance replied.

‘I do not understand,’ he said.

‘I mean that the consequences get into the marrow of you soul.’”

It is with Woolson, in particular, that James’ inability – or unwillingness – to comprehend intimacy is at its sharpest, and most tragic. Woolson dies by throwing herself off her balcony in Florence, after unsuccessfully importuning Henry to come to Italy for the winter. And Henry is left to make sense of a relationship that “had been so tentative and full of possibility”, and is now reduced to “her absence in all its finality.” But if the purpose of tragedy is to infuse life with meaning, even in death, then Toibin – through James – denies us the simplicity of closure, or the ease of discovering meaning. There is always that sense of elusiveness, of meaning evading us, just out of reach of our grasp, breath on glass, the unsaid and the unknown. Henry comes to realise, at the end, “how memory and regret can mingle, how much sorrow can be held within, and how nothing seems to have any shape or meaning until it is well past and lost and, even then, how much, under the weight of pure determination, can be forgotten and left aside only to return in the night as piercing pain.”

There’s a sense of Elizabeth Bishop here, a poet whom Toibin has written about with great sensitivity and admiration. Bishop’s One Art ends with the lines “it’s evident/the art of losing’s not too hard to master/ though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” These lines have always indicated, to me, that the shape and texture of loss – “its weight and meaning” is created only through the act of writing, and of course, even that is never complete. For James – and Toibin – meaning itself is created through loss, and is always incomplete, no matter how much you may try to write it!

There is another way in which the presence of Bishop pervades The Master. In his book on Elizabeth Bishop, Toibin quotes Lowell’s ode to her as a fine description of her work:

Do/ you still hang your words in the air, ten years/ unfinished, glued to your noticeboard with gaps/ or empties for the unimaginable phrase -/ unerring Muse, who makes the casual perfect.

Who makes the casual perfect.” In Toibin’s writing – both in The South and in The Master, there is a search for depth in the everyday acts that constitute the layered lives of people. In The Master, he puts it perfectly, again in the thoughts of Henry James:

“In its detail and its dialogue, its slow movements and its mystery, it stood against abstraction, against the greyness and foolishness of large concepts. But it stood singly and small and unprotected, barely present.”

Detail, dialogue, slow movements, against abstraction, the foolishness of large concepts. There is a literary philosophy, to which one might add: the foolishness of easy emotions, the temptation of easy memories, the myth of easy meanings. In Toibin’s writing, like the colours of Rome, nothing is simple. Not even the city of Rome at the turn of the century:

“As Rome became more modern, he wrote to Paul Bourget, he himself became increasingly antique. He had fled from Venice, from the memories and echoes that had settled in its atmosphere, and had at first refused all Roman invitations and offers of shelter. He lodged instead in a hotel close to Piazza di Spagna and he found himself in his early days in the city walking slowly as though the heat of high summer had come in May. He did not at first climb the Spanish Steps, nor make a pilgrimage to any site further than a few streets from his hotel. He tried not to conjure up memories deliberately, nor to compare the city of almost thirty years earlier with the city of now. He did not allow any easy nostalgia to colour the dulled sweetness of these days. He was not disposed to meeting himself in a younger and more impressionable guise and thus feeling sadness at the knowledge that no new discoveries would be made, no new excitements felt, merely old ones revisited. He allowed himself to love these streets, as though they were a poem he had once memorized, and the years when he had first seen these colours and stones and studied these faces seemed a rich and valuable part of what he was now. His eye was no longer surprised and delighted, as it once had been, but neither was it jaded.”

The Master is a book like that. It understands the limits of surprise and delight in this world, but rejects the empty alternative of the jaded.


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Addendum: Edward Said and Colm Toibin

Coincidentally, soon after finishing Colm Toibin’s The South, I came across the following lines in Edward Said’s Culture & Imperialism, analysing the novels of Flaubert and Conrad:

“Unlike Robinson Crusoe on his island, these modern versions of the imperialist who attempts self-redemption are doomed ironically to suffer interruption and distraction, as what they had tried to exclude from their island worlds penetrates anyway. The covert influence of imperial control in Flaubert’s imagery of solitary imperiousness is striking when juxtaposed with Conrad’s overt representations.

Within the codes of European fiction, these interruptions of an imperial project are realistic reminders that no one can in fact withdraw from the world into a private version of reality.”

The constant impingement of the world into increasingly desperate, and increasingly doomed, attempts to create a private reality is, I feel, one of the central concerns in Toibin’s The South.

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“The subtleties of silence”: Colm Toibin’s ‘The South’

“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.


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