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“They were eyes that stung you to tears…”: Dambudzo Marechera’s ‘The House of Hunger’

In the prefatory essay to The House of Hunger – a collection including the eponymous novella and eleven other aphoristic, semi-autobiographical sketches – the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera sets out his relationship with the English language. “I took to the English language as a duck takes to water,” he writes:

I was therefore a keen accomplice and student in my own mental colonization. At the same time of course there was the unease, the shock of being suddenly struck by stuttering, of being deserted by the very medium I was to use in all my art. This perhaps is in the undergrowth of my experimental use of English, standing it on its head, brutalizing it into a more malleable shape for my own purposes. For a black writer the language is very racist; you have to have harrowing fights and hair-raising panga duels with the language before you can make it do all that you want it to do. It is so for the feminists. English is very male. Hence feminist writers also adopt the same tactics. This may mean discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm , gas ovens of limitless black resonance.” (p. 7)

This is an interesting paragraph, because it calls to mind an old debate over whether there can be – in the words of Colm Toibin – a “language that is free and untouched by occupation.” Toibin certainly believed so when, in Love in a Dark Time, he wrote of “independent writer[s] whose true home, as I have said, is the language.” Seamus Heaney believed so, when in The Redress of Poetry he wrote of “language pure as air or water, a language which carries the reader (as the truest poetry always does) into the sensation of walking on air or swimming free.” Marechera clearly doesn’t. And his indictment of English as both racist and misogynist recalls the feminist critic Marina Warner, who wrote that “the speaking woman, her tongue freed by the ability to write as well as read, found that the emblem books were still filled with the iconology of female wantonness and frailty and their contradictory companions, fatality and power… women often had to work with the grain of misogyny, and then found the timber broke their tools.” The tools of language – image, metaphor, even words – are deeply political; and therefore, for Marechera, the choice of using a language – and then, how you use it – are political choices.

In fact, the sentence “a keen accomplice and student in my own mental colonisation” brings to mind Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s memorable indictment of “European tongues”. In Secure the Base, wa Thiong’o wrote that “within the African nations, European tongues continue to be what they were during the colonial period: the languages of power, conception and articulation of the worlds of science, technology, politics, law, commerce, administration, and even culture… every educated African who remains doggedly locked within the linguistic walls of European languages, irrespective of his avowed social vision… is part of the problem and not the solution.” However, while Thiong’o’s response to this was to stop writing in English altogether, and write in his indigenous Gikuyu language (he would then translate it himself into English), Marechera, instead, sought to engage in “discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm, gas ovens of limitless black resonance…”

This shows in The House of Hunger, Marechera’s haunting, broken, almost-surrealistic narrative about growing up in pre-Independence Zimbabwe, where English becomes an instrument of distilled violence. If Robert Bridges once wrote that English civilisation “is in great measure founded upon wreckingMarechera employs metaphor, image, and word to show how the English language might be founded upon violence. For instance, in simultaneously describing the death of the narrator’s father in a railway accident, and his mother’s verbal violence upon him, Marechera writes:

“Drinking always made her smash up her words at one particular rail-crossing which – as had really happened with the old man – effectively crunched all meaning or significance which might be lying in ambush… the expletives of her train of invective smashed my body in the same way as that twentieth-century train crunched the old man into a stain.” (p. 20)

Smashed-up words, where “meaning” and “significance” are crunched: this is The House of Hunger, where “the tinfoil of my soul crinkled” (p. 28), where “the pain was the sound of slivers of glass being methodically crushed in a steel vice by a fiend whose face was like that of my old carpentry master who is now in a madhouse” (p. 37), and where “the flood of political rhetoric escaped like a cloud of steam out of my crater of a mouth, leaving me dry and without words” (p. 38).

Marechera’s themes are themes of violence – the violence of a broken, colonial society in the process of violently struggling to free itself (“I found a seed, a little seed, the smallest in the world. And its name was Hate. I buried it in my mind and watered it with tears. No seed ever had a better gardener. As it swelled and cracked into green life I felt my nation tremble, tremble in the throes of birth – and burst out bloom and branch…” (p. 29)), violence both political and personal; this, in itself, is not unusual. Violence has been depicted to great effect in books as diverse as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathiser. However, what is unusual about The House of Hunger is violence is not merely extra-linguistic, in the content of the description, but linguistic. Even the brief moments of joy are described in metaphors of violence: “And now here he was already gripping my arm with a tongue-scalding coffee joy…” (p. 21); “I smiled, crumpling up the tinfoil of my delight” (p. 40); “the rain came down in little liquid rocks which broke on their heads with a gentleness too rapid to be anything other than overpowering. She laughed a laugh that had little sharp teeth in it and it warmed them, this biting intimacy with the rain…” (p. 118); and: “My dreams still clung defiantly to the steel wire of old memories which I no longer had the power to arrange clearly in my mind.” (p. 124)

One should not think, however, that The House of Hunger is limited to stylistic virtuosity (although, as exhibited above, Marechera’s use of language is brilliant). The underlying theme – the critique of the broken colonial society, and the broken individuals it rears – risks being submerged by Marechera’s linguistic fireworks, but there are times when it emerges forcefully, reminding us that what is at stake, beyond violence, is an indictment of an entire political, economic, and social system of oppression. For instance, at the beginning of the novella, the narrator describes the process of growing up, which can be taken to be purely an instance of existentialist doubt, but in the broader context, is clearly a comment on the manner in which the colonial regime systematically denied fulfilment to its “children of a lesser God”:

“There was however an excitement of the spirit which made us all wander about in search of that unattainable elixir which our restlessness presaged. But the search was doomed from the start because the elixir seemed to be right under our noses and yet not really there. The freedom that we craved for – as one craves for dagga or beer or cigarettes or the after-life – this was so alive in our breath and in our fingers that one became intoxicated even before one had actually found it. It was like the way a man licks his lips in his dream of a feast; the way a woman dances in her dream of a carnival; the way the old man ran like a gazelle in his yearning for the funeral games of his youth. Yet the feast, the carnival and the games were not there at all. This was the paradox whose discovery left us uneasy, sly and at best with the ache of knowing that one would never feel that way again. There were no conscious farewells to adolescence for the emptiness was deep-seated in the gut. We knew that before us lay another vast emptiness whose appetite for things living was at best wolfish.” (p. 13)

The “House of Hunger“, therefore, refers not simply to the literal hunger that colonial poverty brought with it (the narrator mentions staying in the “house of hunger”a few times in the novella, making it clear that its use is both literal and metaphorical), but a different kind of hunger, and a different kind of thirst, that social structures were designed to leave un-sated:

“All the black youth was thirsty. There was not an oasis of thought which we did not lick dry; apart from those which had been banned, whose drinking led to arrests and suchlike flea-scratchings.” (p. 12)

The distilled intensity of The House of Hunger might speak for Marechera’s short life: an education at Oxford University was cut short when, on being offered a choice between a psychiatric examination and being sent down for trying to burn down the college, he chose the latter; The House of Hunger was composed while sleeping penniless, rough and rootless in different parts of England and Wales; when it won the Guardian First Book Award, Marechera celebrated by throwing plates at the chandeliers during the award ceremony; on his return to (independent) Zimbabwe, he lived homeless and died of AIDS-related complications at the age of 35. This life of restless – and often violence – discontent – is summed up by Marechera himself, in Thought Tracks in the Snow, one of the autobiographical essays that comes at the end of The House of Hunger:

“As the plane burred into the night, leaving the Angolan coast and heading out into the void above the Atlantic, I suddenly remembered that I had, in the rude hurry of it all, left my spectacles behind. I was coming to England literally blind. The blurred shape of the other passengers was grimly glued to the screen where Clint Eastwood was once again shooting the shit out of his troubles. I was on my own, sipping a whisky, and my head was roaring with a strange emptiness. What was it really that I had left behind me? My youth was a headache burring with the engines of a great hunger that was eating up the huge chunks of empty air. I think I knew then that before me were years of desperate loneliness, and the whisky would be followed by other whiskies, other self-destructive poisons; I had nothing but books inside my head, and they were burning me, burring with the engines of hope and illusion into the endless expanse of air. Who was I leaving behind? My own prematurely grey had still sat stubbornly upon my shoulders; my family did not know where I was or whether I was alive or dead. I do not think they would have cared one way or the other had they known at that moment I was thousands of feet above the earth, hanging as it were in the emptiness which my dabbling with politics had created for me. I felt sick with everything, sick with the self-pity, sick with the Rhodesian crisis, sick! – and the whisky was followed by other whiskies and my old young man’s face stared back at me from the little window. Would Oxford University be any different – was I so sure of myself then? Dawn broke as we flew over the Bay of Biscay; and the fresh white dove’s down of breast-clouds looked from above like another revelation that would turn out, when eaten, to be stone rather than bread.” (p. 140)

Even here, at the very end, in the throes of seriousness, Marechera cannot avoid just that little dose of linguistic pyrotechnics!

Other reviews of The House of HungerThe GuardianThe Rumpus.

On Marechera more generally: The Life and Times of an African Writer (VQR).

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“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.”

And:

“‘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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“…language, which is free and untouched by occupation?”: Colm Toibin, Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar

In the introduction to this set of elegant essays, Colm Toibin lays out his purpose. “Other communities who have been oppressed,” he says, “– Jewish people, say, or Catholics in Northern Ireland – have every opportunity to work out the implications of their oppression in their early lives. They hear the stories; they have the books around them. Gay people, on the other hand, grow up alone; there is no history. There are no ballads about the wrongs of the past, the martyrs are all forgotten.” He goes on to invoke Adrienne Rich’s famous saying – “as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” This is perhaps not entirely apposite. The whole quotation begins in the following way: “those who have the power to name and construct social reality choose not to see you or hear you…” Indeed, Rich’s concern is not merely with the construction of a canon, and what it excludes, but the construction of language itself. In The Burning of Paper instead of Children, she writes:

“knowledge of the oppressor
this 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)”

Interestingly, in his chapter on Thomas Mann, Toibin quotes the opposite sentiment. In his post-war visits to both West and East Germany, Mann writes: “Who ought to guarantee and represent the unity of Germany if not an independent writer whose true home, as I have said, is the language, which is free and untouched by occupation?” One feels that Rich might have had something to say about that last bit. After all, as Marina Warner writes, in a beautiful essay called Watch Your Tongues:

“The speaking woman, her tongue freed by the ability to write as well as read, found that the emblem books were still filled with the iconology of female wantonness and frailty and their contradictory companions, fatality and power… women often had to work with the grain of misogyny, and then found the timber broke their tools.”

Toibin, while appreciating the pervasive power of language and image to construct a world, is less pessimistic. In his essay on Thom Gunn, while remarking upon the frankness with which he addresses homosexuality in his poetry, he observes:

“The world from Shakespeare to contemporary advertising has been so full of images of heterosexuality that no one notices, but these images are nonetheless absorbed into the most secret and private part of the self. This hidden part of the gay self remains hungry for such ratifying images; it most fully recognizes this need when the need is satisfied, the silence broken, the words spelled out quite naturally, without a second thought.”

This assumes, of course, that words can be spelt out “quite naturally, without a second thought”, without the heaviness of a long, conflicted history. Toibin’s faith that language and culture can be reclaimed simply by virtue of their use is reflected in his wry observation, in his essay on Francis Bacon, about Bacon and Miro’s “denial that [they] made preparatory drawings… for the ears of the Surrealists, who viewed such a thought-out preparation for a painting as a sort of treachery, a betrayal of the power of the unconscious.” Surrealism’s commitment to breaking the hegemony of imposed structures through a method of spontaneity is, of course, well-known, but neither Bacon nor Toibin seem to consider it an urgent necessity. And in his essay on James Baldwin, Toibin chooses to quote the now-famous passage on appropriation:

“[I brought] a special attitude to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral of Chartres, and to the Empire State Building… these were not really my creations; they did not contain my history; I might search in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use – I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle and the tribe. I would have to appropriate those white centuries, I would have to make them mine.”

So while it would have been interesting to have a critique of language from the point of view of sexuality, as Rich and Warner have done for gender, Toibin’s ambition in Love in a Dark Time is rather more modest. He takes nine famous 20th century artists, all of whom were admittedly homosexual, whose sexuality either brought them to grief, or is simply airbrushed out of memory – and tries to illuminate that ‘area of darkness’ – their sexuality – and its connection to their work. Yet, this is not to be dismissed as a crude attempt at creating – or re-creating – an artistic canon. Toibin’s pain at the ignorance about gay lives is matched only by his terror of caricature, of reducing an artist to his sexuality, of feeding the myth of the ‘tragic queer’. This gives Love in a Dark Time an ambiguous tone, that neatly dovetails with the ambiguous lives lead by most of its principal subjects.

Toibin must walk a tightrope. He must focus on the sexuality of his nine chosen artists, while rejecting simplistic explanations about the relationship between their sexuality and their art. He must illuminate sexuality and its inextricable connection with art, without casting so bright a glare that it overwhelms everything else. For the most part, he walks it well, and it gives the book – to use a description by Robert Lowell of Elizabeth Bishop’s work – “something in motion, weary but persistent.” 

Perhaps the key lies in his choice of subjects. Three of the nine (Oscar Wilde, Roger Casement, Francis Bacon) are Irish – a fraught identity in its own right (and one closest to Toibin’s heart – it is perhaps unsurprising that those three chapters are amongst the longest and most detailed, and their lives are the most lovingly excavated ones in the book). James Baldwin is at the intersection of race and sexuality (Toibin details his struggles to break out of the trope of the “black writer”), and Elizabeth Bishop at the intersection of gender and sexuality. Toibin seems to have paid special heed to Amartya Sen’s warnings against the totalising effects of a single identity, because even his other selections – Thom Gunn, Mark Doty and Thomas Mann (I discount the essay on Pedro Almodovar, which seems almost to be a hasty afterthought) resist easy categorisation, both of their work and their lives. Like Eliot’s observation about James, which he quotes, what Toibin is most concerned with is to prevent – both himself, and his account of his subjects – from being “penetrated by an idea.”

The realisation that his subjects evade easy or definite classifications pervades Toibin’s consideration of their work. The haunting, uncertain quality of the artists’ work leaks into the pages of the book. For instance, Toibin’s account of Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is perhaps one of the finest passages in the book:

“There is a sense of overwhelming pain here, but experienced by a creature who has known language, howling out a word rather than a cry, or a cry that has the memory of a word.”

Many of the figures that Toibin writes about are “tragic”, in any sense of the word. Wilde was imprisoned and broken for his homosexuality, Casement was executed, Doty’s partner died of HIV. It would be easy to let tragedy overwhelm and define them, but Toibin is always on his guard against reductiveness. At the end of the book, we are left with a conflicted, ambiguous and uncertain sense of the many intersections of art and aesthetics, politics and sexuality, the individual and her circumstances. As in art, so in life, Toibin seems to be telling us: there are no easy conclusions.

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Filed under Colm Toibin, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory