In the shadow of the giants

The Empty Family
By Colm Tóibín
Penguin Viking; £17.99

IS Colm Tóibín, as is occasionally suggested, one of the world’s greatest living fiction writers?

The answer must be no, however, in the small pond of literary fiction, which some publishers and academics would have you believe is the whole ocean of prose, Tóibín is a very big fish and, in that context, this new collection of stories is a very fine book indeed.

Tóibín enjoys primacy amongst the cadre of novelists who currently occupy the sub-Banvillian tier of contemporary Irish fiction. He is a serious writer, arguably to a fault, yet one cannot deny the broad-mindedness which he brings to his work. His prose is considered, in every way, and this, his eighth work of fiction, proves to be no exception.

A more varied effort than his previous collection, Mothers and Sons (2006), this book is the ideal introduction to Tóibín’s themes and obsessions, from inexorable familial strife to inexpressible sexual attraction, from the moods of Spain in the post-Franco era to the rolling metamorphosis of 20th century Ireland, all of it coloured by Tóibín’s own devastating comprehension of what it is like to be alone in a crowd.

In Silence, the author deploys the effete minutiae of 19th century literary life with the same grace that characterised The Master (2004).

The story explores an affair between Lady Gregory and a young British poet whom she regards as her one chance to associate with beauty. Naturally it all ends with desire routed by the strict social codes of the day, but Gregory derives creative fodder from it all the same, hinting that it might make a suitable story for – of course – her friend Henry James.

The engine of Silence may be loaded with glances and pent-up yearning, but elsewhere Tóibín eschews this James-style sublimated sexuality.

Though they hark back to his 1996 novel The Story of the Night, a love story set in 1970s Argentina, the frank and extensive depictions of gay sex in many of these stories may surprise those who came to Tóibín after the success of The Master or on the strength of Brooklyn’s publicity juggernaut (2009). If they do, then those readers have missed the point. Tóibín’s subject is less the mechanics of copulation than the impossible complexities of love.

“Why is gay life often presented as darkly sensational?” he once asked. “Why can’t gay writers give gay men happy endings, as Jane Austen gave heterosexuals?” It is something he has stood by his whole career and, in reality, his most distinguished exploration of the subject, The Blackwater Lightship (1999), is not so much a gay novel as it is a book about family.

The stories here are similar, focusing on the relationship of the individual to the community. Many pieces also have an autobiographical flavour, among them the title story whose art and furniture collecting narrator might as well be the novelist himself.

In fact, with his love of Rembrandt, Schubert and Ingmar Bergman, Tóibín can sometimes come across as a real-life Frasier Crane. Born in Enniscorthy in 1955, he left Ireland for Spain in 1975 after graduating from UCD. His experiences there inspired not only his first novel, The South (1990), but also his non-fiction Homage to Barcelona, which remains probably his most rewarding read. Later, after editorial stints with In Dublin and Magill magazines, Tóibín travelled extensively in South America where he reported on the trials of those responsible for the Falklands conflict and the mass disappearances during Argentina’s dirty war. This journalistic apprenticeship forms the bedrock of his precise style. He shares with the best of Ian McEwan – in some ways the British Tóibín – a slow-moving, immersive prose which largely avoids the perils of overwriting. Images are precisely weighed and, like the elderly set designer of Two Women, he emphasises detail sparingly and so ensures that what he does use represents a lot.

Nearly all his stories here play with the notion of exile as a kind of lifestyle choice, an intent focus on homesickness in all its forms which Tóibín has carried over from the writing of Brooklyn. While many pieces involve Irish emigrants returning home, a good number are also set in Spain, where Tóibín still maintains a house.

The erotically charged Barcelona, 1975 describes the sexual awakening of a young man new to that city, while The Street, the closing story, is an assured tale of an affair between two married men in the Catalonian capital’s Pakistani underground.

Of the Spanish stories, the least interesting is also the most easily relatable. In The New Spain an agitator who was run out of the country during the dictatorship returns to find olive groves replaced by swimming pools and grubby holiday cottages encircling her family’s coastal home. The country she loved is now a capitalist dystopia whose headlong rush towards cartoonish ‘prosperity’ has obliterated traditional culture and landscape in a clear echo of Celtic Tiger Ireland.

How the author views his homeland is clarified somewhat by The Pearl Fishers, where the hollow opulence of Dublin’s Clarence Hotel, sadder now in recessionary days, is contrasted against the moral squalor of clerical sex abuse in 20th century Wexford and the implicit question is asked: has anything really changed?

Tóibín refrains from making judgments, the culpability – or one might say the curiosity – which defines the story being shared between predator and prey, and while conservative Catholicism is rebuked, the sexual, ethnic and economic fluidities of contemporary Ireland are presented not as a break with tradition but instead as its natural evolution.

A similar continuity is reflected in the macroscopic arrangement of the collection itself. Each story contributes to, and draws from, the strength of its fellows, with only the dying aunt tale The Colour of Shadows seeming out of place. Overall, The Empty Family is more impressive than Brooklyn in that it gels more readily with the author’s predilections, though, as with Mothers and Sons, it suggests Tóibín is still most effective in longer forms.

Still, agree or disagree with the Tóibín-ification of 21st century Irish fiction, it is difficult not to admire the stories here.

As such, at the end of The Empty Family the reader must again evaluate the lofty proclamation of its cover: is Tóibín one of the world’s greatest living fiction writers after all? The stories of The Empty Family – elegantly, even immaculately crafted – are beautiful, but they lack that awkward, ugly spark of wonder which greatness demands.

* Dr Val Nolan lectures in contemporary literature at NUI Galway.


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