John Banville and Colm Tóibín, the two most brilliant contemporary Irish novelists*, make something of an odd couple. Banville habitually puts us at the mercy of a narrator who might be crotchety and cantankerous (The Sea or might be a psychopathic murderer (Shroud, The Book of Evidence), but is invariably super-chatty. Part of the fun consists in the exuberant style and part lies in the attempt to deduce a sane outer reality from the grotesque and distorted images the narrator offers us.
You might say that Tóibín is Dr. Jeckyll to Banville’s Mr. Hyde. Instead of peering through an intense but badly damaged set of 3D glasses provided by our first-person protagonists, Tóibín’s third-person narratives offer, as it were, a finely polished set of spectacles suitable for distance vision, mediated by prose that lacks Banville’s humor but is warm and rich.
The effect of distance is not just a matter of our distance from the characters. The protagonists themselves seem strangely buffered, perhaps most characteristically in The Master, a portrait of Henry James as a aging man, insulated from passion or even real intimacy by Victorian values, by his closeted homosexuality, and by his commitment not to let any human attachment interfere with his art. Tóibín seems able to channel James’s intense yet oddly dispassionate pleasure in understanding how people really work and to echo some of the master’s linguistic finesse and precision, thankfully without the lapses into anal-retentive fussiness that make the reader of James frequently want to beat him with a stick. Thus The Master is a compelling and fulfilling novel even though not much happens to its frustratingly frustrated hero.
I have written already** about Banville’s Book of Evidence, but at the time I had no idea that its bizarre plot was taken from a real-life scandal, in which a political hack serving as the country Justice Minister was found to have a wanted murderer holed up in his apartment (awk-ward!). Typically, Tóibín’s treatment of a leading judge and behind-the-scenes politician in The Heather Blazing is more sober. It shows us the judge’s childhood in Enniscorthy in the 1940s and the deep roots of his loyalty to the conservatism of the Irish Catholic Church and De Valera’s Fianna Fáil party in a way that is affectionate without being sentimental. This is in itself jarring in a picture of the Irish past, where we are accustomed either to treacly nostalgia or vitriolic bitterness.
The judge emerged from this childhood having lost his parents and acquired both the ideological support mentioned above and the trademark Tóibín insulation which keeps him at a certain remove from his wife and children. In the present of the novel, this distance threatens to become overwhelming—the skills and attitudes that seem so excellent among his professional colleagues are not much use in dealing with his yuppie son, his unmarried daughter with a baby son, and his seriously ill wife. For that matter, he remains troubled by the violence of his country’s and his family’s past, which he knows was not always as heroic as nationalist piety would suggest.
It is strange to come away from such a book without much sense of what Tóibín’s own political views are—his remarkable negative capability in presenting without judging is something that I can admire without exactly envying. It seems, like his relentless humorlessness, somehow un-Irish, by which I simply mean different from most of the Irish writers I like, without any implication that he has a responsibility to conform to my notion of Irishness.
Tóibín’s most recent novel is Brooklyn, the story of a young woman who, unable to find decent work in Enniscorthy, emigrates to American. It is fascinating to see New York painted with the Tóibín brush, and also to see how he trims his style to suit the young and bright but not erudite Eilis. His 1950s Brooklyn has a slightly dreamlike quality that contrasts with his Irish settings, and this might either be intentional or due to a lack of familiarity Certainly his Americans say some funny stuff, talking about doing the maths and praising a star law professor by saying that he is clever (I believe that the Brits and Irish say clever where we say brilliant—here “clever” is praise for a dog, but an insult for an intellectual).
Still, I stayed up half the night to find out what became of Eilis; though she, like other Tóibín characters, seems slightly buffered from direct experience and desire, she is a more engaging person, perhaps because she has not so cleaerly already ground her life into the groove that it will always follow.
Here is an excerpt from Brooklyn, which I hope will give you an idea of CT’s charms:
*Well, I don’t really have any idea if they’re the two most brilliant, but it sounds so much cooler than “my two favorite current Irish novelists,” which is really what I mean.
**Sympathy for the Deveil: https://lippenheimer.wordpress.com/2010/12/19/sympathy-for-the-devil/