Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Colm Tóibín's Irish Faces

Alex Witchel profiled Tóibín in the May 3rd NYT Magazine: "His Irish Diaspora." I've only read his travels along the Irish borders, "Bad Blood," and a story or two; I found his fiction too Jamesian. Although well-crafted, it fails to draw me in.

The magazine piece begins with a familiar vignette: the Catholic in the pew, not going up to take Communion: "I've got sin on my soul." Neither my sister nor I went up at our father's funeral ten days ago. Witchel tells of moving the pew kneeler up and shifting sideways so that others could get by and go up. This, for a Catholic insider, does signal subtly that those with whom you share the pew mark themselves as apart, as tainted, even though by their presence at the Mass they still acknowledge their faith. You-- the fallen-away one who attends but does not capitulate to confess beforehand in a ritual that perhaps by your participation would only deepen your sinfulness by sacrilege in a faith that you don't really uphold but still respect-- don't line up: “Funny,” he said of the religion he grew up with. “You still wouldn’t mess with it.”

Tóibín gave up drink for Lent, since he was tending to imbibe when depressed, furthering the cycle of dependency. We test ourselves with such disciplines, trivial though they may seem to others, for who knows within what cost we exact from inside? In such battles, the spirit strengthens no less than muscles exerted in workouts. Our culture often derides the Yom Kippur fast, the Lenten surrender, the Ramadan refusal, yet how many rush to the latest diet, the marathon workout, the colon-cleansing ritual? Tóibín represents the post-Catholic generation; those who remain haunted or inspired by the rituals and ethos, and who show outward respect out of both good manners and habitual response, yet whom cannot genuflect-- inside-- anymore.

His new novel, "Brooklyn," was reviewed in the same issue's Book Review; I can't explain precisely why, but I have not much interest in reading it any more than another Irishman-New Yorker's currently lauded novel, Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland." It's about a very young woman who leaves Wexford for NYC in the '50s and then, after tragedy, returns. It's based on an overheard conversation Tóibín heard as a youth; I think too of Sebastian Barry's related series of plays and fiction that build upon his own southwest Irish roots and those characters inspired by his own family, some who wander the world vs. the rest who stay on the farm or in the market town.

Tóibín's diasporic reminder of the loss of many Irish faces in the metropolis did ring true. In our cities today, I notice-- as opposed to at least a few in San Francisco for my municipal comparison-- very few Hibernian physogs. Perhaps I lack perception, but demographics and reduced immigration from the Isle seem to bear me out. I walk my own streets and rarely see anyone pale or ruddy, no matter their ethnicity, unless a rare, sunburnt German or British tourist.

His new book came to him on an earlier Gotham visit, in 2002. He's the type who shuttles from Stanford to Dublin, native Enniscorthy to gay-friendly Barcelona, lecturing at Princeton and summering with friends in the Pyrenees. I wonder, in this man half a decade or so older than me, how one attains and keeps this sort of blessed itinerary that so many intellectuals and writers dream of. Still, he must be lonely. He noticed in New York's streets, post 9/11, an absence that mirrored his own interior sense of separation from his loved ones, perhaps.
“I had that sense of places in New York that had been Irish but weren’t Irish anymore,” he said. “The Irish sort of disappeared.” In a public symposium about 9/11 at the library he used the expression “an Irish face.” An audience member asked what that meant. “I said, ‘I mean someone whose eyes are soft but his jaw is hard, who can look very stubborn, who can remain silent for a very long time, who’s capable of immense love but never mentioning it and capable also of resentments, who’s never much owned anything and is happier looking at the horizon than other possessions."
In "All Souls," (reviewed by me on this blog and on Amazon US last year), Michael Patrick McDonald recalls walking his South Boston streets and seeing similar faces, set maybe dead serious, but the Irish distinguishable by their shiny, lively, sharp gaze. Layne once described my own owlish glance as both "sly and tender." I hope my sometimes smiling eyes do justice to my forebears!

Illustration: I had no idea Damon Runyon's to blamed for peddling shore-an'begorrah twaddle! Not one of the three faces shown look Irish to me, but then, I've been mistaken for Scottish, French, German, Czech, Hungarian, and/or Hasid! "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" sheet music

1 comment:

Tony Bailie said...

I read The Master last year which I thought was a fantastic novel but I have never really given any of Tóibín's other novels a chance, even the ones set in Spain. He has been getting huge coverage this side of the Atlantic for his new novel in all the broadsheets, including the UK ones with Irish editions. He does seem to have become a member of that literary elite who make their living solely from writing, reviewing and lecturing... and fair play to him.