Style over substance? Colm Tóibín and ‘The Testament of Mary.’

Ever since I read ‘The Master’ by Tóibín, I have been amazed by the exquisite craft of this poetic writer. ‘Brooklyn’ was another revelation. Other novels of his I admired too, particularly ‘The Blackwater Lightship.’ I am still disappointed that I haven’t read ‘The Heather Blazing.’ The book you read after a Tóibín frequently seems clunky; the prose reads poorly in comparison.

However, I must confess I was a little disappointed by ‘The Testament of Mary.’ Firstly, it is so short that you barely have time to sink into the narrative. Secondly, the majority of the characters are depicted without much depth at all. Thirdly, there is little that surprises the reader in what is an odd book- the bulk of the story is known. 

Superficially, it seems that the author has taken a risk with this book because of the controversial subject. However, I am not so sure. I feel that Tóibín needs to come up with something more complicated in the future if he is to achieve more than he has already. Nonetheless, the brief tale was enjoyable and the trademark prose bewitched again.

A case of neglect: ‘Felix Holt: the Radical’ by George Eliot.

This novel has not received the popular attention of ‘The Mill on the Floss’, ‘Middlemarch’ or ‘Daniel Deronda.’ It is not a book which has received the critical plaudits awarded to ‘Middlemarch.’ Nobody has claimed that ‘Felix Holt: the Radical’ is “one of the few English books written for grown-up people”- Virginia Woolf’s verdict on the superb ‘Middlemarch.’ However, this historical novel possesses certain features which make it a compelling narrative.

Firstly, some of the realist novel is anchored in the ordinary lives of ordinary people. Secondly, many of the characters are depicted in a solid fashion. Thirdly, much of the dialogue is presented in an effective manner. Unfortunately, there is a bit of melodrama and a Dickens-like reliance on coincidence, but George Eliot is honing her skills as she had yet to write her masterpiece. She demonstrates her appreciation of Shakespeare and the Bible throughout; her use of these sources gives her story resonance with its period.

It would appear that this book has partly slipped from view for several reasons. Political novels are often undervalued by the reading public who have been taught to want entertainment which is focused on the personal. In addition, the politics of years gone by are seldom seen as relevant to the politics of today. Furthermore, elements of the literary establishment prefer ‘art for art’s sake.’ Eliot was a fine writer and she understood that our private lives are shaped by wider socioeconomic forces. In an age where some individuals still accept postmodernism uncritically, her perspective remains pertinent. 

‘The novel to come’ syndrome…

When reading a long narrative, it is quite possible to be distracted by the idea of what you plan to read next. If you’ve selected something particularly intriguing, your current reading might seem somewhat ordinary. The anticipation can lead you to undervalue what you have on the page before you. It is vital to focus on one sentence at a time.

This dilemma was brought home to me recently. I’m reading ‘Felix Holt, the Radical’ by George Eliot. I will review it in due course. Suffice to say, like much of her work it has many solid strengths. However, I’ve been fortunate enough to acquire a copy of ‘Lost Illusions’ by Honoré de Balzac. This has been recommended to me by somebody who has read the book twice. It is now sitting on a pile of novels.

I am having to show great discipline and read slowly about the behaviour of Felix Holt. His interactions with other characters are of considerable interest. It would be a shame to miss out on the finer points of the text because I am enchanted at the prospect of reading more Balzac.    

A Prosaic Review: ‘Now All Roads Lead to France. The Last Years of Edward Thomas.’ By Matthew Hollis.

This book won prizes back in 2011 and received plenty of critical acclaim in the UK. It is very readable and it is fairly interesting. The sections on poetry are particularly worth reading. However, as a biography of a poet it does seem to suffer from some significant limitations.

Firstly, the decision to downplay the importance of the bulk of the poet’s early life is problematic. Secondly, the balance of the research is tilted towards literary gossip instead of history. Thirdly, the way in which women are depicted is unfortunate. Fourthly, there is little evidence that the author has reflected on the difficulty of biography from a philosophical perspective.

Nonetheless, the book should not be dismissed out of hand. It includes some beautiful poems from a ‘war poet’ who does not always receive his due. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon often get much more attention than Thomas. In addition, Hollis provides a lot of revealing detail about the difficulties inherent in scratching a living by the pen. Furthermore, Hollis delivers some fascinating commentary on the poems of Thomas and Robert Frost. Frost emerges as a major character in the book, and the reader learns to appreciate some of the thinking behind the art of this significant poet. It is illuminating to read about the difficulties involved in achieving relative simplicity through combining sound, rhythm, and sense.