While reading a borrowed copy of ‘Private Eye’, I was somewhat surprised to read a very hostile review of the latest novel by Colm Tóibín. Firstly, it complained about the fact that it was a historical work. Secondly, it moaned about the fact that other Irish writers had focused on history. Thirdly, it argued that the book wasn’t a legitimate novel at all. This latter contention stressed the autobiographical element of ‘Nora Webster.’
Even if I had not enjoyed the book immensely, I would have been a little troubled by the review. It sought to draw narrow lines about what is acceptable as art. It aspired to dismiss a work in part because of its origin. It failed to appreciate positive aspects of a work which the reviewer found uncongenial overall.
While freedom of speech is really important, a reviewer has some limited responsibility to be fair to literature in the broadest sense. This is because the reviewer can come between a text and a public. It is a privilege to review a book. Being so arbitrary as to dismiss entire genres as outside the boundaries of the novel is a colossal failure of the imagination.
It’s never a great idea to read reviews of a novel before you read it. It can distort your unique experience. In the worst instance, a review may even betray some of the plot. However, if you review a book without looking at other reviews then you may speculate about something without having had the benefit of the research of others.
A pertinent example of this was when I reviewed ‘Nora Webster’ by Colm Tóibín. I had no idea of the autobiographical elements in the realist novel. Hence I overestimated the importance of the influence of Joan Didion on his narrative. Both texts involved widows disposing of the clothes of their husbands, but because I read one after the other I imagined an influence to be significantly stronger than it was in reality. My original feeling was compounded by the flattering review Tóibín had given to Didion.
Hence it might be best practice to look at other reviews before you commit your ideas to paper. However, that approach could compromise your originality. In the end, the weight which you give to the findings of others depends on the purpose of your review. And every reviewer will have their own motivations. In other words, a book review is not a scientific enterprise and there is no one way of producing one that will satisfy all readers.
This quiet novel about bereavement was composed with a great deal of skill. It seemed at times that the prose was reaching a level of plainness that was remarkable even for this prolific and talented writer. There was never a need to reach for a dictionary; the work was dissimilar to that of John Banville, for example. Nonetheless, poetry, politics, music, and religion were never faraway- complexities bubbled away beneath the surface of the family drama, emerging as the minor crises came and went.
Perhaps the first section of the book was written in a more crafted way than later sections, but this possible unevenness was not a problem for the reader. As long as you kept faith with the narrative then this wasn’t an obstacle to learning and pleasure. And you did not need any religious faith to appreciate the text. Similarly, the underlining of the perfidy of the British state did not mean that a British reader was made too uncomfortable- in fact, the depiction of moderate Irish nationalism was quite persuasive.
With any realist novel, a certain degree of faith in the author is needed. And faith is a paradoxical thing. As a young character in the narrative stammered:
“That f-first b-belief is a mystery. It is like a g-gift. And the r-rest is rational, or it c-can be.”
Colm Tóibín gave an enthusiastic review to ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ by Joan Didion. This blog has looked at that detailed study of bereavement already. In ‘Nora Webster’, Tóibín has created a main character who is coping with the loss of her husband.
While I have yet to complete my reading of the subtle and moving ‘Nora Webster’, I could not avoid thinking about what inspired Tóibín to write about the grief of a woman in the first instance. Of course, he has written about grieving people before, ‘The Testament of Mary’ being a recent example. Nonetheless, the factual account by Didion may well have been of utility to him.
Obviously, to suggest that a writer could have been influenced by a text is not to disparage their work. It is simply to draw attention to the way in which stories can lead to stories, or stories within stories. One doesn’t have to be an enthusiastic postmodernist to appreciate how creativity is not necessarily an individual act. The individual is a social animal, socialised within a family, a local area, a school, a state, and so on. So far, ‘Nora Webster’ seems to be in the same quiet vein as ‘Brooklyn’, and it is ticking many of the right boxes.
This play was set in a dark moment of Irish history. British imperialism had suffered a major setback, but there was trouble among the working class of Dublin. There was no agreement about what should happen next. And in the political gap there was space for tragedy to happen.
However, the playwright took his time to build his tragedy. The characters were introduced with broad humour. The women were stronger than the men, but all were struggling to deal with the circumstances in which they found themselves. Poverty, alcoholism and violence were a constant threat, while a legacy proved to be a dream. The characters were not depicted in realistic terms: the playwright knowingly mentioned Ibsen in a cheeky reference.
There was talk, song, and melodrama in abundance, but at the heart of the play was raw internecine violence. Two futile Irish deaths caused two Irish mothers heartache, while inebriated folk failed to keep their heads amid the chaos. In some sense, this was a cruel work; there was little sympathy for human failings. Composed by 1924, it arguably lacked a proper sense of historical perspective. But for all its flaws, it made a compelling spectacle.
This brief meditation on bereavement and trauma is quite a moving piece of work. As a memoir of a successful writer, it underlines how a successful life does not guarantee happiness. For those who place great emphasis on success, this book is a cautionary story.
In some ways, the writer is paying tribute to her long marriage. But in detailing her difficulty in accepting the end of that marriage, she is exposing the limitations in having a life built around personal happiness. Happiness is not something which can be pursued effectively; it is elusive if sought. Didion struggles with self-pity, even being annoyed by a Lawrence poem which was not addressed to her. Furthermore, she shows no understanding of an unwell inhabitant of a hospital she visits. Grief, like neo-liberal capitalism, is an isolating thing. As Didion is the widow of a writer, perhaps she lost the support of a particularly empathetic individual.
However, the relative honesty, for honesty is always relative, of the narrative shines through the text. One might not be swept along in uncritical admiration for the writers in the book, but the reader can only feel compassion for everyone who mourns and feels cheated by life.
It was a shame that Mishima could not accept who he was. This instability helped fuel his creativity. However, it arguably contributed to him believing in the most reactionary form of politics. As a consequence, he was involved in a coup attempt. He could never accept democracy. When his political disappointment was acute, he killed himself.
The problem for Mishima was thus personal and political. He could never address the tensions and contradictions that marked so much of his life. However, he was an individual in society and it would be wrong to put everything on his shoulders. He was not to blame for the way he was socialised.
Amid all this, it is perhaps sensible to remember that the writer was not reducible to his flaws. If one puts aside his misguided admiration for violence, he was a poet who tried to express something about the human condition.