Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Colm Tóibín and Brooklyn

I first came across Tóibín in the early 80s when he was editor of Magill. You'd see him in places like the old Project Arts Centre, bearded like a patriarch and with a fine head of dark hair. His heart seemed generally in the right place - he was a critic of Haughey long before it became fashionable, for example. A position he retains with added vehemence today.

I remember one incident that gave me doubts about him. A friend of mine, back from the US, who used to be vaguely connected with the Irish arts scene was drinking with me in the Shelbourne bar one evening and he spotted Tóibín at the bar. Up he sprang, walked over and greeted him effusively. Tóibín blanked him - stared at him coldly and didn't respond. My friend repeated his greeting - again nothing. Just a cold stare. He rejoined me and we continued talking. As there were a few other people there I never got the chance to ask what might have caused such a creepy reaction.

In recent times I mainly encounter him reviewing or being reviewed in the NYRB or the LRB. Always great stuff. He did get a rap on the knuckles from the late great John Updike for inferring that Henry James was gay in his The Master - Updike chiding him for ascribing homosexuality to one who was merely asexual. Recently I heard him give an elegant and thoughtful speech at the Chester Beatty Library for the opening of the Graphic Studio's Artist's Proof exhibition. He praised the combination of craft and graft that is the printmaker's lot.

Impressed by this speech, I decided to lift my embargo on him, inspired by the Shelbourne incident, and read Brooklyn, his latest novel. I'm happy I did. It's a chamber piece without a false note. It charts the modest viscissitudes of a modest life. The scenes of small-town life in Fifties Ireland are beautifully observed and totally convincing. From our current free and easy perspective we are horrified by the conclusion - how the restrictions imposed by Church and convention limited the choices of his characters. Thank God we're out of that. Also, there's plenty of incidental fun to be had from the cast of characters (Mrs. Kehoe the landlady especially) and the period detail.