Saturday, 23 April 2016

What's wrong with Colm Toibin?

I am a big fan of Colm Toibin's books. His writings often remind me of beautiful melodies, capturing moments of haunting beauty or devastating realistic insight into human frailty. More recently I started reading Toibin's novel 'The Master', a fictional account of Henry James in England. Whilst Toibin once again at times manages to conjure up literary marvels the novel itself somehow misses the emotional mark. With Toibin, a writer of great precision and quality, the most interesting question is why.

Henry James, the brother of the American philosopher William James, is still read widely today but his record is mixed. His writing style is often compared to the impressionism of Monet and others, offering a multitude of dots that require distance to comprehend the whole picture. James also occupies a curious position within the American canon as a lifelong exile (in Britain) yet never quite making Britain his home. The main reason for the latter was his abject failure at producing any good play and Toibin homes in on James' experience of Guy Domville's flop in London's West End which arguably traumatised James and produced a creative crisis (not least as James had the misfortune that his play's failure contrasted with the enormous success of Oscar Wilde's work on the London stage at the time, a writer he despised).

Toibin may have been motivated to write about James by his subject's curious position in English literature, something they both share. As an American, James was at once removed from English manners and customs, whilst curiously drawn to them. The remove afford him a critical distance, yet the fact that he shared the same language intimated a closeness that was probably illusory. Toibin may feel something similar, being Irish (now mostly living in Spain) yet invariably drawn to the enormous (at times negative) influence of the English on his homeland. James' experience of being a closet homosexual in a country that both cultivated 'queerness' in London high society and repudiated it violently in law may be something that Toibin can sympathise with as well.

As usual Toibin manages to capture moments of fascinating insight and beauty in 'The Master'. His writing is full of fitting observations of Englishness as seen from a distance. And yet, the novel somehow does not quite hit the mark perhaps because Toibin, by linguistic means, is too close to the English (language) that serves as the backdrop to James' emotional upheaval.

Poignancy over extravagance: Colm Toibin.
Foto: David White/NZ Listener/REX

Toibin is not an extravagant stylist at the best of times. His mastery does not reside in innovative linguistic playfulness but detailed descriptions of moments, based on acute awareness of social dynamics that conspire to poignant insights. He is almost unrivalled in this amongst contemporary writers but the outer limits are defined by his unwillingness to push into more poetic writing. At the core, his style remains realistic and factual. This is usually an asset when writing fiction, yet when creating a simulacrum of actual events, the factual can come to predominate and artistic construction takes on the cloak of the humdrum of reality.

This makes 'The Master' a difficult read as Toibin clearly wants to pass it off as a realistic account of James' existential and emotional struggle in England. Yet the main linguistic tool, given that Toibin eschews poetic flights of fancy, remains a third person narrative that sounds precocious, distant and impersonal at times. Whilst Toibin manages to paint some stunning scenes, James as a character remains unfinished and sketchy. Toibin may have wanted to create this effect as it may mirror James' precarious experience of living in self-imposed exile, requiring him to never disclose his emotions and views quite fully to his friends and foes populating his English world.

But, as a fictional biopic, Toibin's refusal to turn the hero inside out for the reader to see his inner workings (and failings) makes it a difficult read. At the end of the day, his novel resembles one of Monet's paintings, composed by a myriad of individual details but requiring distance to identify the overall motif. Artistically, this may be an enormous feat achieved by Toibin, yet being constantly held at bay we sometimes lose interest in the image supposed to occur before us.

The conceit at the heart of British membership in the EU

The key to political success is to beat your opponent to framing any issue in terms favourable to yourself. Once an issue is seen through the lens you selected, the fight is almost won.

The European referendum may just offer some evidence for this claim. Both camps have been busy trying to frame the issue of European Union membership, at times frantically. The leave side is hamstrung by the fact that predictions of things to come are always difficult to articulate, so their argument is necessarily focused on problems and difficulties of the present. They have made some hay of the fact that Britain has transferred sovereignty to Brussels. What they do not mention is that Brussels is an intergovernmental organisation at best, granting the British government a voice at the table. In fact, it is difficult to pinpoint a single issue that has not been passed by Brussels which did not receive the express consent of some British minister.

The Brexiters are on safer ground when it comes to the argument that Britain joined an organisation that was fundamentally different to the Europe today. As a BBC documentary recently offered a fascinating look behind the moment Britain joined. And it seems that Britain did not sleepwalk into a Europe with a single currency and parliament. The truth is more complicated yet also more embarrassing for the Conservatives who wholeheartedly supported joining the European Communities in 1974 (including one Margaret Thatcher).

In 1974 the roles were curiously reversed to those adopted today, with most of Labour opposed to joining Europe and the Conservatives largely in favour. At the heart of Ted Heath's strategy to convince his parliamentary colleagues was a conceit however. The Government argued that this was a community of independent nation states promoting free trade in Europe. On the Monday following the 'yes' vote in 1974, then Prime Minister Ted Heath was given the agenda for his first meeting with other European leaders. The civil servant, glancing at the agenda, noticed that one point to be discussed was 'establishing a common currency by 1980'. He mentioned this to Heath and, apparently Heath looked up and said: 'That's what it is all about'.

The BBC documentary interviewed Heath before his death in 2005 and pointed out to him the discrepancy between what he argued in public and what he had known all along, the true destination of Europe. In the documentary Heath looks puzzled and says something to the effect, 'so what?'

I always felt that the way the British joined the European Communities was the Achilles heel of those wanting to make a positive case for European Union membership. At the heart of the British membership remains a conceit by one of the most dishonest politicians, Ted Heath. You may argue about the pros and cons of pooling national sovereignty in European institutions, but you cannot argue that Germans and French politicians were not clear with their electorate about the final destination. The same cannot be said for the British. I would not be surprised if this will come to haunt them on June 23rd.