Under Water: Colm Tóibín, Nora Webster

toibinAt the moment the only topic she could discuss was herself. And everyone, she felt, had heard enough about her. They believed it was time that she stop brooding and think of other things. But there were no other things. There was only what had happened. It was as though she lived underwater and had given up on the struggle to swim towards air. It would be too much. Being released into the world of others seemed impossible; it was something she did not even want.

Nora Webster is pretty much the opposite of the happy reading places I highlighted in my last post. It’s a novel about grief, though (predictably, from Tóibínmaster of reticence) it is barely, quietly, minimally so. The loss of Nora’s husband elicits no wailing, hardly even any weeping: there is nothing of the tear-jerker about the novel at all. I admit, I was a bit sorry: I have struggled before with Tóibín’s flat affect and this time too I got a bit impatient with the calm simplicity of his sentences. I know that is what a lot of readers (and critics) like and admire about his writing. It’s also more or less what I expect from him now, so at any rate I wasn’t surprised.

brooklynMore than that, it felt to me that Nora Webster uses that characteristic stillness of Tóibín’s in a meaningful way: to reflect Nora’s own emotional state, her feeling that she is both unable and unwilling to rise to the surface and meet the demands and expectations of those around her. It’s her situation that is the cause of her repression, not her character (as is the case in Brooklyn), and so there is more tension behind Tóibín’s precise prose because we see signs of her potential for fierceness even before she begins to recover and show more of it herself. Waiting to see when and how she would break through was interesting in a way that (for me) Brooklyn was not. As the novel went on, I was rooting for Nora to be more and do more, to allow herself to feel; I enjoyed her displays of strength, which made clear that it’s her grief, not Nora herself, that is the problem. 

beethoven-archdukeI particularly liked the way the novel used music as Nora’s way back. It’s hard to write well about music. I think Lynn Sharon Schwartz does it wonderfully in Disturbances in the Field; I hoped for good things from Frank Conroy’s Body and Soul and William Boyd’s Love Is Blind but was disappointed. Tóibín ties Nora’s recovery to her growing engagement with music: her attention to it doesn’t just distract her from her mourning but connects her to the person she needs to become to move past it. She has no particular expertise or sophistication as a listener, but her interest is complete and genuine:

On Sunday morning when the boys were at mass and Fiona was still in bed, she put the record on and studied the photograph on the sleeve, looked at the men with their dark good looks and then at the young woman between them, who seemed happier the more Nora looked at her. She listened to the first movement over and over, relishing the uncertainty of it, as though someone was making an effort to say something even deeper and more difficult, and hesitating and then giving in to a simpler melody before moving out of it again into strange sudden lonely moments that the violin or the cello played with a sadness that she wondered how these three young people could know about.

I’m reasonably certain that the musicians on her LP are Zukerman, Barenboim, and Du Pré: the description of them fits, and also the timing is right – this recording was made in the late 60s. One of the odd things about reading this novel, actually, was that until the explicit references to watching the moon landing, I had forgotten that it was a period piece. Eventually the political events make that hard to miss, and of course once you are thinking about it as historical fiction there are lots of signs and reminders. But I think this potential for slippage between then and now is another consequence of Tóibín’s style and the sparseness of his exposition, and also of the intense intimacy of his subject, which is not really (I don’t think) Ireland or the broader context, though I could  be misreading: one of the reviews quoted on my copy says the novel is “a subtle way to reflect on Ireland’s need to put its own grief into a larger context.” I can’t say that’s wrong, but it didn’t feel that way to me, and I didn’t feel any pressure to read Nora as representative in some way either. To me, the novel was exactly as personal as its title. Maybe that’s a limitation on the book: maybe it keeps it small. There is something constrained about it–but by the end, it also gave me a feeling of space as Nora comes to terms with “the way things had worked out.”

4 thoughts on “Under Water: Colm Tóibín, Nora Webster

  1. Philip Olsson March 27, 2021 / 9:19 pm

    After your first few paragraphs, I’m not the least bit interested in “Nora Webster.” So two observations: first, your explication, combined with what I believe to be your taste, saves me from wasted reading hours. Second, I read and value everything you post. You cover much that is not reviewed in the popular press, or even the “literary” press. This is a valuable resource for serious readers. May you prosper in your career and continue to use your erudition to the benefit of those outside the academy.


    • jovanevery1 March 28, 2021 / 6:57 am

      I feel very similarly about your writing. I loved this post. The way it developed actually made me think that I might enjoy it, even though my initial feeling was similar to Philip’s. I learned something from it. I enjoyed your writing in and of itself. And I thought of a couple of people who might enjoy it, not least because of what you said about the role of music.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Rohan Maitzen March 28, 2021 / 7:04 am

      Philip, your generous comment and your follow-up email brought tears to my eyes, truly. I appreciate so much that you not only value my writing here but took the time to tell me so. Thank you so much.


  2. JacquiWine April 15, 2021 / 10:45 am

    “It’s her situation that is the cause of her repression, not her character (as is the case in Brooklyn), and so there is more tension behind Tóibín’s precise prose because we see signs of her potential for fierceness even before she begins to recover and show more of it herself.”

    I think that’s a great insight into Nora and the difficulty of her situation, some of which probably stems from the Irish culture and ways of dealing with (or not dealing with) grief. I saw a lot of my mother’s sister in Nora – my mum’s side of the family are Irish, and so much of what Nora had to cope with resonates with my Aunt Betty’s experiences (and those of my mother who moved to England at 32 when she married my father). Thanks for a thoughtful reminder of a favourite book.

    Liked by 1 person

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