“As Though From a Distance”: Rereading Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn

brooklynWhen I posted about Brooklyn here before, I admitted that I might just have been reading it at the wrong time to appreciate it. I found the style so flatly precise it was almost plodding; I thought Eilis herself was so distanced, from herself and from us, that she seemed ultimately insubstantial. “I was expecting something urgent and illuminating to emerge from behind the cool narration,” I concluded, “and was left disappointed.” I liked The Master so much that it seemed to confirm my suspicion that this underwhelmed reaction was at least as much my fault as Tóibín’s, so I decided to give Brooklyn another try.

I wish I could say that on a rereading, Brooklyn was transformed for me into a book I could love. I certainly did like it much better than I did before. I was more moved than I remember being by Eilis’s dilemma, too, and by her feeling of being impossibly placed between two worlds and two selves, each of which recedes or predominates depending on where she is at the moment:

She wished now that she had not married him, not because she did not love him and intend to return to him, but because not telling her mother or her friends made every day she had spent in America a sort of fantasy, something she could not match with the time she was spending at home. It made her feel strangely as if she were two people, one who had battled against two cold winters and many hard days in Brooklyn and fallen in love there, and the other who was her mother’s daughter, the Eilis whom everyone knew, or thought they knew.

There is no right or easy resolution. Unlike the bookkeeping she practises, in which ultimately every detail has a proper place and all the columns, if managed correctly, add up, life is untidy:

The answer was that there was no answer, that nothing she could do would be right. . . . She saw all three of them — Tony, Jim, her mother — as figures whom she could only damage, as innocent people surrounded by light and clarity, and circling around them was herself, dark and uncertain.

What still bothered me — what still left me discontented — with Brooklyn is that Tóibín’s prose is the antithesis of this uncertainty and of the emotional turmoil Eilis is surely experiencing but that we (or at least I) can’t hear at all in his sentences, which are so calm, so even, so restrained that they leave me chafing against their very simplicity.

brooklyn2I understand that this can be taken as symptomatic of Eilis’s character. Early in her first year in Brooklyn she recognizes that her survival there in fact depends on suppressing her feelings:

No matter what she dreamed about, no matter how badly she felt, she had no choice, she knew, but to put it all swiftly out of her mind. She would have to get on with her work if it was during the day and go back to sleep if it was during the night. It would be like covering a table with a tablecloth, or closing curtains on a window; and maybe the need would lessen as time went on . . .

She’s just as muffled before this moment as after it, though, and now that I’ve read The Master I know that this deliberate, cerebral tone is not unique to Brooklyn. Perhaps Tóibín is just drawn to characters who live life below the surface, who experience it, as Eilis thinks of herself, “as though from a distance.” There’s an elegance to this remoteness, and a poignancy that is the careful opposite of sentimentality, but while I admire the emotional delicacy of the presentation more than on my first reading, I’m still left just a bit disappointed.

“The Old High Art of Fiction”: Colm Tóibín, The Master


Once it became more solid, the emerging story and all its ramifications and possibilities lifted him out of the gloom of his failure. He grew determined that he would become more hardworking now. He took up his pen again — the pen of all his unforgettable efforts and sacred struggles. It was now, he believed, that he would do the work of his life. He was ready to begin again, to return to the old high art of fiction with ambitions now too deep and pure for any utterance.

As I finished reading yet another not-very-good novel about George Eliot (Dinitia Smith’s The Honeymoon, review forthcoming), I found myself wondering why she has been so ill-served by later novelists who obviously (judging by their choice of subject) found her very inspiring. But I suppose in some ways it’s a thankless task, deliberately to set yourself against one of the geniuses of your genre: you can’t help but invite comparison, and you have to find a way to be not just connected to your source but also brilliant on your own terms. Naturally, this got me wondering where the good examples are of what we might call “homage fiction” — and this led me to The Master, which has been ripening on my bookshelves for a few years now.

The Master is a book I have long wanted to read, but my intention to actually do so kept getting undermined by my fear that reading it would be like reading the Master himself. He’s a writer with whom I have a vexed relationship: usually when I read him I’m equal parts fascinated and repelled, impressed and impatient. I sometimes feel a bit resentful of him — of his influence on people’s thinking about the art of fiction, for instance — but I love his actual essay on “The Art of Fiction.” Even in my best Jamesian moments, I can’t muster anything like the enthusiasm for him that, say, Jessa Crispin has expressed — I find him too claustrophobic in his meticulousness — but at the same time he’s a writer I can’t resist wrestling with.

I have not so far been a great Colm Tóibín fan either. My only previous experience is Brooklyn, which I also found a bit too perfect, though not so much for any particularly Jamesian qualities as in its replication of its protagonist’s emotional suppression. There’s a fine line between representing and enacting flatness and inertia. And yet even though I was mostly unmoved by Brooklyn, I could tell that Tóibín was a writer to trust — smart, skilled, deliberate. So I hung on to The Master, as if I knew that its day would come!

master2I’m glad it finally did, because I thought it was wonderful. I knew only snippets about James’s biography before, and I’m not at all familiar with his letters or other key sources, so I don’t know how far Tóibín has shaped the story in a distinctive way or how far his Henry is recognizable to people who already knew him well from other versions. But to me, Tóibín’s character was immediately convincing because he was so specific, so somehow complete, not just as a man but (more important, perhaps, in a Jamesian context) as a point of view. The Master read like a novel looking at the world from a very particular consciousness, which of course is the crucial twist James gave to the form himself — not that he was the first to do this, but he developed and concentrated the technique until its very singularity perversely crowded out some of the other things novelists valued (or were valued for). Tóibín’s novel isn’t quite as insular as its inspiration’s can be, but it seemed to me very much a novel of looking, rather than doing: it’s a novel about a man for whom the meaning of an action is more significant than the action itself.

Tóibín does a beautiful job showing how James’s novels arose from that way of being in the world. He doesn’t avoid making the literal connections between biographical events and real-life relationships and James’s plots and character — in his detailed account, for instance, of James’s cousin Minny, resurrected particularly in Isabel Archer:

he had a great mission now to make Minny walk these streets, to allow the soft Tuscan sunlight to shine on her soft face. But more than that, he sought to re-create her moral presence more finely and more dramatically than he had ever done before.

But Tóibín also evokes the creative mysteries that underlie the transformation of life into art: we feel the ideas for new stories glimmer in Henry’s mind before they take any final form, and see them as part of a broader striving to elucidate and connect both people and ideas. His Henry’s mind is always at work, observing details (“Henry noticed how beautiful his shoes were and how slender his feet”), puzzling over nuances, shaping thoughts into the elegantly complex sentences which Tóibín can hardly resist invoking in his own prose (“He dictated with his usual mixture of certainty and hesitation, stopping briefly and darting forward again, and then going to the window, as if to find the word or phrase he sought in the garden, among the shrubs or the creepers or the abundant growth of late summer, and turning back deliberately into the cool room with the right phrase in his head and the sentence which followed until the paragraph had been completed”).

Henry_James_SargentSomething that moved me deeply about Tóibín’s vision is that, as he tells it, there really are costs to such an extraordinarily intellectual life. It isn’t easy to be “one of those on whom nothing is lost”: The Master is suffused with melancholy, and with a strange, contradictory longing for decisive moments that never quite arrive, for connections that are never quite achieved. Every time Henry ventures further out into the world, whether literally or emotionally, just as promptly he retreats. For him, to be fully himself is, paradoxically, to be distant from himself; his best company, it sometimes seems, is his memory, but that is an equivocal solace:

Alice was dead now, Aunt Kate was in her grave, the parents who noticed nothing also lay inert under the ground, and William was miles away in his own world, where he would stay. And there was silence now in Kensington, not a sound in the house, except the sound, like a vague cry in the distance, of his own great solitude, and his memory working like grief, the past coming to him with its arm outstretched, looking for comfort.

The Master overall is a mournful book, as if the great achievements of its protagonist came, in some sense, at the his own expense. But at the same time, Tóibín shows us a Henry who is happiest precisely at that remove from liveliness. I was struck, at the very end, by the unexpected image of young Henry wholly absorbed in David Copperfield, reading, as David himself says, “as if for life.” In some ways it’s hard to imagine a less Jamesian novel than David Copperfield: although both David and Henry find their vocation in writing fictions of their own, David — and Dickens — has a vitality I’ve never found in James. Tóibín’s Henry seems at once wistfully aware that such energetic engagement is not for him and quietly content that it should be so — that he should be, at the end of the day (at the end of his days) alone with his thoughts.

Colm Toibin, Brooklyn

The blurb page of my edition of Brooklyn is full of praise for Toibin’s style. Words like “simplicity” predominate, along with “spare,” “delicate,” and “elegance.” I can imagine a review of Brooklyn that would describe similar features but with less enthusiasm: instead of “spare,” perhaps “sparse”; instead of “delicate,” “flat” or “colorless.” It’s a book that is strangely without affect, so deliberately underwritten it’s as if Toibin was determined to keep not just himself off the page but his characters and readers too. Is elegance dependent on such effacement, such careful subordination of elaboration or enthusiasm? Can there be no pulse, no poetry, in it? The negative review I imagine is not, quite, the review I would write, but I finished the novel feeling still held at a distance. Eilis Lacey, for instance: who is she? What is she like? She’s barely there, though the novel is, I suppose, told from her point of view. Even accepting what I take to be the premise – that she lives remote, somehow, from her own emotions, almost even from her own experiences – she’s an oddly insubstantial figure, the sum of actions she takes and things she says more than any rich conception of character. Like Eilis, the story too is a sequence, this and then this and then this. The writing precise, each detail placed just so, but the pacing is so steady that if I were writing that negative review, I’d call Toibin’s style “pedestrian.” Maybe even “plodding.” I’m not writing that review, though, because I’m not sure that’s so, only that it struck me as so, that I was expecting something urgent and illuminating to emerge from behind the cool narration and was left disappointed. Something can be perfect of its kind and still not be the kind of thing we love: Brooklyn has a certain minimalist perfection, but if I weigh it against, say, Leaving Brooklyn, also a story about self and place, about growing and seeing, about loving and choosing, Leaving Brooklyn is the book for me. (I realize there’s no intrinsic necessity to that comparison, but it occurred to me throughout my reading of Brooklyn.) I’m surprised at my own reaction because I like my books cerebral. Maybe I was in the wrong “head space” myself to appreciate such an austere approach.

Have you read Brooklyn? What did you think?