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Old bonds revisited in new Ireland

Times Staff writer

THE Irish writer Colm Toibin is one of those extraordinary artists whose work is a kind of dramatic dialogue between an icily observant intellect and a tender heart.

Nearly as formidable a critic as he is a writer of fiction -- which is very formidable, indeed -- Toibin once mused that, in his country’s literature, “there seemed to be no middle ground between work of pure genius and the ballad.”

In his first collection of short stories, “Mothers and Sons,” the 52-year-old Toibin has achieved something close to the former by fearlessly entering the latter’s most sentimental reaches in these nine stories linked by a common thematic preoccupation. Irish men are hardly the only ones whose maternal relations are fraught.

Italian mothers’ fierce devotion to their sons is the stuff of legend, and Jewish mothers have been made material for a library of satires. The Irish, however, are singular in their iconic elevation of motherhood. As one of the Republic’s founding fathers, the orphaned Eamon De Valera’s political speeches were legendary for their evocation of the new nation as “mother Ireland.” Generations of Irish American Catholics grew up on the homilies of immigrant priests who invoked the loving care and stern authority of “holy mother, the church.”

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Toibin deals unselfconsciously with this cultural baggage by simultaneously situating all but one set of his mothers and sons in the new, post-Catholic, post-nationalist Ireland. He is too fine and particular a writer, however, to sever them from the specificity of landscape. Thus, in his powerful story “A Priest in the Family,” the unnamed provincial town in which his protagonists work through their turmoil is recognizable as Toibin’s native Enniscorthy in County Wexford, where the author’s people have deep roots.

The story may be the most wrenching one yet written about the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal, and the mother who is the last to know that her priest son has been criminally charged with molestations is one of the book’s most memorable characters, in part because her story is told with such restraint and reaches a conclusion as credible as it is surprising. Here the mother, who just has learned of her son’s conduct, goes to the door to admit the daughters, who have come to console her:

“ ‘Come in,’ she said, ‘from the cold.’

“In the hallway, they remained for a second uneasily, unsure which room they should go into.

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“ ‘The kitchen,’ she said drily and led the way, glad that she had left her glasses on top of the open newspaper on the table so that it would be clear to them that she had been occupied when they came.

“ ‘I was just going to do the crossword,’ she said.”

The piece is an unspoken inversion of the old Wexford aphorism concerning the apogee of familial respectability: “A well in the yard, a bull in the field, a priest in the family.”

One of the powers of Toibin’s fictive impulse is that it makes no show of being the product of what Yeats called “a rooted man,” though he is emphatically that. In that sense it is -- like the work of John Banville, with whom Toibin enjoys a reciprocal admiration -- wholly a product of the new, internationalized Ireland, at home with its national identity and with the wider world. Loss is the subtext of these stories; their subtext is the fact that, from the moment of birth, every mother and every son somehow knows that their connection never will be as intimate as it was just one minute before. The arc of their lives to come must be a struggle to regain some intimation of that first and most intimate connection and an inevitable falling short.

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They will miss each other and deny the force of that in their lives.

Thus in the collection’s first story, “The Use of Reason,” a contemporary Dublin gangster muses on how desirable and uncomplicated a landscape devoid of other people would be -- not only because it would make criminality so convenient, but also because it would liberate him from the irritating mother who drunkenly throws his name around in pubs.

Toibin’s sure hand with short fiction is evident from the story’s first paragraph:

“The city was a great emptiness. He looked out from the balcony of one of the top flats on Charlemont Street. The wide waste ground below him was empty. He closed his eyes and thought about the other flats on this floor, most of them empty now in the afternoon, just as the little bare bathrooms were empty and the open stairwells were empty.”

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In “A Journey,” a mother taking her clinically depressed son from the hospital back to the house where her debilitated husband waits, is “struck for a moment by a glimpse of a future in which she would need to muster every ounce of selfishness she had.”

The mother in “The Name of the Game” turns the little supermarket left to her by her dead husband into a highly profitable fish-and-chips stand to pay for her distant son’s social advancement -- then discovers to her dismay that running the place is all he wants for a future.

In a sly evocation of the ur-collection of Irish short stories -- Joyce’s “Dubliners” -- Toibin concludes the collection with an 80-page novella-length story, “A Long Winter,” the only one in “Mothers and Sons” set outside Ireland.

The setting is the Spanish Pyrenees (the author has made extended stays in Barcelona as a teacher and writer) and concerns a gay son’s search, day after day, for his alcoholic mother, who has vanished on a mountainside during a snowstorm. The link to Joyce’s novella “The Dead,” which concludes “Dubliners” and ends with its classic description of snow falling on a lonely grave, is unforced but inescapable.

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Much has been made over the years of Irish writers’ mastery of the short story. Critics as various as Thomas Flanagan and Denis Donoghue have argued that Irish aptitude for short fiction mirrored the limits and restraints of an impoverished island nation. The short story, Donoghue argued, “presents life in the form of constraint.” Toibin’s “Mothers and Sons” not only establishes him as a short story writer of the first rank -- equal, in fact, to his countryman William Trevor -- but reassures readers that the new and affluent Ireland is mother to a sophisticated and moving new short fiction that is rich in implication and restraint.

tim.rutten@latimes.com


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