Up against John Banville and Colum McCann in an unending round-robin (The Favored Irish Writer Cup), Colm Toibin is an international literary figure. We know the deal with the international literary figure. The novels inspire sighing genuflection and sometimes even get audio-recorded by That Meryl. Exotic prizes accumulate somewhat exotically — in his New York gaff, Toibin has the IMPAC; the Lambda; the Costa Novel Award.
The world agrees: Colm Toibin is a master craftsman. Put “Colm Toibin” and “beautiful writer” into Google and you get thousands of results. But is the writing in “Nora Webster,” his seventh and latest novel, beautifully crafted?
Here’s a paragraph chosen not quite by chance: “In the days that followed, however, the weather did not change much. Sometimes in the morning the sun burned through the haze more quickly; other times, the day settled into a sort of windless greyness. It was always mild enough to stay on the strand and they never changed the spot they had found in the dunes on the first day. Sometimes Donal came to find them, and walked down along the strand with his camera. All their efforts to encourage him to get him into the water, however, failed.”
It hard to imagine, oh, Henry James writing such a paragraph. The opening and closing sentences, their stiff and twined structure; the repetition of that vague “sometimes"; the gross sibilance of “windless greyness"; the frenzied chiming of the “day. stay.they.they.day” string. Distinctly nonbeautiful, all of it.
“Nora Webster” is a surprising book. It’s provincial, gray, pensive, good-hearted and may actually be a perfect work of fiction. At the least, it’s very very good. That’s the surprise. Because you’ll find it hard to pinpoint why it has you so shaken.
Toibin’s made a choice, I think. He is not playing a post-modern, Calvinoan game; he’s not out to make you ponder the ultimate artificiality of storytelling. No, this is something different: This is a writer making a stand for the beautiful plainness of life.
I don’t want to give away too much plot. This is a book of moments that, like shadows, would die were one to shine too much light on them. Suffice it to say that in late-'60s Ireland, Nora Webster is recently widowed, and she and her children must learn to live in her husband’s absence. There is no pyrotechny in the writing — just compassion and shrewd insight. Which is where Toibin’s brilliance lies. “It was as though she lived underwater and had given up on the struggle to swim towards air.” That wise, plain-spoken line sounds almost like Tolstoy.
In fact, what Nabokov wrote about Tolstoy is true for Toibin: “His comparisons are utilitarian, are functional. They are employed not to enhance the imagery, to give a new slant to our artistic perception of this or that scene; they are employed to bring out a moral point. ... Appealing to the mind rather than to the eye.”
This seeming artlessness seems a way for Toibin, who teaches at Columbia, to razz MFA programs and their talk of “craft.” (Maybe for obvious reasons, writing courses have taken as their model not the desperate-eyed artist, thirsting after inspiration, but the handicrafts laborer, with his sensible toolbelt and workbench demeanor.) It’s not that Toibin’s art doesn’t care how incidental it may seem; it’s that it wants to seem incidental.
Toibin’s method is of a piece with the book’s approach to drama. Or, make that drama avoidance; this is a novel that abjures not just plot twists but plot advances. Toibin never manhandles life and would in fact prefer not to leave any fingerprints on its lapels. In “Nora Webster,” if the daughter is presumed missing and in danger, fear not. There is no danger; she’s not really missing. And when the needed job is thought to be lost, it isn’t. Also, that son with the school problems? He gets his school problems fixed. (And the other son with the school problems gets his fixed, too.) Finally, if the hero has her musical hopes foiled, those hopes will be redeemed, or they’re likely to be. We’ll know for sure at the concert. Which concert this book then declines to show us.
I teach writing too, and just across town from Toibin as it turns out. And though I believe writing can be taught, I think that after a while instruction hurts the way one goes about putting books together. At low moments I hear myself telling students things like: “If your hero grows strong by chapter 10, you should make him weak in chapter 1"; or, “If it’s got a happy ending, it should be sad in the beginning — or vice versa. And by all means, pressurize the situation.” Well, Toibin’s written a book that de-pressurizes — that, when faced with a dramatic moment, shies up its collar and ducks into the alley.
This storytelling approach allows for great moments of grace. (If we’re going to quote rattles and clanks, let’s also quote some beautiful, Toibinan music.) Nora listening to a string trio: “The energy in the playing was sad, and then it became more than sad, as if there was something there and all three players recognized it and were moving towards it. The melody rose more beautifully, and she was sure that someone had suffered, and moved away from suffering and then come back to it, let it linger and live within them.”
People call Toibin a beautiful writer because they don’t know how otherwise to classify such a delicate talent, such empathic simplicity. Some mysteries can’t be deciphered by criticism. Colm Toibin is not a beautiful writer, he’s merely a great one.
Strauss is the author, most recently, of “Half a Life.”
Scribner: 384 pp., $27