Two Books by Colm Tóibín

  • Colm Tóibín
  • Scribner
  • December 5, 2012

Literary artists, Colm Tóibín contends, must lay off loved ones in order to invent themselves more radically.

Reviewed by Anne C. Heller

“Mothers get in the way of fiction,” the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín observes in the opening chapter of this collection of previously published essays, lectures and reviews. Musing about the absence of serviceable mothers in the novels of Jane Austen and Henry James, he writes: “They take up the space that is better filled by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality, and by something more interesting and important as the novel itself developed. This was the idea of solitude.” If Tóibín, short-listed for the Booker Prize for his novel The Master (2004), has a theme, it is this: The artist must invent himself, and many literary artists figuratively slay not only mothers but also fathers and whole families and bloodlines so as to invent themselves more radically.

Divided into two parts, “Ireland” and “Elsewhere,” the 15 biographical essays in New Ways to Kill Your Mother are variations on Tóibín’s characteristic theme of isolation. Because his musings about the careers of W.B. Yeats, J.M. Synge, Samuel Beckett, Brian Moore, Sebastian Barry, Roddy Doyle, Thomas Mann, Jorge Luis Borges, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, James Baldwin and  Barack Obama, along with Henry James and Jane Austen, are frequently based on the biographical research of others (usually in the form of book reviews), they can seem secondhand and belabored.

The material is most surprising and original when the author keeps a close eye on the novels, plays, poems and essays of the subjects themselves amid the thickets of their family life. In this respect, Tóibín’s pungent analysis of Cheever’s famous short story “The Swimmer” is classic: “Thus ‘The Swimmer,’ read in tandem with Cheever’s journals,” Tóibín writes, “becomes a version of the writer’s dream and then his nightmare. His dream was that he should have ‘breached this [marital] contract years ago and run off with some healthy-minded [male] beauty,’ his nightmare that he would come home to an empty house, that he would, because of instincts he barely understood and deeply despised, lose the domestic life he craved” (bracketed clarifications added by reviewer). Remarking on James Baldwin’s early debt to Hemingway in a riveting appreciation of the younger writer, Tóibín shrewdly remarks, “It is one way of killing your father, to pretend that he made no difference to you while watching his cadences like a hawk.”

Nevertheless, the narrative thread that ties these pieces together can sometimes seem tangled or weak. Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, on the other hand, is short (only 81 pages) but propulsive in the energy with which it reinterprets the inner life of one particular mother, Mary, and the works of her son Jesus, who — ironically or not — comes as close as possible to literally if inadvertently killing her through his willed transformation from human to divine.

When the novella opens, Mary, the narrator, is old, exiled in Ephesus and watched by her son’s former disciples, who are resolutely preparing a text that presents him as the son of God and the redeemer of the world. Mary doesn’t believe in Christ’s divinity but is wary of contradicting her “guards,” or “minders,” who periodically bully her in pursuit of recovered memories to strengthen their portrait of Jesus as God’s gift to humankind. “Memories fill my body as much as blood and bones,” she thinks, but they all evoke an average boy who grew odd and disturbingly delusional at adolescence, “his voice all false, and his tone all stilted” as he preached to a ragtag group of “awkward, needy,” unwholesome youths around the family table in Nazareth.

He left home with them, and Mary soon began to hear reports that he was “whipping up hysteria among the crowds” by performing healing rituals, and that both the Roman and Jewish authorities were alarmed by his popularity and spying on him. When he raises Lazarus from the dead — or from a state of catalepsy, which Tóibín seems to suggest — the corpse merely creeps away, “dirtied with clay and covered in graveclothes,” hating the light of day, and whimpers and cries in a state of suffering for the remainder of his life.

But the crowds beg Jesus for further miracles, and that is his death knell. To warn him, Mary travels to the wedding at Cana and whispers that his life is in danger; when he rebuffs her, saying, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” she views the episode not as a sign of his divinity but as self-destructive, pointless and possibly insane. From that point on, Jesus’ enemies want Mary dead as well.

If The Testament of Mary presents Jesus as a human mystery, it is eloquent in presenting Mary with a rich humanity of her own that is absent from the Gospels. At Calvary, she recalls, she did not stay to watch the disciples wash and bind the gruesome wounds of her crucified son, as her “guards” wish to convince her she did. Instead, in a moment of panic she fled for her life.

She was guided to Ephesus by one of the disciples, who now both badger her and protect her from the Romans and Jews who would still like to see her dead. In response to her guards, she is defiant and wily and never loses confidence in what she saw and felt. Now near the end of her life, tired of all orthodoxy, she turns away from her ancestral religion and secretly worships the local goddess Artemis, who, she thinks, is “bountiful with her arms outstretched and her many breasts waiting to nurture those who come towards her” — just as generations will come for nurture to Mary, mother of God.

This is an especially beautiful irony, or reversal of expectations, and it characterizes much of what’s best and most memorable in both of Tóibín’s two most recent books.

Anne C. Heller is the author of Ayn Rand and the World She Made (Nan Talese, 2009; Anchor Books, 2010) and is working on a new biography of Hannah Arendt.

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