Have I written about Colm Tóibín on this blog before? I don’t think I have. Just a year ago I read his most recent book, Nora Webster, and felt a little crushed inside by how beautiful it was. I reviewed it for the Philadelphia Inquirer and in that review I wrote that, when I read most novels, I flatter myself that I can see, for the most part, how they were made. That’s not to say that I could write one, mind you. But I’m a pretty good reader and I read a lot, and of course I’m a writer myself and I have a feeling for how language is used. I can usually see the underpinnings of even very sophisticated pieces of fiction, understand what makes them successful or unsuccessful; I can picture the writer at work.
But I really can’t figure out how Colm Tóibín does what he does. I read The Blackwater Lightship this summer, after Nora Webster. Though it deals with a much sadder and more sensitive subject—a young man’s painful death from AIDS—it doesn’t try to break your heart any more than Nora Webster does. (Her story, in fact, is quietly, gloriously hopeful, the story of a person coming back to life.) Both books are weighty and serious without being solemn, somehow; both exist within the same sacred, silent space that Tóibín creates, though I can’t see how he creates it. It’s a kind of magic. I mean, each word is perfectly used, and there is never a word to spare. But I don’t think that leanness is the most important thing about it. The important, the necessary thing is the way he seems to make the language disappear. It has almost no style, if you will. Tóibín does let a sly, wry wit shine through sometimes (he’s Irish; you get the feeling he can’t help it) but basically he is not interested in making you laugh, or making you cry, or making you anything. He isn’t even an especially visual writer. He just tells us how things are in such an unadorned way that we believe him, trust him, completely. He’s god, and he’s hanging the moon in the sky and putting down a few mountains over here, and then there’s Dublin over there, with its wet cobble streets. What he describes becomes real.
There’s another writer I can think of who does this: Edward P. Jones, the American fiction writer. They’re both so good it’s almost scary, though I find I have a very warm feeling for Colm Tóibín, while I remember feeling a bit awed and frightened by the skill Jones employs. Another point: As good as, say, Ray Carver was—and he was one of the best—you could imitate his style. It’s distinctive. That’s true of most of the great writers, come to think of it. Think of Flannery O’Connor. She never doesn’t sound like Flannery O’Connor. Though he’s just as distinctive, just as much himself, I’m not sure you could write a paragraph in the “style” of Colm Tóibín’s prose. You’d have to remake yourself into the best writer who ever lived first, and then I guess you could give it a try.
I started a book of his short stories today, Mothers and Sons. I’m in his world now and I want the feeling to last. I can feel myself moving a little more slowly than usual, noticing more. That’s what it’s for, isn’t it? Fiction, art of any kind—it’s supposed to open your eyes, give you a new way of seeing. When it works it’s incredible, the best kind of gift.