Saturday, November 10, 2012

The South by Colm Tóibín

It's Colm Tóibín's first novel, dating from 1990, and it was a lovely read. The South tells the story of a young Irish mother living in a village outside Dublin in the 1950s who suddenly decides to leave her husband and young son from whom she is disconnected.

She goes to Spain, sets up with a Spanish painter and begins painting herself, becoming marginally embroiled in the politics the new Franco regime. Michael, the Irish man who lives there at the edges of the arts scene in Barcelona at first unsettles her (he claims to be from the same village she is from), acts almost as an internal voice in sections, mediating the exotic, passionate and often chaotic world of these artists who had put so much effort into defeating Franco. But Michael also acts as a foil for her Spanish artist, Miguel, in that he represents the constrained and restrained emotion that the Irish aren't given license to express (as openly as the passionate, fiery southerners). That said, Michael is more open than Katherine. He allows himself to be carried away by passions, by love of art and beauty in a way that's new to her.

What I like about Tóibín as a general rule is how straightforward his story-telling is. He doesn't get bogged down with long, lyrical passages or ornate descriptions of scenes or feelings. He tells the story in a very matter of fact way, though there is inordinate beauty in this as well. The beauty of Tóibín comes from small details. In a scene set at Katherine's mother's place in London after she has left her family, her mother (who many years before had left Katherine and Katherine's father, too, to follow her own identity) has some friends over, friends who've never been told about Katherine (or that she had any children):

     As they stood in the kitchen when the guests had gone, Katherine asked her mother why she had told her friends that she had no children.
     "I put that all behind me."
     "It feels funny being written off like that."
     "Yes, like walking out of the cinema, leaving it all behind, the big picture."
     "Don't make jokes."
     "Katherine, don't tell me what to do."
     "Did I ever exist for you?"
     "I got out of that place, and I put it behind me. It's what you're going to do, isn't it? Your father wouldn't come. I don't think you've consulted your spouse. Incidentally, he telephoned twice today."
     "He'll telephone again tomorrow. I told him I had been in touch with you and I would tell you."
     "Tell him I've left," she said, and turned away.

It's such a simple scene on the surface: the emotion is very controlled. Neither wants to acknowledge the pain they have inflicted on others but both want their own pain acknowledged. Another writer would have dealt expressively with how Katherine was feeling, what she needed to get from her mother. But we get that only under the surface, only be reading between the words. The beauty is in the way they talk past each other, in that final detail when Katherine "turns away," which sounds almost biblical in its ability to both be understated but be quivering with emotion just under the surface.

In his more recent works, Tóibín still avoids dramatic scenes (and when there is something dramatic happening, it's often something that happens on the edge of the details we are given). In this day and age where every feeling and emotion is catalogued and analyzed, I love reading this kind of restrained sense of personal feeling.

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