In the last essay in this collection, Colm Tóibín points out some parallels between James Baldwin's life and writing and Barack Obama's. Both men, as they set about making their mark on the world, seemed to need to establish that "their stories began when their fathers died and that they set out alone without a father's shadow or a father's permission". The church and intense religious feeling were key elements in both lives, and they both felt that their American identity came most strongly home to them through significant experience abroad (Baldwin in France, Obama in Kenya). They could easily have become pastors, preachers, leaders of black churches, but both of them had "a sense of an elsewhere that would form them and make them, eventually, more interested in leading America itself, or as much of it as would follow …" In their writing, however, "whereas Baldwin sought to make distinctions, Obama always wants to make connections; his urge is to close circles even when they don't need to be closed … Whereas Baldwin longed to disturb the peace, create untidy truths, Obama was slowly becoming a politician."
This short piece is something like an inspired afterthought (there's a fuller essay on Baldwin elsewhere in the collection). But it suggests the range and freedom of Tóibín's criticism, and the audacious play of his critical writing backwards and forwards between the writers' work and their lives, between their work and the politics of their historical moment. The essays are the continuation by other means of the achievement of The Master, Tóibín's novel about Henry James, where he makes himself eerily and superbly interior to the creative alchemy as it might work inside a great novelist translating his experience into fiction (and the fiction translating in turn into an element of experience). The urge to write, the need to write, becomes in itself a mystery for Tóibín's novelist-imagination to work on: what does that need express, where does it come from? Tóibín's hunch is that we can understand something about it by looking at how these writer-individuals fit, or more often don't fit, inside their families. However painfully the writer may experience the solitude of his nature (JM Synge said "he never met a man or woman who shared his opinions until he was 23"), and however urgent his need to free himself, he can't make himself or his work out of nothing; it is the tight or loose or twisted knot of family, the murky scene of origins, which makes the writer in the first place – and then, through transformations however opaque, becomes his or her material.
Good biographers are rightly wary of tracing lines of cause and effect between a writer's life and work; it takes a novelist's leap of imagination and power of compressed suggestion to risk mixing them up as boldly as Tóibín does here. "Yeats had had bohemianism foisted on him by his feckless father," Tóibín writes; "Synge had done it all alone as a new way of killing his mother." But that's not portentous closure, it's a teasing illumination for a moment, before he goes on to treat the relationship between Synge and his mother from other perspectives, always shifting: Mrs Synge's prayers over her apostate son are tender as well as stifling. ("He is wonderfully separate from us. I show him all the love I can. If we are all taken up to meet the Lord and he is left behind … how sad a thought, but I won't think that.") It's all wonderfully funny too; the Synges "with their sense of an exalted and lost heritage and a strict adherence to religious doctrine added to dullness"; Synge's nephew who, after his uncle's early death from Hodgkin's disease, devoted himself to chronicling the writer's life with an insane pedantry ("the food eaten, the decoration of the houses … the books he read, his daily habits, his conversations, his coughs and colds …").
Each of these essays feeds our curiosity as richly as a story: WB Yeats's cool patience with his garrulous, needy, exasperating father; Beckett's youthful self-devouring disgust ("I isolated myself more and more, undertook less and less and lent myself to a crescendo of disparagement of others and myself"); Borges in his 50s, escaping in a taxi from a disastrous, brief marriage to a woman his mother had chosen. Tóibín knows how to select just the right detail to touch off our imagination of a scene, a personality, a family ethos; he knows how to tease out the revelations in the words that these people (and not only the writers) use to describe their lives and themselves.
It's clear that his theme, the writer's repudiation of family and persisting involuntary attachment to it, is close to the heart of his own work (his last story collection, magnificently austere, was called The Empty Family). The source of the power of fiction, he believes, is in the private life; at the heart of the alchemy, imagined worlds (as opposed to the "world as we know it, raw and shapeless") are tested against "the private and hidden experience".
Because these essays are so enjoyably readable, it would be easy to miss what's innovative and liberating in Tóibín's accounts, throughout the collection, of novel and short story form. "The novel is not a moral fable," he writes about Mansfield Park, "… or an exploration of the individual's role in society; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or learn from them how to live … A novel is a pattern and it is our job to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones, to note how the textures were woven and its tones put in place …"
His accounts of fiction's "powerfully protean dynamic" use a language usually reserved for the visual arts or music; meaning is made in terms of form and feel and tonal development, not surface argument. He should know. A masterly writer, working at the full stretch of his powers, sends back reports from where he's engaged at white heat, writing and reading.
• Tessa Hadley's The London Train is published by Jonathan Cape.
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