Rebecca Goldstein (see my post of July 5) is not the only current author making much of Henry James. Colm Toíbín has been well-known for his interest in James, at least since his 2005 tour-de-force, The Master, a remarkable novelistic reading of James’s life. Actually, Toíbín’s interest long preceded the novel, and a collection of his essays on James appeared last fall (All a Novelist Needs: Colm Tóibín on Henry James, Johns Hopkins Press). There are also those who think that his 2010 novel, Brooklyn, is a kind of homage to Portrait of a Lady. The travels are in reverse—his heroine Eilis goes from Ireland to New York—but there is much to remind one of Isabel Archer, including two suitors, though not three.
Colm Toíbín’s love affair with Henry James continues this year in a new collection of short stories, The Empty Family. The first story, “Silence,” takes off from an entry in James’ notebook where he recounts an “incident” told him by a Lady G. In Toíbín’s hands the Jamesian anecdote becomes Lady G.’s own story (Gregory, not Gaga), and James becomes a character within it, ending with her telling him the tale he will then put into his notebook. This may be a joke at James’ expense. The author who made huge books out of odd remarks and brief snatches of conversation scratches out in his journal a brief account of something that was really far more complex and consequential than he knew, and that could indeed have been the substance of one more great Jamesian novel. But instead it became the inspiration for a short story. Toíbín’s imagination picks up where James’ apparently, for once, failed him.
The tables are turned here and in a number of the other stories, though James doesn’t actually reappear. Many of the stories are about travel between two worlds, for example, though for James’ America and England we have to substitute Ireland and Spain, particularly Barcelona (a city of some significance to Toíbín and the subject of yet another of his books). But where James wrote about the clash of cultures and the comedies and tragedies they encouraged, Toíbín is more concerned with the sense of place and its relationship to identity, whether Enniscorthy or Menorca, Dublin or Barcelona or even London and Texas. There is a lot of nostalgia for home, usually but not only Ireland. Frankness is where Toíbín parts company with James, of course. Where James exemplifies the exquisite contortions of 19th century repression, Toíbín’s clear and simple prose speaks plainly of gay love, without comment and almost without romance. But in the most touching of all the stories, “The Street,” which tells of the love between two illegal immigrants in Barcelona, Toíbín seems to return to something like a Jamesian understatement. It is almost as if Malik and Abdul cannot or will not name what is transpiring between them. This reticence is not only a Jamesian novelistic note; it is also, in The Master, precisely the way in which Toíbín imagined James himself approaching his own life.
In the end, the most satisfying thing about The Empty Family is its elegiac quality, most evident in the almost-resolution that marks every one of the stories. They are simply not tragedies. They very noticeably exhale as they end. In “The New Spain” Carme Giralt sits in Menorca drinking beer, alone, and the story ends on a note of “contentment that she had never expected to feel, an ease she had not believed would ever come her way.” At the end of “Silence” Lady Gregory feels “light” and comments that it had been “an unexpectedly interesting evening.” And the young protagonist of “Barcelona, 1975” walks away from the lover who has rejected him, but “into the shining city… . ready, once more, for anything.” There’s a lot of hope in this collection, a lot of optimism about human resilience, and a little bit of sadness. I was sorry when it ended. Toíbín is always exhilarating, frequently surprising. I look forward to the next book and I have no idea what it will be about. It’s always a surprise, but it will be a huge surprise if James isn’t, somehow, hovering around the edges.