For a writer of his generation, Colm Tóibín might be the closest thing to a celebrity the twenty-first century is capable of producing. The source of his popular appeal, however, can be a little tricky to pin down. Tóibín’s novels are often understated and elliptical, driven more by small human interactions than by plot. His most critically acclaimed work, 2004’s The Master, is a dense, involuted treatment of the life and emotional weather of Henry James as the specters of old age and death loom. Even his most commercially successful novels, including Brooklyn (2009) and Nora Webster (2014), are far frostier and stranger than their warm popular reception would lead you to believe.
Though Tóibín is most famous as a novelist, he’s also a prolific and omnivorous essayist, regularly turning out lengthy pieces of criticism and cultural commentary for publications like the London Review of Books and the New Yorker. Over the past three decades, he’s published a celebratory homage to the city of Barcelona; travelogs detailing a walking tour along the Irish border and investigating the state of European Catholicism in the mid-1990s; studies of the Irish dramatist Lady Gregory and the American poet Elizabeth Bishop; and themed essay collections on the lives of gay artists, writers and their families, and (of course) Henry James.
In a way, it’s surprising that a writer so prolific shouldn’t have a Selected Essays, but the peculiar qualities of his criticism, which tends to be information-dense and quote-heavy, might offer an explanation. Tóibín doggedly pursues his own curiosities, leaping down rabbit hole after rabbit hole and reveling in the warren. That his earliest nonfiction outings, including Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border and The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe, were essentially peripatetic pieces of journalism makes sense. A leisurely stroll is the clearest model for his nonfiction style.
His latest collection, A Guest at the Feast, comes closest to being a general compendium, though its contents are weighted in favor of a particular subject of abiding interest to Tóibín: religion. The book is anchored by three essays on popes, and three essays on writers concerned, in one way or another, with religious themes. This may seem odd to some readers, since religious themes aren’t terribly prominent in Tóibín’s novels, where they emerge (if they emerge at all) in oblique ways—for example, as imposed silences, dictating what may and may not be said. Unsurprisingly, the collection as a whole is interested in “religion and its shadowy aftermath,” to borrow a phrase from Tóibín’s essay on Marilynne Robinson. Dealing with the shards of a religious tradition, as Tóibín’s essays make clear, can be intensely clarifying—after all, when things break up, they are quite literally made particular, and can be examined from all angles.
The collection’s title essay, a rambling piece of psychogeography, offers a magpie’s view of Tóibín’s artistic development. He quotes writers he admires, recounts the history of landmarks in his native Enniscorthy, and drinks his way through his student days in Dublin. At one point, he recalls finding a stash of forbidden books above his mother’s wardrobe, including Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls and John McGahern’s The Dark. These texts, “samizdat Irish-style,” are tokens of “a great unsettling,” the seismic cultural shifts that occurred as Ireland opened itself to the world in the 1960s. The essay’s discontinuous, mosaic-like structure, treating every fragment of experience with equal weight, is a reflection of this disturbance. Tóibín is attempting to capture a culture, and a self, that has been fractured and riven by deep changes.
There’s always been something clinical about the tone of Tóibín’s writing, a severity that insists on the raw accretion of facts. At its worst, this tendency can make his essays feel like little more than collections of quotations. Elsewhere, it provides a powerful charge. “A Brush with the Law,” which recounts Tóibín’s fascination with Ireland’s Supreme Court, is a case in point. The essay’s lengthy explanations of court cases dealing with homosexuality bear a clear edge. Tóibín’s real aim is to demonstrate how religious ideas get filtered through the legal system, how legal arguments against homosexuality are often just moral arguments in disguise. In a sense, his method elevates pedantry to a moral art.