Julian Barnes and Colm Toibin have both recently released books of short stories (Pulse and The Empty Family respectively). They appeared on the New Book shelves of the local library more or less at the same time. (This handy expedient often determines what I find myself reading.) Both writers, Barnes English and Toibin Irish, have well established literary reputations; they repay any attention given to them.On first reading, the two collections appear very different, with Toibins far more somber in tone, yet Barness stories are scarcely light (a series of connected pieces, At Phil & Joannas, excepted). Many of Toibins characters appear to find in what befalls them, the need to establish self-assertion, a movement to self-respect in defiance of convention or expectation. Certainly this is the case in those pieces that entail a return to the country of birth because of a death or similar disruption one that causes a reevaluation of all the entanglements that forced exile or escape. Those entanglements too soon reassert themselves on return. The title story certainly shows this as does The New Spain. The theme recurs in the flashbacks that dominate the account of the narrator of The Pearl Fishers a tale that looks at Irish clerical abuse of children, boarding school homosexuality, and the stridency of protest against secrecy and suppression. The ironies of this story are a function of narrative perspective an old male lover and the narrator know what the formers wife does not: their previous intimacy. The clipped dismissal of sentimentality and the sardonic tone undercut the narrators assertion of independence. Toibins character salvages self-respect at what seems a high personal price.
Barnes tales often examine the frustrations that prevent deep relationships between couples. The failures of male characters (Pulse, Complicity, Trespass and East Wind) are not vicious, but all too familiar curiosity, assumptions made too easily about the other, possessiveness. Both collections share a focus on older women, successful in the arts, who, in Barnes case (Sleeping with John Updike), find in their relationships only the regard of competitors. Both appear to lose in their unspoken struggles. In Toibins story,Two Women, a renowned film artistic director returns to Ireland on assignment and discovers, inadvertently, a link to her former lover. This occasions a sense of loss as coldly sharp as the snow falling on Michael Fureys grave at the end of Joyces The Dead.Both collections distinguish themselves in that unique way of the short story form: the imaginative intensity that comes with necessarily brief development. The fore-shortening somehow takes us abruptly into a world the more strange for what we do not know of background, so much must be inferred. Barnes Harmony seems almost a documentary account. It leads us into an eighteenth century world, rendered in a style to suit, that recounts the treatment of blind hysterical patient, Maria Theresia, who is also a precocious pianist. Her young doctors increasingly successful therapy earns him not the thanks of parents, but his vilification by the ambitious and abusive pair. Toibins The Street takes us to contemporary Barcelona, to an immigrant Pakistani community. The narrative focus is on the young adult, Malik, whose difficulties in negotiating his new home cannot break his understated resistance. He triumphs in his own small way in establishing his relationship with his co-worker Abdul even as he incites the wrath of his employer and somehow engages the protection of the enigmatic Super. More is left unstated than explained, and this effect maps beautifully the inner experience of Malik, who likewise only partially understands the world he inhabits.The paradoxes of reading such works are surely their delights: we come to know what we do not know, to enter briefly and abruptly into worlds that are inaccessible or apparently hostile. The imitation of an action that Aristotle found plot to be is just that: the protective zone within the covers of a book.