Reviewed by Ian Lipke
A book of essays by Colm Tóibín is a perfect reason for excitement. His latest, A Guest at the Feast, provides warm support to the reputation this international writer enjoys. Colm Tóibín was born in Ireland in 1955. He is the author of Nora Webster, and seven other novels, including The Blackwater Lightship, The Master and The Testament of Mary, all three of which were nominated for the Booker Prize with The Master also winning the IMPAC Award, and Brooklyn, winning the Costa Novel Award. He has also published two collections of stories and many works of non-fiction. He lives in Dublin.
This A Guest at the Feast collection is not only Tóibín’s tribute to fine writing but is also an exemplar of a fine writer at his productive best. It opens with an essay on an unfortunate topic, his treatment for cancer. This is not just any medical and surgical description but one laced with humour, making the description more personal and frightening because it is so personal. As happens often with Tóibín’s writing, the sense of the text sweeps the reader along into identificatory mode. “All of us have a landscape of the soul, places whose contours and resonances are etched into us and haunt us,” Tóibín writes in this magnificent volume. These previously published essays show the landscape of the author’s soul, mapping out events that have shaped him as a person and writer.
The chapter, A Brush with the Law, is as far removed from a discussion about a touch to the body by cancer as it is possible to get. In general terms, it is about growing up in the 1950s and 60s in an Irish village with a keenly focused discussion of same-sex affairs. The immediate topic is Ireland’s homosexuality laws and their challenge. Tóibín, a gay man himself, explains that to be gay in a repressive society “is to have every moment of your life clouded by what is forbidden and what must be secretive” (81). Through a deep discussion of several cases, Tóibín leads his readers into an absorbing, balanced discussion that judges administering the law find apposite to making the decisions they reach.
If there is one binding principle that epitomises the author’s attitude when writing this memoir, it is the use of humour. There is the statement that one could easily miss: where the pope is responsible for clogging the streets and therefore making it difficult for the author to get to hospital. Later, there is a perhaps unfair attack on Pope John Paul II who looked ‘holy when in public’ and Pope Francis who suddenly became the ‘poster boy for informality, humility, and good-natured cheerfulness’.
The prose in which Tóibín indulges himself is another man’s poetry. It is lyrical, and clings to the senses long after the particular point has been made. While one might argue with the author, or take issue with a particular viewpoint, there is less likelihood of complaint with how the view is expressed. Tóibín is an author that readers return to again and again. Beauty, whether of feature or as speech, always attracts.
By Colm Tóibín