Colm Tóibín, ‘Nora Webster’

Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster was published in the autumn of 2014. I’ve recently finished reading the Penguin paperback edition. It’s superb.

The author has said (in an interview in 2013 in the Guardian newspaper in the UK) that he’s ‘against story’:

 People love talking about writers as storytellers, but I hate being called that.

Nora Webster Nora Webster has little plot or ‘story’ to speak of. It shows in chronological sequence how Nora, whose husband Maurice, a schoolteacher, has recently died, struggles to deal with the commiserations of well-meaning family and neighbours as she tries to support her two grieving sons, who still live with her, and her older daughters who have left home. It is set in the late 60s in the sleepy southeastern Irish town of Enniscorthy (Tóibín’s own birthplace). Like women the world over she has to sublimate her own pain and grief while nurturing her emotionally wounded, damaged but needy children. What comes less naturally is learning how to live her life alone; she had previously lived a largely vicarious existence – the needs, tastes and opinions of her husband, and to a lesser extent, her family, had supplanted her own. She must learn how to live bereft of the husband she loved deeply; this means learning a new kind of freedom, and to accept the unwillingly acquired solitude and painful independence that comes with it.

The novel shows with deft sympathy how she undergoes a series of epiphanies to achieve this state. She has to exorcise the ghost of Maurice before she can find out who she is.

As such I see a thematic influence not so much from James Joyce (whose early style is clearly discernible in Nora Webster) and other Irish writers, whom early reviewers tended to adduce, as from Ibsen’s Nora of A Doll’s House. I shall focus here on this aspect of the novel, and on Tóibín’s beautifully lucid, restrained prose style.

Both Noras had played an unquestioning, quietly submissive role in the patriarchy they lived in, until the crisis came, and they were forced to reassess, after which they discover themselves, their resilience and their need for autonomy. From the novel’s opening page we see this passive aspect of women in Irish (or any other) society: Nora’s neighbour Tom has called to offer his condolences. She spends much of his visit anxiously wishing he’d go:

 He was speaking as though he had some authority over her…she knew that she must have appeared put down, defeated.

Shortly afterwards, having taken her two boys on a visit to Dublin to see their sister Fiona, Nora is surprised and a little nonplussed to see her daughter’s maturity and growing independence. She wants to say something as they part, but feels that Fiona is ‘downcast’:

 For a moment, Nora felt impatient with her. She was starting her life, she could live where she liked, do what she liked. She did not have to get the train back to the town where everybody knew about her and all the years ahead were mapped out for her.

 Nora plainly feels envious of Fiona’s comparative freedom to choose, and frustrated with her own circumscribed, provincial life, with the responsibilities and constraints that convention and motherhood imposed.

Here too we see the quietly powerful style the writer adopts to convey the interior life of Nora; most of the narrative is in the form of domestic quotidian detail and internal monologue – and in this respect it resembles the Joyce of Dubliners. Back home, for example, the boys having gone to bed,

she wondered if there might be something interesting on the television. She went over and turned it on and waited for the picture to appear. How would she fill these hours? Just then she would have given anything to be back on the train, back walking the streets of Dublin…[she turned off the TV, ‘irritated’ by the canned laughter on a comedy show] The house was silent now. [She opened the book she bought earlier then put it down.] She closed her eyes. In future, she hoped, fewer people would call. In future, once the boys went to bed, she might have the house to herself more often. She would learn how to spend these hours. In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live.

 Tóibín is able, in such apparently banal scenes, in that deceptively unadorned prose, to show us a woman’s complex, treasured inner life in the process of growing and changing in response to the the life endured in the external, intrusive world. Here I’m reminded of Eveline’s existential dilemma (in Joyce’s story of that name, about which I wrote on the Mookse and Gripes site HERE), sitting in her dusty, dusk-filled room, longing to escape from the cage of domestic duty, with a brutal father and humiliating, mind-numbingly tedious shop job, and wondering if her lover is her liberator or potential oppressor. Both narratives show a woman attracted to solitude but feeling a paradoxical impulse towards human warmth and companionship – and love.

After her husband’s death Nora has no choice but to take the offer of a job as a clerk at local firm Gibney’s, which is where she had formerly worked with admired efficiency for eleven years, ‘barely tolerating her mother at home’ – Ibsen’s Nora had discovered she was confined to the role of ‘plaything’ for her father until the putative liberation that marriage brought; she too then found, as a relatively young, unfulfilled mother, that she had simply been handed over from one emotionally stunted existence, subservient to a man’s wishes, to another. When she is told of the job offer Nora recalls this time in ‘the distant past’ without relish:

 …Nora viewed the office in Gibney’s as a place where they had spent years working merely because the right chances did not come to match their intelligence, an intelligence that, as married women, they had cultivated with care.

 

This thought leads inevitably to others:

 She thought of the freedom that marriage to Maurice had given her, the freedom once the children were in school, or a young child was sleeping, to walk into this room at any time of the day and take down a book and read; the freedom to go into the front room at any time and look out of the window at the street…letting her mind be idle…but as part of a life of ease that included duty. The day belonged to her, even if others could call on her, take up her time, distract her.

 

With raw immediacy Tóibín develops Nora’s irresistible train of thought:

 Never once, in the twenty-one years she had run this household, had she felt a moment of boredom or frustration. Now her day was to be taken from her…Returning to work in that office belonged to a memory of being caged…Her years of freedom had come to an end; it was as simple as that.

 

Sure enough, when she starts work all the tedium and petty tyrannies reappear, and she longs for ‘the feeling of pure freedom’ when she is able to leave the office and go home.

Like Ibsen’s Nora, she has to learn what her opinions are. The narrative is set against the early days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland; Maurice had been a staunch supporter of Fianna Fáil, and she had deferred to his political views. Now she realises she can think for herself, assert herself independently. At first this personal exposure is unnerving, but she slowly comes into her own. This growth is portrayed with immense skill and is the most rewarding, heart-warming aspect of the novel.

Music is the other main source of her personal liberation. There’s a marvellous scene that occupies several pages, set in a pub where a man begins to sing. This brings about an epiphany that is characteristic of Tóibín’s subtle mastery of the portrayal of Nora’s inner being: we see her remember hearing this song at a wedding. She struggles to recall whose it was. She remembers feeling proud to be married to Maurice. Then her mood changes:

 In all this noise and confusion, she felt a sharp longing now to be anywhere but here. Even though she often dreaded the night falling when she was in her own house, at least she was alone and could control what she did. The silence and the solitude were a strange relief; she wondered if things were getting better at home without her noticing. Since she was a girl, she had never been alone in a crowd like this. Maurice would always decide when to leave or how long to stay, but they would have a way of consulting each other.

 

Notice again how delicately the narrative displays her inner growth. She’s learnt to love her own company, but is beginning to sense, like Ibsen’s Nora, that there is an element of wrong in preferring solitude to human company, and in not having a choice about how to act or be, always having to defer to her man. Her thoughts continue:

 …she was often irritated by the way in which Maurice’s mood could change, how anxious he would be to go home one minute, and then how eager he could become, how easily involved with company the next minute, while she waited patiently for the night to be over.

 And then the revelation comes:

 So this was what being alone was like, she thought. It was not the solitude she had been going through, nor the moments when she felt his death like a shock to her system, as though she had been in a car accident, it was this wandering in a sea of people with the anchor lifted, and all of it oddly pointless and confusing.

 

I don’t recall reading another novel with such a moving, engaging account of one person’s experience of the transforming power of deep emotional trauma. It’s a novel that reaffirmed my faith in the ability of a great novelist to enhance one’s own life through the process of reading their work. Colm Tóibín is an apt pupil of that other literary master of his: Henry James. They both have that empathetic insight into the character of ‘an engaging woman’ that takes one’s breath away. Another writer who comes to mind in this regard is Evan S. Connell, whose novels about Mr and Mrs Bridge I reviewed here, here and here – with a nod towards the influence of Mme Bovary.

Other reviews deal with aspects of the novel I’ve not touched on here: the nuanced depiction of Nora’s two boys and the two older girls, for example, who play their part in Nora’s tentative emancipation.

Max’s customary perception is well to the fore in his recent piece on this novel here at Pechorin’s Journal: he’s particularly good on the family drama: Nora’s relationship with her children and with the ‘love of her life’, Maurice; also on the visceral depiction of Nora’s grief and depression, and the links with the novel’s prequel, Brooklyn, with which it shares a number of themes, and compared with which Max finds Nora Webster less impressive. I find them both outstanding.

 

 

 

 

 

Henry James, ‘The Point of View’

A version of this piece was posted at the Mookse and Gripes website on 9 April.

Henry James wrote two stories in epistolary form: the first was ‘A Bundle of Letters’, published in the expat magazine The Parisian in 1879; the second was ‘The Point of View’, which appeared in 1882. James takes full of advantage in both tales of the scope for ironic presentation of the letter-writers’ antithetical impressions of travelling American and European characters, of the nations through which they pass, and of the people they encounter. He mischievously counterpoints their disparaging or effusive viewpoints with those of the characters they profile.

Several of the characters in these stories appear in both tales, as well as in ‘The Pension Beaurepas’, about which I wrote here (on the Mookse and Gripes site, and at this blog here). The three stories tended to be published together, along with ‘An International Episode’ (about which I wrote here and here), representing as they did the ‘international theme’ that dominated James’s fiction for so long.

I shall focus on Aurora Church, who was chafing under the controlling grip of her mother in ‘The Pension Beaurepas’. Mrs Church anticipated this sequel by saying in the earlier story, when explaining to the young narrator why she preferred Europe to America, for herself and her daughter:

 ‘And I wish,’ she continued…’that I could give you our point of view. Don’t you wish, Aurora, that we could give him our point of view?’

‘Yes, mamma,’ said Aurora.

‘We consider ourselves very fortunate in our point of view…’

 

At the Pension Beaurepas in Geneva Aurora befriended her compatriot, the spendthrift Sophie Ruck. She found the hierarchical society and customs of Europe – that her mother so admired – cloying, and despaired of the maternal plan to find her an aristocratic European husband.

‘The Point of View’ consists of eight letters dated 1880. The first and last are by Aurora. In the opening letter she writes to another young American woman expat (in Paris) about her arrival at New York City on a transatlantic liner. Here we see the approach James took in both these epistolary tales: she presents her correspondent with her intimate, vivid impressions of the places she visits and the people she meets. She explains that she has finally persuaded her sceptical mother to allow her to come to America and has just three months in which to find a suitable (i.e. rich) husband.

Aurora is acrid about her mamma’s oppressive regime: she was ‘dreadfully severe’ on the voyage out to Europe when she was only five, and ‘is severe to this day; only I have become indifferent; I have been so pinched and pushed – morally speaking.’

Aurora in Europe craved and envied the freedom of ‘the American girl’. Now she has her chance. As her name suggests, she is at the dawn of a new life, or so she hopes.

Not surprisingly she is delighted to find herself delivered from the stifling confinements of Europe: ‘I have never had so much liberty in my life,’ she says. Mamma, equally unsurprisingly, is less sanguine, as Aurora explains with her customary blend of levity and asperity:

 She is not in a hurry to arrive; she says that great disillusions await us. I didn’t know that she had any illusions – she’s so stern, so philosophic. She is very serious.

 

Mamma had realised that the dowerless Aurora ‘should never marry in Europe’. We can see in such extracts the dry ironic humour of which these stories are full. The characters unwittingly reveal their weaknesses and partialities, their selfishness and prejudices.

In passing Aurora lets slip that ‘the poor little Rucks’ – including her erstwhile friend Sophie – ‘are bankrupt’. We never hear their fate, but must assume the worst. Aurora, who had only nurtured the friendship for her own ends, seems callously unperturbed.

She goes on to describe some of the other passengers, whose own ‘points of view’ we shall be privy to in subsequent letters. The Europeans largely find America brash, vulgar and over-indulgent towards its young people; the Americans’ views we shall see. As in the earlier ‘A Bundle of Letters’ there is much sardonic humour to enjoy as we see the writers’ contrasting or conflicting views of each other exposed in the acerbic confessional manner that a letter to an intimate friend or relative allows. James’s evident pleasure in matching the correspondents’ style to their character is infectious.

The main romantic interest in this story is embodied in Aurora’s suitors on the ship: the aesthete Louis Leverett (who also features in ‘A Bundle of Letters’, where once again he is attracted to an interestingly picturesque young woman, a flirtation which he languidly tires of) and the ‘roaring Yankee’, Marcellus Cockerell. (Their names are aptly chosen.) Each of these young men expresses in his letters the extreme opposite views of all things American and European, and as Aurora approvingly suggests to her friend, ‘They have a particular aversion to each other, and they are ready to fight about poor little me.’ But despite this coquettish pride, she’s also realistic:

 I am not crazy about either of them. They are very well for the deck of a ship, but I shouldn’t care about them in a salon; they are not at all distinguished. They think they are, but they are not…I should get dreadfully tired of passing my life with either…au fond they don’t quite believe in me.

 

This viewpoint is presented without comment, of course, given the epistolary nature of the story, and this is its distinctive feature. Aurora displays here the kind of incisive analytical detachment of the author himself, but he causes her to express herself so clinically (and accurately) that I find her attractively intelligent and percipient, but also (understandably) a little vain.

Still there is the usual Jamesian interest in the travails of a young woman engaged in the necessary pursuit of a husband capable of satisfying her own intelligence as well as the demands of a pressing social system in which she lacks autonomy. James has an extraordinary understanding of the contradictory innocence and dogmatism, exacting standards (her mother says Aurora is insistent she would marry no foreigner who was not ‘one of the first of the first’) and indulgent lassitude of such a vivacious young woman as Aurora, with her native American sensibilities influenced by the atrophied Europe in which she has been raised. She knows mamma expects her to marry no American whose ‘pecuniary situation’ fails to meet her expectations.

Leverett is a Jamesian Europhile. He detests being back in crudely democratic America, where all is monotonously plain, tepid and mediocre; Europe for him has exciting extremes of beauty and ugliness. James has him write in a louche, affected style to highlight his self-consciously aesthetic pose:

 I feel so undraped, so uncurtained, so uncushioned…A terrible crude glare is over everything; the earth looks peeled and excoriated; the raw heavens seem to bleed with the quick, hard light.

 

He would agree with Mrs Church’s dismissal of America as ‘the country of the many’; she adds in her letter –

 In this country the people have rights, but the person has none.

 

The American citizen, she complains to Mme Galopin, ‘is recognized as a voter, but he is not recognized as a gentleman – still less as a lady.’

 

But it’s James’s sly revelations about the intentions of Aurora’s two admirers that are so engaging in this story. Leverett is shown in his letter to be self-absorbed, and interested in Aurora mostly because she has the good taste (as he sees it) to listen to him attentively. He ungallantly concludes, as he decides to drop her, that she ‘almost understood’ him!

 

Cockerel, on the other hand, derides the very places and people of Europe that the Europhile correspondents admire. It’s this witty symmetry that is one of the main strengths of this admittedly rather slight story. Although he finds Aurora a ‘rather interesting girl’, his attentions are insincere – he knows he could never marry such an impoverished young woman; besides, as he confides to his sister in his letter, ‘She has been spoiled by Europe’ – a taint he would never be able to ignore.

 

Mrs Church confides in her letter that Aurora accuses her of giving her a ‘false education’ in Europe so that she is not considered marriage material: ‘No American will marry her, because she is too much a foreigner, and no foreigner will marry her, because she is too much of an American.’

 

James is careful to balance his characters’ barbed accounts, however. Cockerel, rudely dismissed by Leverett as a ‘strident savage’, sums up his homeland’s superiority to Europe:

 

We are more analytic, more discriminating, more familiar with realities. As for manners, there are bad manners everywhere, but an aristocracy is bad manners organized.

 

Read this story for these opinionated, stylized, often Wildean outpourings of epigrammatic bigotry and insight. In this group of related stories he strove to show nuanced gradations of viewpoint in his representatives of each nation. This didn’t prevent the first reviewers from finding this story distastefully unpatriotic towards America.

 

Read it too for Aurora’s final letter, which rounds off beautifully all that’s gone before. Here we see a glimpse of the profound sympathy James demonstrates for his young female characters. He had recently completed The Portrait of a Lady, which began to be serialized in 1880. That full-length novel is the masterpiece of his early period, a fully developed account of the ‘engaging young [American] woman’ whose choices are misguided, yet she persists in ‘affronting her destiny’. James’s concern is with the ways in which Isabel Archer continues the attempt, in a naughty world, to make her own choices and learn to live with the consequences, always striving for a kind of liberty.

 

There is much to admire also, however, in these thematically similar miniatures: Aurora is in some ways Isabel Archer without the windfall fortune. See what you make of Aurora’s apparent destiny at the end of ‘The Point of View’.

John Harvey on the Colour Black

Men in Black, Reaktion Books, London 1995

The Story of Black, Reaktion Books, London 2013

 Even when brilliant, rich, powerful women have worn magnificent black in the past, they have usually needed the pretext of mourning to do so. And what has seemed to me a curious point of interest for study is the way which, through time, the use of this colour – the colour that is without colour, without light, the colour of grief, of loss, of humility, of guilt, of shame – has been adopted in its use by men not as the colour of what they lack or have lost, but precisely as the signature of what they have: of standing, goods, mastery…It relates to the relations between people in society, and to the relations between men and women; and to the way in which people display externally what in some ways is a ‘dark’ interior of human motivation.

 

This is John Harvey in his introduction to the first of these two fascinating studies of the colour black. In Men in Black he goes on to examine how and why black became the default colour of dress for men, associated with the world of work and professional dignity, contrasting with women who tended to wear white (or various other hues from the colour spectrum) – often in ‘vicarious display by men’; most jobs were ‘closed to women’. The period of black dominance in clothing for men dates largely from the early nineteenth century until shortly after the First World War.

 But both black and white are colours of denial; and what they deny is colour.

Thereafter it became the colour of Chanel’s little dress. In the 1930s it represented for the fascists the ‘most complete and intense way of marking off a group of people from the polychrome ordinary mass’. Himmler, the head of Hitler’s terrifying SS, admired ‘the disciplinary principles on which the Jesuits were organized, and was called by Hitler his Ignatius Loyola.’ More recently it has become the colour of rebellion and youth, from bikers and beatniks to punks, goths and emos.

John Harvey, Men in BlackAlthough men have in the past of course worn all kinds of colours, these books trace the reasons for the shift to sombre black clothes, with a focus on the representation of black in art and literature. Baudelaire is quoted as saying of the frock-coat:

 ‘Is it not the inevitable uniform of our suffering age, carrying on its very shoulders, black and narrow, the mark of perpetual mourning? All of us are attending some funeral or other.’

He also remarked that ‘a uniform livery of grief is a proof of equality’; as Harvey points out, ‘For Baudelaire, black, like death itself, was a leveller.’

John Harvey, The Story of Black These are scholarly but lavishly illustrated works and furnished with copious academic notes, but as that opening extract I hope shows, the texts are written in highly engaging prose, with carefully modulated, elegant sentence structure and, despite the formidable erudition, an accessible style and enthusiastic tone that encourage the reader to devour the text greedily.

Both books are packed with well-researched detail. As Dr Harvey is a literary scholar there is not surprisingly an emphasis on the literary aspects of the significance of the colour black: there are long sections on Victorian literature in particular, with perceptive accounts of Dickens’ dark cities and their inhabitants, and, for example, the saturnine characters in Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot.

Last year I reviewed John Harvey’s excellent novel The Subject of a Portrait, which is about the relationships between John Ruskin, his young wife Effie Gray, and the artist Millais, with whom Effie fell in love. There are supplementary posts by Michael Flay here and by Dr Harvey himself here (where he discusses his novel in the light of the film ‘Effie Gray’, about this triangle of Victorian characters, that was about to be released at the time of the post). Ruskin believed that the Victorian climate was changing as a result of a malignant ‘plague-wind’ of darkness, and that this ‘moral gloom’ was connected with the pollution – real and metaphorical – of industry, and in turn with ‘blasphemy’, ‘iniquity’ and social injustice – and Empire. Victorian morality was founded upon inequality and fear, and on ‘a terrifying faith’. On p. 169 of Men in Black the Millais portrait of Ruskin that features on the cover of Harvey’s novel is again reproduced. This is what he says about it:

 Ruskin is keen but cold like the water, and indeed was himself so damaged by strains of the most intimate British asceticism that he was unable to be a husband to his wife…There are elements of personal pathology in Ruskin’s obsession with the plague-cloud, as possibly there are in Dickens’s darkness: but their pathologies were of their culture, involving as it were ethical injury, and sensitized them to a greater pathology.

 

Elegantly and eloquently expressed. I particularly like that phrase ‘ethical injury’: it sums up succinctly the personality of the enigmatic Ruskin.

I was surprised to discover in Men in Black that dandies like Beau Brummel tended to favour tight-fitting, well-cut black clothes rather than peacock displays, at least at night.

What I found so interesting about these two books is that they take a topic as mundane as the colour black – one which I for one had never really paid much heed to; it’s rather like what’s been said about Jane Austen’s novels: she doesn’t mention the domestic arrangements of the country houses in her fiction because the maids are taken for granted, invisible. That’s how I was with the colour black. These books have enlightened and enthused me.

In Men in Black we learn that dandyism ‘played with discipline, and self-discipline, and the style was, not surprisingly, popular with the military’ – Brummel had been a captain in the Hussars (what a splendid name), and Wellington was thought a dandy.

 Wellington in turn had to reprimand the officers of the Grenadier Guards for riding into battle, on a day of foul weather, with their umbrellas raised.

 

There are sections on black as the colour of ‘self-effacement’, especially in religious contexts – although Christian priests had originally tended to wear white. Nevertheless black gradually became the predominant colour of dress for ascetics, hermits, then monks, friars, Jesuits and priests:

 A perfection of self-denial may make one holy, a person to be heeded with reverence and awe: and black, as the colour of power over oneself, has come to be associated with impressive, intense inwardness.

 

Another felicitously expressed sentence.

Then black is associated with the melancholy lover, and with melancholy in general – the ‘black bile’ of the ancient lore of the bodily ‘humours’; Hamlet is a key figure here (‘a man whose black clothes, finally, are the dress of his dark ontology’) and Robert Burton’s encyclopedic Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621.

Black also became the colour favoured by merchants, especially Calvinist Protestants in the London business community; ‘pious asceticism’, as Weber suggests, is connected with capital. Also, perhaps, it was associated with trustworthiness, fair dealing: ‘Black is serious and means business’ –

 But black is a paradoxical colour, ostentatious through the show it makes of renouncing ostentation. The man in black can sidestep the social staircase because he seems to take his stand on a moral stair instead, and indeed to take the high ground precisely through humility.

 

Other areas explored by Harvey include black as a skin colour, and social/literary attitudes to ‘négritude’ – in Othello, for example. Devils (and the devil), of course, were also frequently depicted as black.

The extracts I have quoted are an indication of the elegant lucidity of Harvey’s writing, as well as of his capacity for conveying a great deal of information in a manner that is as rewarding as a well-written, pacy novel.

Men in Black concludes that the social significance of black is polysemous, ‘because all statements made by clothes are ambiguous, and even one colour will have different meanings’; but the dominant meaning of the widespread use of black could be that it

 is associated at once with intensity and with effacement: with importance, and with the putting on of impersonality. Alone or in ranks, the man in black is the agent of a serious power; and of a power claimed over women and the feminine. Black may be a shadow fallen on the feminine part of man.

 

I’ll conclude by stating that The Story of Black covers much of the same ground as the earlier book, but with very little repetition and a host of different material, and a closing section that looks at some developments in the world of art in the last few years. Both books belong to a series produced by Reaktion that use copious illustrations as the basis for historical analysis.

I’d recommend these texts to anyone with even a passing interest in literary, artistic/cultural, social, political or philosophical history.