Michelle Woods reviews Colm Tóibín’s Story Collection, The Empty Family

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How it’s New York:  Well, his last novel was called Brooklyn…and recently was a lecturer at Princeton.
How it’s Irish:  The author is, of course.  He’s one of Ireland’s leading writers, and won the 2011 Irish PEN Award for his contributions to Irish literature.

Middle Class Soul Porn, “worthy” stories about the Other, less convincing than the regular kind

Two years ago, I saw Colm Tóibín in a Kafka panel at the PEN World Voices Festival . The occasion was a new translation of Kafka’s novel, Amerika, by the American-based Irish-born translator, Mark Harman, and the two of them, Tóibín and Harman, hijacked the panel, sparking back and forth with hilarity and profundity.

The scene was straight out of Kafka: the event took place in a windowless room,  in the Austrian cultural center, and an audience packed in shoulder to shoulder, only one of which (me) was under 70. Speak louder, the audience kept shouting at the panel, speak louder! They were shouting “speak louder” so loudly that I couldn’t hear the panel. Tóibín, with his carved face, bent over towards the audience and boomed with laughter. Everyone heard

Tóibín has come into his own in the last few years, with his magnificent novel on Henry James, The Master, and with the much lauded recent novel (just shortlisted for the IMPAC  Dublin Literary Award, an iniative of Dublin City Council, the Municipal Government of Dublin and IMPAC, a productivity improvement company), Brooklyn. A collection of his short stories, The Empty Family, has just been published here in hardback.  The inspiration for the collection came from an exhibition of Vija Celmins’ pictures at the Pompidou Center in Paris. Tóibín said that he would look at the recurring pictures of empty skies and sea and then retreat to some seats in the exhibition hall and sleep for half an hour, then go back again.


He wanted to reproduce the effect in the collection, with recurrent senses of “solitude, exile, strangeness, aloneness” seen through the lens of a variety of characters. Influenced by the staccato rhythms of Sylvia Plath and Louise Glück’s poetry, he started the stories with a phrase and found “a rhythm I was working with” as he wrote the stories. Most of them were written in hotel rooms or rented accommodation when Tóibín was traveling or guest-lecturing, giving them a sense of “uprooting” and reflecting his own strong sense of being from Wexford but have lost some part of it, as his life has gone on. The stories are about people who “were families” but are “individuals”.

We get a variety of voices in these tone-poem stories: a fictionalized Lady Gregory, a Spanish woman returning to post-Franco Spain, an elderly woman in the film business, a Pakistani migrant, and different gay male voices in Ireland and Spain. In these characters, Tóibín is successful; he does get to a tender, secret part of Gregory, who, he said in an interview was “dressed like Queen Victoria, went around like Queen Victoria, bossed everyone around”. In considering her view of an affair she had, he moves her away from the more usual fictionalized caricatures of her (as seen, dare I say it, in Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light):

“She had no natural grace,” he writes, “and she made up for this by having no empty opinions. She took the view that it was a mistake for a woman with her looks ever to show her teeth. In any case, she disliked laugher and preferred to smile using her eyes”.
There is a sparse humanity in his portrayal of the crotchety Frances Rossiter, an elderly dragon of a set dresser returning to Ireland to work on a film, and of Josie, a dying aunt who has taken in her brother’s son and remained silent on his gay identity and life, except for one moment when she mistakes him in the dark for someone else and her worries come out. Also, in his portrayal of the “forbidden love” between two Pakistani migrant workers in Barcelona. Though I really enjoyed the characters, and am intrigued by his approach to the stories as variations on a theme, I was not entirely convinced that the stories were successful themselves.  Ever since Joyce, the use of that slight shift in emotion, the slight insight, rather than a full-on denouement, has made the impact of a modern short story a very calibrated and difficult thing to pull off.
In “The Colour of Shadows” that moment comes when Josie mistakes Paul for someone else.  She  makes clear that she knows he is gay and is worried about it. But this is told in flashback and embedded in a story about her going into a nursing home to die, where, of course (spoiler alert), she dies and the story ends. The clichéd trope of the nursing home as a means to talk about the past grated on me, and it struck me that the main interest of the story was in the night when her silent deal with him – of not talking about his gay life in Dublin – slips.
In other stories, “Two Women” and “The Pearl Fishers”, that shift is signaled so head-thumpingly strongly that it drew me out of the characters and left me cold. It didn’t resonate that Frances Rossiter met her old love’s wife. It also didn’t touch me that the narrator’s memories of the night The Pearl Fishers played in Wexford were different than those of Gráinne, with whom he had sex that night (she’s an old school friend married to another friend, Donnacha). The over-obvious parallel of the Pearl Fisher’s Duet, in which the baritone is left “alone and miserable” as the tenor goes off with the woman, made me roll my eyes. But the opening line of the story, I liked: 
“In the late 1980s Gráinne Roche and her husband Donnacha moved to Dublin, where Gráinne became a fierce believer in the truth”. 
The irony is that as a journalist she falls for the story rather than the truth.
Tóibín said that the longest story in the collection, “The Street”, was inspired by a night when he left the Barcelona opera house by a side entrance and walked into a street populated entirely by Pakistani migrant workers. It was a Barcelona he had never seen, and over five or six years he did research on the area, hanging out in the barbershops, which were treated by the Pakistanis “like Irish treat bars”.

It’s a plaintive story, written in a restrained and clear style, about the nascent gay love affair between Malik and Abdul. Malik discovers that Abdul has a wife and family back home, but he finally tells Malik that “you are my family”.  The sensitivity Tóibín shows is heart-warming, and he said that he wanted to write about Muslims – at the time of the Madrid bombings and the photographs from Abu Ghraib – that didn’t involve terrorism. But the worthiness of the story made me constantly aware of it being worthy – middle-class soul-porn? – and kept taking me out of the narrative. In a year when, unusually, the IMPAC prize didn’t shortlist any literature in translation, it made me think how we often satisfy our curiosity about the world by reading English-language fiction about it, rather than branching out to read, say, literature translated from Urdu.

In contrast, Tóibín isn’t being worthy about gay identity or sexuality, it’s just part of the whole in the stories. When I ordered the book, I noticed some Amazon reviewers griping that they weren’t warned of the gay content of some of the stories. But “Barcelona 1975”, a sexually graphic story about a foreigner (presumably an Irishman – Tóibín lived there at this time) opening in to his sexuality at the end of the Franco regime, is not an homage to gay love but an exploration of that excitement in discovering and exploring any sexual life. The negotiation with sexual partners moves between a familial and isolated experience.
There is some fine writing in here, but in the end I think I enjoyed listening to Tóibín talking about the inspiration and concept of the collection than reading the stories themselves. It’s worth checking out the New York Public Library interview, conducted a month ago (March 2011) on YouTube.
Better still, check out either Mark Harman’s or Michael Hofmann’s wonderful recent translations of Kafka’s Amerika.
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Copyright 2011 New York Irish Arts