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.
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”.
“In the late 1980s Gráinne Roche and her husband Donnacha moved to Dublin, where Gráinne became a fierce believer in the truth”.
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.