Touched by time

Colm Tóibín
Viking, 256pp, £17.99

I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse for a writer to have a style that is immediately identifiable. Colm Tóibín has managed to carve his signature out of modesty. His prose is simple, though not in a pared-down, nearly bleeding kind of way. You rarely feel him striving after particular words. His sentences aren’t especially short, though they tend to run on deliberately, rather than involve themselves in clauses. In his best-known (and perhaps his best) novel, The Master, the subject itself, Henry James, forced him to stretch his legs a little – which may have been part of its virtue; but it still sounded a lot more like Tóibín than James.

What he sacrifices along the way is a certain kind of vividness, and his new novel, Brooklyn, uses that sacrifice to good effect. It’s the story of Eilis Lacey, a girl from Enniscorthy, the same small Irish town where many of Tóibín’s previous novels have been set. Eilis is an able, decent, modest young woman who can’t find the work to do her talents justice and is eventually persuaded by her glamorous elder sister to emigrate to Brooklyn, where a priest with connections to the family has promised to set her up in life. This is the 1950s; she has to take a boat, and doesn’t see much prospect of returning home.

After a difficult passage, the pressure of adjustment keeps Eilis buoyant enough. But then the homesickness sets in:

She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything . . . Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought. She closed her eyes and tried to think, as she had done so many times in her life, of something she was looking forward to, but there was nothing. Not the slightest thing. Not even Sunday.

Style is another word for the material out of which a novelist constructs his world. Tóibín’s world is made of something like plywood, a substance both natural, and artificially plain and simple.

Even Eilis’s impressions are rendered in a tone that seems to belong less to her, a respectable Wexford creature from the 1950s, than to something like the pure language of impressions. Nothing is individuated, idiosyncratic, vivid, finely grained. Eilis herself says very little and is portrayed mostly through these impressions. Even Henry James in The Master, who in life was a sociable and witty presence and spent his career capturing the wit and insights of sociable, chatty people, comes across mostly as a silent figure. You get the sense from Tóibín’s protagonists of the kind of painting in which the subjects have no face, and seem unprotected by self-expression.

Eilis eventually makes a kind of life for herself, falling in love, or almost falling in love, and completing a bookkeeping course, and seems to be moving up in the world in the American fashion. Then family tragedy calls her back to Ireland and she has to choose between her two lives.

Tóibín rarely plays a wrong note, though something about the way events and people conspire to present Eilis with the most heart-breaking version of the choice at hand seems a little too neat. And the modesty of his style involves him, as I have said, in other sacrifices. His heroine is beautifully rendered, because we have access to those impressions, but the other characters appear less fully: her boyfriend, her mother, her landlady. They are defined by the small things they say and the small things they do, but because everything they say and do is made up of Tóibín’s prose they seem a little obscured by their own ordinariness.

There is a point to this, of course. People are not very remarkable, and one of the reasons we can’t know them fully is because they aren’t very vivid. This makes for a novel that is sometimes dull and almost always painful. Its theme is really a psychological version of the metaphysical theory that we cannot see into the workings of the world, into its causes and effects. We have only ideas or impressions, and some impressions are brighter than others, because they are nearer. This seems all very harmless on the metaphysical level but appears much more awful when you replace ideas with people and brightness with love.

In spite of its limitations, or rather because of them, Brooklyn is a tremendously moving and powerful work. Tóibín has as profound a sense of the shape and pace of a novel as any living writer I can think of. What he loses in character and vividness he makes up for in realising what Wordsworth called “the unimaginable touch of time”. In some ways, Brooklyn reads like a short story, drawn out, and the effect of drawing it out is to make it much, much sadder.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide