In the penultimate essay of A Guest at the Feast, Colm Tóibín quotes Seamus Heaney about the Irish writer John McGahern:[His] the imagination is ruminating. He ruminates on the past, digests and redrafts it, questions its meaning, savors its bittersweet recurrence. It is a striking quote, not only for its accurate reading of McGahern’s style, but for the fact that the same can be said of Tóibín’s writing. The Wexford author’s abiding interest in history, both personal and political, is reflected in his work.
From her fictionalized biographies of Henry James and Thomas Mann, to the intersection of public and private worlds in her second novel The Heather Blazing, the delineation of female lives in Brooklyn and Nora Webster, the reimagining of Greek mythology from marginalized perspectives in House of Names and his 2019 play Pale Sister, it always feels like a writer is looking to tell the story behind the story, to disturb the parts in the dark.
A guest at the feast exhibits this same impulse in Tóibín’s nonfiction to remarkable effect. Composed of 11 essays, published in 1995-2020, the collection shows the author, at different stages of his life, returning to the same concerns from different angles: religion, homosexuality, illness, literature, art , morals, the small business of what it means to be alive. These recurring concerns lend great depth to the essays. The collection as a whole is a lesson in how the right words in the right order can get to the truth of a question.
The current Irish Fiction winner, Tóibín has won the Costa Novel Prize, the IMPAC Prize and has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times. The essays in A Guest at the Feast are by turns scholarly, forensic, moving, ironic, and have first appeared in the Dublin Review, the New Yorker, and, most often, the London Review of Books. Fans of Tóibín may recall the titular second essay, which was published as a standalone article by Penguin in 2011. The longest in the collection, it’s an ode to childhood, to Enniscorthy, his parents, the community way of life in small towns, which also offers snippets of a portrait of the artist as a young man: “I lived in a permanent state of dreamy estrangement from things.
Tóibín’s personal circumstances give him a unique perspective on many public issues addressed in the collection. A Brush with the Law, published in The Dublin Review in 2007, is a fascinating look at the workings of the Supreme Court in 1980s Ireland, beginning when Tóibín was sent to cover as the magazine’s editor Magill, David Norris’ constitutional challenge to Ireland. laws against homosexuality. Tóibín applies his formidable intellect to documenting the twists and turns of the case. We see the rigor of thought and understanding of nuance that made him such a good journalist, influenced by the humanity of personal experience: “To be homosexual in a repressive society is to have every moment of your life obscured by what is forbidden and what must be. to be Discret.
The breadth of the collection is impressive: a snapshot of Irish society over the decades; Buenos Aires, in the wake of thousands of “disappeared”; Venice in the era of Covid, a city without tourists. Split into three parts, the middle part includes essays on the Catholic Church, which I confess to having prejudged as potentially dated and uninteresting. Incorrect. The skillful characterizations of Popes Francis and Benedict will surprise readers only aware of their public personas. Meanwhile, a surprisingly honest and visceral article about the Ferns Report child abuse scandal sees Tóibín using his personal knowledge of certain priests to try to figure out how they came to do such terrible things.
Tóibín’s talent for timing, whether by chance or design, is remarkable as the collection progresses: he went to St. Peter’s School as a boarder, he traveled to Buenos Aires in 1985, he befriended the controversial writer Francis Stuart, John McGahern, the composer Frederick May, whom he met in La Tête de Cerf. These artists and their work are commemorated in these essays, with Tóibín unafraid to revise his views over the years. People and public affairs can take a long time to figure out. Tóibín has the advantage and the wisdom of hindsight.
The wonderful opening essay about his testicular cancer shows his stoicism in the face of the disease, but gives a searing analysis of the realities of being sick, suffering, alone, incapable of companionship, reading, food, even water: “The effect of the drug clouded the mind or filled it with something hard, severe and unrelenting. It was like pain or some kind of anguish, but those words don’t really cover her. Written with stark clarity and flashes of humor, it encapsulates Tóibín as a whole, a master of light and shadow.