Thursday, June 11, 2009


At the library where I work we have not yet received our copy of Colm Toibin's new novel, Brooklyn. I look forward to it, especially after reading a beautifully composed review in the May 28th issue of the New York Review of Books where Claire Messud tells a little story of her own as a way of establishing the terrain.

"Recently stopping by our old house, I ran into our neighbor, Mrs. Berniss, who, with her particular combination of fluster and devout resignation, informed me that her husband – a night-shift cabbie invariably encountered grumbling amiably on his front porch, flat cap on pate and cigarette butt dangling from his gray lip – is in the hospital, dying, as she put it, "of the cancer." In truth I know little of his life, except that he and his wife have lived all their married years – at least forty of them – in the once-imposing two-family house in which Mrs. Berniss was born; that he has meticulously tended their patch of lawn and its bathtub Madonna, covering her lovingly with a garbage bag each winter and touching up her paint when necessary; that he has embarked nightly in his taxi, off into the silent streets, between eleven and midnight, for decades; and that he has smoked innumerable cigarettes upon that porch, watching the local residents come and go with affectionate contempt. He is not, so far as one could see, a reader, even of the local paper; never, in my time at least, did he accompany his wife to mass. What his yearnings and strivings may have been over these years, I suspect even his wife may not fully know.

In my youth, foolishly, I believed that a life had a trajectory, an arc, and that that arc had significance, that its meaning could be ascertained. I retained this belief for a long time, in spite of all evidence, because literature
– like, but in lieu of, religion – allowed me, even encouraged me, to do so. In this sense, I have been Emma Bovary, struggling fruitlessly to make reality conform to my literary ideals. Still in some corner of myself, I am unwilling to renounce this conviction, because I do not know what to make of a life without purpose, a life that has no arc but merely a continuing, and then, like Mr. Berniss's, one day an end. I am old enough to realize that such a life – the mild, meandering flat line of life – being real (as opposed to a literary fiction) should not fill me with despair; but I seem not yet mature enough to accept this.

In this context, Mr. Berniss's days upon months upon years upon his porch, at home, apparently at peace, with his compromises
– a life, in short, without any apparent philosophical neurosis, without the literary bolster of articulated longing – incites my fascination. Raised to insist that the unreflected life was not worth living, and yet aware that the reflection may impede the living, I have long struggled to imagine, even momentarily to inhabit, such a psyche. In our efforts more broadly to grasp life's diversity, we turn to literature; but literature provides readers largely with characters like ourselves. Emma Bovary, that infamous self-conscious aspirant malcontent, is but one of a multitude; whereas Mr. Berniss is a rare protagonist indeed."

I keep reading Colm Toibin – and to me he is an uneven writer – because of the first of his novels that I read, still one of my all-time most-admired: The Story of the Night, 1996.