At this years’ British New Testament Conference, the joint session “Jesus, Synoptics, and New Testament Use/Influence” discussed Colm Tóibín’s book, The Testament of Mary. In it some interesting points about Christian origins are raised. Scholars Alison Jack, Elizabeth Shively, A K M Adam, and Helen Bond have graciously given CSCO the opportunity to publish their conference papers reviewing Tóibín’s work. We will release a new review every other day. For context to Tóibín’s book, see his thoughts from an interview with the Telegraph.
Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary in Context
Perhaps the most antagonist review of The Testament of Mary is to be found in the journal, The Catholic World Report, which accuses Tóibín of blasphemy. The review concludes that “Colm Tóibín’s book won’t tell you anything about Mary. It will tell you plenty about its very sad and very angry author.” In a strange sort of way, I suspect Tóibín would agree with something of the force of this conclusion, as he is an author and a writer about writers who excavates deeply the connection between the writer’s experience and his or her urge to write. He would agree that books do indeed tell their readers something about their writers. In her Guardian review of Tóibín’s collection of essays from 2011 about writers and their families, New Ways to Kill your Mother, Tessa Hadley comments:
The source of the power of fiction, he believes, is in the private life; at the heart of the alchemy, imagined worlds (as opposed to the “world as we know it, raw and shapeless”) are tested against “the private and hidden experience”.
With his novelist’s imagination, Tóibín explores the interior world of writers translating experience into fiction, and suggests that experience of family life is formative. Hadley goes on: “it is the tight or loose or twisted knot of family, the murky scene of origins, which makes the writer in the first place – and then, through transformations however opaque, becomes his or her material”.
Given this and, as I’m on research leave, it seemed perfectly justifiable to spend 45 minutes last week listening to a download of Colm Tóibín speaking to Kirsty Young on Desert Island discs, a programme aired in 2011. I learned much from the programme about Tóibín’s childhood and literary influences, and I recommend it to you. We hear about his childhood in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, in a family which valued literature and learning, and in which the voices of women of all ages were heard and remembered. And we hear about his secondary education with the Christian Brothers, with teachers who recognised and encouraged his gift of writing. This was a childhood steeped, in a positive way, in the language of the Bible and the Roman Catholic Church. We hear about his leaving Ireland to live in Barcelona after his degree, and his distinguished career as writer and academic in Ireland and the United States and beyond. One thing that struck me particularly was the way he understands the death of his father, when he was 12, as having such a profound influence on his life and his writing. He said that in everything he writes, there is a moment when someone will be abandoned. He often doesn’t know when it will happen, but at some point the moment will come, and he has to recognise it and deal with it. It’s my role on this panel to set Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary in the context of his work, and we will see how important that moment of abandonment is both in that text and the others written before and since. But first let’s review the range of Tóibín’s published work, over what has been a long and distinguished literary and academic career.
Tóibín has written 11 novels, two collections of stories, one called Mothers and Sons, the other, The Empty Family Stories, and many works of non-fiction, including the one I began with, on the relationship between writers and their families, entitled, provocatively, New Ways to Kill your Mother. In two of his best-known novels, Brooklyn, and Nora Webster, it is the finely observed experiences of women which are at the heart of the drama, their acts and desires given mythic significance, their difficulties and struggles filled with weight and importance. There is a strong thread in much of Tóibín’s work which puts the family, and women’s place in the family, under intense scrutiny. He often takes the perspective of women, and turns their stories, with great affection, into something grander than they might first appear. We recognise these ordinary, undervalued women from our own experience, or through the stuff of family legend.
In both The Testament of Mary and Tóibín’s most recent novel, House of Names, this direction is reversed, and the mythic and heroic are humanised. Mary’s story becomes the story of “a woman grieving an unbearable loss”, as the flyer for the recent Edinburgh Fringe show of the play from which the novel developed puts it; House of Names takes the stories of Clytemnestra and Electra, as well as that of Orestes, from the Greek trilogy The Oresteia, and strips out any meaningful role for the gods. What is left is a study in motivation and human psychology, rather than an exploration of the relationship between the gods and humanity. As Kate Clanchy notes in her review of House of Names in the Guardian, the murder of Iphigenia devastates Clytemnestra because she understands that it is empty of divine meaning: as Clytemnestra says, “I live alone in the shivering, solitary knowledge that the time of the gods has passed”. Looking inwards is the only option open to her, and she tells the story of her loss without finding any comfort in it.
In his article for the Telegraph from 2014 (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/10755366/Colm-Toibin-how-I-wrote-Marys-story.html), Colm Tóibín explains that the tone for his Mary’s voice came from Greek heroines and from the work of a range of female poets. The closeness of connection between his Mary and his Clytemnestra and Electra is clear, in their responses as victims of torture and aggression, with no recourse beyond themselves. In their re-interpretations at his hand, what has been generally viewed as universal about them is distilled into the particular. We hear their voices, raw, afraid, vulnerable, human, and they are shocking indeed.
And then there is his comment from the Telegraph article about the tone for Mary coming from his reading of female poets such as Sylvia Plath and Louise Gluck. One of Tóibín’s more recent publications is On Elizabeth Bishop, a reflection on this American poet from the 20th century with whom he identifies closely, and I suggest that her work too might be added to the list of female poets who informed the tone of Tóibín’s Mary. Tóibín and Bishop share a use of language which is spare and clean and deceptively simple. Like Tóibín, Bishop had had a religious upbringing (Protestant in her case) and was steeped in the language and stories of the Bible. I first came across her because she has a poem called “The Prodigal”. Both Tóibín and Bishop moved away from the world of belief, but continued to be attracted to the language and imagery of faith. Tóibín writes of Bishop’s work, in a way which resonates with his own: “when faith disappears…then the language of transcendence can have a special power because it evokes something that was once familiar, once possible, and is now lost.” In The Testament of Mary, as I’ve already mentioned, the language of transcendence is undercut and humanised but has a power no less affecting than the story of Mary told from a position of faith- possibly more.
But I want to conclude my context-setting comments with a poem by Bishop about the theme of losing and abandonment which Tóibín had identified as being so important in his life and his work. Mary, of course, loses her son- but it is her abandoning of him on the cross which is so striking in Tóibín’s novel. One of Bishop’s most famous poems is “One Art”, which begins: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”, and goes on to list the things that you might lose as you attempt to master the art of losing- keys, hours, names and places, gradually building up the significance to “realms”, “rivers”, a “continent”- all missed, but not a disaster. Finally, it is the losing of one who is loved which is confronted. Bishop concludes:
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
That imperative in parenthesis, the “write” in italics, carries all the pain of expressing the significance of loss and being lost which the rest of the poem makes light of. In The Testament of Mary, Mary is being asked to provide the evidence of loss for others to “write it”, and the cost on her ais heavy. Tóibín is writing of her loss, and of his loss- of faith and of his father and the life they may have had. The Testament of Mary speaks of the disaster of all such loss in a world perceived to have no meaning guaranteed by a higher power. And yet, Tóibín is compelled to Write it!, painful and revealing as it may be.
Others on the panel will consider The Testament of Mary from the perspective of its relationship to biblical studies. I’ve attempted to set the novel in the context of Tóibín’s work, highlighting its main themes as they relate to his wider influences and experiences, a pale imitation of the sort of analysis he has carried out on other writers. I hope that this scene setting helps us all to understand better his compulsion to “Write it”- this strange, sad story of universal and particular loss.