New College, University of Edinburgh

Tóibín Reviewed (PT. 4)

The Testament of Mary Sue

Many here will be familiar with the editorial-critical term ‘Mary Sue’ — a term used for a character whose qualities and perspective make her (or him) an idealised author-surrogate. When this device works well, even critical readers raise no objection; some have proposed that Æneas should be understood as a Mary Sue for Virgil. The poet takes a minor character from the Iliad and elevates him to stardom for no evident plot-driven reason, but to advance Virgil’s own agenda for providing Rome with a claim on the legacy of Hellenic culture — but no one faults the Æneid for that. On the other hand, the glamorous, omnicapable hero, perhaps an ordinary citizen who unaccountably becomes embroiled in a national, global, perhaps even cosmic crisis and suddenly demonstrates cleverness, strength, and disarming good looks — perhaps Nicholas Cage’s character in the National Treasure films? — exemplifies lazy, painfully unimaginative writing. The ‘Mary Sue’ syndrome particularly afflicts fiction about the Bible, a topic about which it is transcendentally important to be on the ultimate Right Side. So on the theologically conservative side, we can see the Mary Sue double act of the Left Behind novels, Rayford Steele and Cameron ‘Buck’ Williams (fulfilling the macho fantasies of Air Force gunner Tim LaHaye and biographical ghostwriter Jerry B. Jenkins); on the opposite end of the theological spectrum, Dan Brown conjures for us the Harvard professor of ‘symbology’ Robert Langdon.


Left Behind and The da Vinci Code would seem unlikely company for the Man Booker short-listed Testament of Mary, written by an extraordinarily gifted stylist with gleaming literary credentials. Indeed, practically everything about the novella outdoes any characteristic of the antitypes I propose for it. Brown extrudes leaden strings of modifiers where Tóibín looses scintillating — or darkling — flights of imagery. LaHaye and Jenkins read the Bible with such ferocious willfulness that one wonders whether they are reading at all, where the freedom with which Tóibín departs from biblical precedent is acclaimed as one of its outstanding features. He attends to subtle literary details, such as Mary’s refusal to utter her son’s name at any point. He composes phrases, sentences, that arrest a reader’s attention with the magnificence of his subject.


But this oddly enough is exactly what makes it difficult for me to see in Tóibín’s Mary a trustworthy witness to the events that have been fulfilled among us. In this Testament, Mary is at once an ardent poet of the natural world as it distills and refracts her heartbroken maternal love, and a prickly, peevish, even selfish antagonist of the friends with whom her much-loved son kept company. In refusing any trace of sentimentality to Mary, Tóibín refuses to allow her much sympathy. She dislikes everyone else in the book (the evangelists, for example, are brutal, coercive, ill-tempered, impatient, manipulative, desperate, boring, foolish misfits). Moreover, she dilutes the integrity of her own identity into a thin film of anger and mistrust; she has been betrayed by everyone, and resists any attempt at support, care, recuperation, or amelioration. As the novel wound on, I felt increasing affection for her tormentors, not out of any ill will toward this grief-stricken mother, but out of weariness from extending to her the expansive patience she withholds from disciples, evangelists, allies, crowds, indeed humanity as a whole. The author’s depiction of comprehensive disillusionment exceeds what I can muster as a characterisation both plausible and sympathetic. Prof. Bond’s careful reading (elsewhere on this site) of the shattering scene at the cross, her spotlight on Mary’s awareness of her own flight and betrayal, and her gracious reading of Mary’s dream that she had held Jesus and witnessed his resurrection all might avail to reveal the extremity of Mary’s grief as an intelligible reflex of self-recrimination; but in order for me to share Mary’s pain, I need to feel myself on her side. Since she consistently repudiates even those who would assist her, she rejects my sympathy as well. Instead, Mary’s all-encompassing bitterness allows access to her persona principally via the route of sharing her spite toward anyone who ever identified with the followers of Jesus.


Here one can see an illuminating contrast between Tóibín and another Irish expatriate, one who rejects the church but allows space for beauty and joy in that which from which he so resolutely distances himself. Joyce’s full-hearted blasphemies resound deeply with the biblical and ecclesiastical grounds that motivate his apostasy, so that a conscientious Christian reader can readily enough acknowledge honestly the absurdities and crimes to which Joyce alludes, while at the same time recognising that Joyce could perceive the loveliness that absurdity and venality have betrayed. This, on my reading, is the greater art. Tóibín’s Mary claims exclusive possession of the truth about her son and despises any other perspective; such imperious spleen totters perilously close to mere literary vandalism — the sort of destructive fervour that goes down well with sympathisers, but which wins no new adherents to his cause.


The world that Tóibín describes doesn’t hold together. It’s a world abounding in anachronisms and misapprehensions about Judaic and Roman cultures, a world in which the men who go on to represent the church have in short order become grim, harsh suppressors of the truth without any explanation of possible motivations or benefits to them. Admittedly, many readers (especially readers who are not themselves adherents of a particular religious faith) won’t balk at Tóibín referring both to the Temple in Jerusalem and a pagan shrine to Artemis (and, apparently, a synagogal assembly) as ‘the Temple’, or suggesting that a Jewish woman who claims to love the Sabbath would without the slightest pang of conscience enter the pagan sanctuary and adore the image of Artemis (and would afterward buy a silver reproduction, as a source of spiritual comfort), refers to Lazarus as ‘like a gift from the gods to his parents’ (p. 29). Likewise, Tóibín asks readers to believe that emissaries from among the first followers would conduct a series of inquisitorial interviews with Mary in order to extract from her the story they wanted to hear rather than simply writing whatever they wanted, regardless of what she said. Tóibín’s world allots dozens of spies, guards, and informers for every questionable person, in quantities that would have made the Stasi jealous. The setting of the novel reflects the author’s imagination more than any other reference point — but this inconsistency about matters of fact undermines the sense of truth-telling (Tóibín uses the language of ‘witness’ throughout the book, reflecting the Johannine source of his inspiration) on which Tóibín and his version of Mary querulously insist at various points.


After writing most of the above, I had a in interpretive flash — perhaps Tóibín depicts a Mary whose life has so crumbled into wretchedness precisely because of the sense of loss of the divine Son; who, that is, apprehends what the Christian traditions proclaim about her son, but whose knowledge of and love for him so overruns what mere followers can understand that her heart cannot bear the shortfall. That would entail the sort of brilliance that I anticipate from an author of Tóibín’s stature. But alas, the book doesn’t give us any hint that that might be the case, and in several passages it seems clear that Mary positively disbelieves anything supernatural about her son (‘I know that he has written of things that neither he saw nor I saw. I know that he has also given shape to what I lived through and he witnessed, and that he has made sure that these words will matter, that they will be listened to.’ (The Testament of Mary (p. 5); ‘Even though one of them witnessed what I witnessed, he does not want it registered as confusion, with strange memories of the sky darkening and brightening again, or of other voices shouting down the moans and cries and whimpers, and even the silence that came from the figure on the cross’, (pp. 80-81); ‘…everything that happened will become a sweet story that will grow poisonous as bright berries that hang low on trees,’ (p. 86)).


‘Hate as well as love can write a life of Jesus, and the greatest of them are written with hate’, as Schweitzer observed of Reimarus and Strauss  (Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 4) — but bitter antipathy does not itself guarantee literary quality, and in this case Tóibín misses his target. The Testament of Mary should be less a scandal to believers who revere Jesus’ mother than to those who honour Tóibín’s literary gifts and share his suspicious rejection of anything amenable to ecclesiastical approbation. Instead of a risky revelation of the prayers and tears of a mother overwhelmed with grief, a biblical Clytemnestra or Medea, or even the robust blasphemy of a Joyce The Testament of Mary displays a Mary whose shopworn maledictions echo the jaundice of a contemporary once-believer. Mary is a hyper-intelligent, poetically-gifted, self-imposed exile from the community that remembers and celebrates her son; one may be forgiven, I hope, for concluding that she is less Miriam of Judea, and more Mary Sue of Dublin.


Written by A K M Adam Oxford University


  • CSCO Team,
  • 9th November 2017

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