Colm Toibin and Brooklyn

I am a lover of the novels of Colm Toibin. I recently read his new book, Brooklyn. The summary of the story can be found in this review. (I won’t delve into the details of the narrative because I am more interested in discussing the main character and her slow development into a woman of purpose and interior strength.)

Her name is Eilis and to me she is a metaphor for the long history of migration of Irish people from their homeland. It is always a challenge to confer so much historical weight onto a single individual. Nevertheless, Toibin achieves something very special in Brooklyn. Eilis is for the most part rather vague not only about her choices, but also about the way in which she feels about the people she meets. There is a sense one gets that she is propelled forward not so much by a deliberate plan, but by the process of human interaction. There is never any clear sense of purpose to her decisions. She allows her intuitions to envelop her and as a consequence even her descriptions of encounters and places are understated. Even the man she later meets and marries is never fully flushed out as a character.

This minimalism is Toibin’s way of moving the narrative from Proustian detail to to the rather paradoxical realism of human thought and action. Post-hoc, all human decisions seem to have very concrete reasons attached to them. The everyday flow of life allows for few moments of self-reflection. Even when self-reflection is present, it cannot be articulated other than through memories. The present is always disappearing and with it many of the details of thought, decision making, and doubt. Eilis cannot clearly articulate either her attraction to the new life she builds in Brooklyn or what she misses about Ireland. She speculates in a fragmentary way about her job, her living circumstances and her mother and sister.

More remains hidden than is visible and this is Toibin’s central theme. It is also the theme of his novel about Henry James, The Master. Language cannot reveal the depth either of thought or feeling, but language can propel both reader and writer into an imaginary reconstruction and imagination mixes and matches truth, desire and reflection. There is an extraordinary scene in which Eilis describes what happens to her when she goes to a dance at the local church in Brooklyn. She is alone and watches as others find partners and let go of their inhibitions. She sees the man whom she later marries. The physicality of the dancing is measured against her sense that she is unattractive and that her past is more of a liability than a help to her. But, in between these self-doubts and anxieties, she grabs hold of the essence of her decision to leave Ireland. It has as much to do with the fact that her family wanted to help her find a new life as it did with the rather mundane reality of Ireland itself. Eilis who never wanted to plan her future now finds herself not only planning but projecting ahead about her circumstances and her potential.

This is the shift from being an immigrant to becoming a local. It is a shift experienced by many generations. Suddenly all that was familiar recedes into the background. Home is still home, but a new reality has been layered onto the old. This is how personal history and the broader historical context we share develops. This is why it is possible to imagine a new life even as one’s former life suffuses every conversation and experience. As Eilis manages all of this complexity, she matures. The seeming banality of the everyday becomes a glorious pedestal upon which she can stand and survey her present and her future. She has finally found a vantage point to examine her feelings and with that she leaves her home far behind. It is Toibin’s brilliance that brings all these elements together and at the end of the novel there is this deep sense of satisfaction that Eilis has become someone we know and someone whose future seems bright and rich.

To Read (The Kindle)

Is there a difference between reading and skimming? In some circumstances, skimming web pages for example, a great deal of information can be assimilated quickly and efficiently. The [danger in the digital age]( is that skimming will become the norm for reading and the more detailed and beautiful aspects of the English language, the nuances and shades of meaning found in metaphors and worked over sentences will disappear. Language and the ways in which humans [use writing]( to express the complexity of thoughts and emotions cannot be reduced to a quick look or a quick read. Language is an elastic and infinitely changeable medium. It can accommodate a wide variety of shortcuts (UR for "you are") as well as abuses. But, the ways in which we use writing in particular to express our deepest as well as most profound thoughts requires sensitive and careful readers. As skimming becomes the norm, the question to ask is whether or not we can slow down the process of reading effectively enough to grab its subtleties.

Ironically, the [Kindle]( which is an [electronic]( reader made by Amazon, does just that. The comfort that we have developed with screens is translated beautifully and simply into the Kindle. This light, thin and carefully thought out technology may just create the balance between skimming and reading that will keep the [power and beauty of language from disappearing](

John Updike

Among all of the writers I have come to love and live with over the years, a few like John Updike and Philip Roth have always felt like companions, authors whose books I would read in a reverie of respect and awe. Updike's words, powerful and clear have over the last number of years found their way into many New Yorker articles in a reprise of another fertile New Yorker period in the 1950's. On this sad day of his death at the age of 76, I want to relate my own personal Updike experience.

Some years ago the National Gallery in Washington, DC held a retrospective exhibition of the great painter, Johannes Vermeer. I found myself in front of one of those marvelous small paintings that seem to radiate light from within, staring at the canvas and wondering how Vermeer had been able so long ago to paint with more luminescence than modern-day high definition images. Beside me was an older gentleman with a small notebook carefully writing some notes on the painting. I watched him for a moment and then realized that it was John Updike. We stood beside each for some time as many people walked by. It was my zen moment, my favourite painter and one of my favourite writers. He didn't know how much it meant to me and that was appropriate.

Many years later as I think about that event, about a small moment, one of no consequence to anyone but myself, I also think of Updike's novels which are about precisely those events that we so often overlook, but that fill our daily lives with meaning. All of his writing overflows with details upon details. Updike was not a philosopher. He was an acute observer of everyday life and a creator of characters, hundreds of them. He was an historian without the pretensions of history. His novels say more about the 1960's and 1970's than anything I have read. At the same time, he plunged into many taboo areas from sex to sexual politics to the repressed charms of small-minded men, and all of this with the relish of the writer cracking through from one level to the next, breaking the hold of conventions, breaking into a new world without conventions.

Notwithstanding the acutely visual (and thus external) world in which we now live, the act of writing in all its various forms, remains a deeply personal and internal experience, one that links imagination to words and words to fiction or to truth. Updike was not a raconteur. Rather, he built edifices for his characters and inside the worlds he created, we the readers searched for connections and through a sleight of hand helped Updike in the construction of new and rich spaces steeped in the simple passage of time. We were less witnesses to what he wrote than active participants in the cultures he created. I shall miss him. The New York Times has a wonderful article on Updike including a video interview.

John Fowles

John Fowles died today. The author of the French Lieutenant’s Woman among other books had been ill for a long time. The New York Times has an obituary at this URL.

Fowles wrote a book on trees aptly titled, The Tree that combines photographs with texts and in its simplicity not only reveals a great deal about nature, but also about how our culture sees the natural environment. His books influenced me a great deal, but it was the film of The Collector which really had an impact on my generation. A summary of the book can be found at this site.