Reading is like travelling

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I indulge in Google alerts. I have one email alert for Cólm Tóibín. Every time his name is mentioned, anywhere, I receive an email and a link to the article. In this way I have read every English language review of his latest book, Nora Webster. I had one for Virginia Woolf but all I got were picky reviews of Albee’s play so I deleted it; and I have a Google news alert for ‘literature’ (as well as Books and Writing).

Because of this I received recently in my ‘personalised Australian Edition of Google News’ an item called “What makes the Russian Literature of the 19th Century So Distinctive?” It came from a New York Times column called Bookends where two writers ‘take on questions about the world of books’. It was in this article that I encountered for the first time, Francine Prose. I had never heard of her. I hadn’t heard of the other writer either, Benjamin Moser, but it was the name ‘Francine Prose’ that caught my attention. It sounded pretentious. Is there a poet called ‘Phoebe Poetry’? I could google it and find out but instead I googled Francine Prose. That is how I came to know the book “Reading Like a Writer” which, since my blog is ‘writing about reading and writing’ I thought I should have so I downloaded it as an ebook; it took less than a minute and I didn’t have to leave my desk. The fact that it was billed as a ‘New York Times Bestseller’ may have also had something to do with it. When on a wet and warm Ubudian Friday afternoon I delved into it I came upon a chapter on Chekov and in particular her line “as my bus pulled out of New Rochelle, I began Chekhov’s “The Two Volodyas.” I immediately went to (click the link and you can go there too) where everything out of copyright – i.e., all the classics – is available for free, and read “The Two Volodyas” and so I was prepared for whatever she was going to relate about the writing of Chekhov and in particular this story. Ms Prose is, or was, also a creative writing teacher and the point of this chapter in her book was to explain that Chekhov undermines every creative writing rule she had confidently confided to her students. “Don’t listen to me,” she shouted, “read Chekhov”.

From a Google alert on my screen in Ubud, Bali, I travelled to a sleazy bus station in New Rochelle, New York, to a scatty young 19th century Russian bride in love with two men, but never at the same time, and back to you, my friends, with a message – although one of Chekhov’s lessons is that you don’t need one – that modern technology has never been so supportive of our creative and entertaining lives.

If you take nothing from this little rant take this: set up Google alerts for whatever tickles your fancy; armchair travelling has never been so easy, so informative, and so entertaining.
If you would like to know more about Google alerts you can email me at or ask Google.

About grief: good grief.

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Hidden away under the heading, “Essays,” on Cólm Tóibín’s website (*) is a short story, ‘House for Sale’ written in 2000 and first published in the Dublin Review. The writing is stark, bald, and intriguingly formal. It is very different from ‘The Master’, his 2004 novel about Henry James and his second time on the Man-Booker Prize short list. The short story is simple: a recent widow decides to sell a summer house. It opens with the grieving widow visited by an inquisitive neighbour, “May Lacey, wisps of thin grey hair appearing from under her hat, her scarf still around her neck.” May Lacey in her attempt to console but not knowing how chatters away about herself and her daughter who has recently left Ireland for New York. This sounds familiar; and you realize that this is the germ of an idea that became Tóibín’s 2009 novel, “Brooklyn”, about Ellis Lacey, May’s daughter, and her immigration to New York. (The film, co-written by Tóibín and Nick Hornby, is due for release in 2015)

The story seems like a Tóibín experiment; an experiment with language. How far can you pare back a text but still make the story engaging? is the question he seems to be asking himself; and the answer? A lot.

‘House for Sale’ is not a short story at all; it is Chapter One of Tóibín’s latest novel, ‘Nora Webster’ (Scribner; and the Penguin audio book is read by Fiona Shaw).

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After the rich Jamesian prose of ‘The Master’, and the narrative-based ‘Brooklyn’, Tóibín has returned to that idea from 2000 and has obviously decided that his little experiment was a success. In fact he takes it further.

“Nora was surprised to see that while Fiona was trying to smile, there were tears in her eyes. She had not cried at Maurice’s funeral, just remained silent, staying close to her sister and her aunts, but Nora could sense what she felt all the more because she did nothing to show it. Nora did not know what she should say to her now. She sipped her coffee. The boys did not move or speak.”

There is a formality of language, a sparseness and simplicity of words: simple sentences; “She sipped her coffee. The boys did not move or speak.”

He combines this sparsity with detail, internal detail, “…Nora could sense what she felt all the more because she did nothing to show it.” This is where the plot is: internally.

“When Nora saw Nancy Brophy walking towards the house, she moved away from the window. She could not think why Nancy would want to call on her. She imagined leaving Nancy to knock and wait and listen, and then knock again before walking down the steps, turning to check the windows for a sign of life. She could feel the sheer relief that would come over her entire spirit if she had the courage to make this happen.”

This language is simple but authoritative; authoritative because Tóibín doesn’t use contractions: no “can’t”, no “they’re”, no “couldn’t”, but “can not”, “they are”, and “could not”. This grammatical formality creates this authoritative, formal tone and the lack of adjectives, only two in the above quote, and short stark sentences give his authority a sense of knowingness. These simple, blunt revelations about internal feelings and motives makes the action sharp and intriguing even if the external plot is everyday and unsensational.

There is only one difference from the short story ‘House for Sale’ and Chapter
One of ‘Nora Webster’: in the latter Nora’s eldest son has become a stutterer.

Nora’s two young boys, Donal, and Conor, stayed with her aunt, Josie, while their father, Maurice, was dying. When Josie comes to visit, the boys are distant and Josie won’t stop talking. That same evening Donal, the stutterer, has a nightmare. Nora wonders that something must have happened when the boys were staying with their aunt. She goes alone to visit the aunt to ask. This simple act of motherly concern is full of expectancy. The reader is interested not just in what might be found out but how Nora will ask the question. It sets the scene for a dramatic family revelation and possible confrontation. Nora doesn’t know either what she will say; she asks rather bluntly but Josie’s reply is also blunt. Nothing staggering happens: our expectations of drama are thwarted. The boys missed their mother. Conor started to wet the bed and Donal started stuttering. Understandable given the circumstances: a dying father, an absent mother and in the care of a distant lonely aunt. This creation of internal intrigue in the everyday is one of Tóibín’s greatest gifts to storytelling, although Tóibín himself denies the label ‘storyteller’. The reader cares about what happens, and wonders what might. These characters are cared about, wondered over; and this with Tóibín describing nothing about anyone’s appearance; and if he does describe someone it is brief and trivial: in fact May Lacey, the minor character, in chapter one is the only character described at all, and then only in terms of wispy hair from under a hat and an unwound scarf.

This stark, description-less prose of character and place is an acknowledgement to the contribution of the reader to fulfil such an artistic endeavour as this: us readers supply the detail. The lonely unmarried aunt looks like our lonely unmarried aunt; a television lounge of a hotel looks like the television lounge you went into once when you were a child. Students of Reader Theory will take heart at this.
Nora Webster is selfish, snobby, and aloof but you love her for her courage and her eventual belief in herself; you admire her for realizing that the death of her beloved husband, Maurice, has changed her for the better. She blossoms without dishonouring the love of her life or his memory. This is grief, good grief, and although this is fiction, Tóibín has taught us something true. It could be argued that this is a great book as many others have said; a book that may finally give him the Man-Booker; a prize he so richly deserves and has been so close to, three times.

Now, Tóibín, after three books about women, ‘Brooklyn’, ‘The Testament of Mary’, and ‘Nora Webster’ is writing a book about a man.


*Be careful when you spell Cólm Tóibín; if you leave out the first ‘i’ you’ll discover Cólm Tobin, a very different person whose comical homepage recognizes he’s one letter away from fame.

All a Reader Needs


Jane Austin was very sparse in her descriptions of people and places. Miss Taylor, the governess in the opening of Emma, is never physically described at all: Austin seemed to be satisfied with whatever look and taste the reader believed a governess should have. The description of a businessman as “short, round, with a row of straining buttons” is all that is needed to give the reader a detailed image even if the reader is the one to provide most of the detail. In the first scene of Colm Toibin’s new book, Nora Webster, Nora, a recent widow, is confronted by a neighbourly visiter, May Lacey, who just wants to console. Toidin writes,

“May Lacey, wisps of thin grey hair appearing from under her hat, her scarf still around her neck, sat opposite Nora in the back room and began to talk.”

This is all the description Toibin gives to a character important enough to have a name, but it is all a reader needs. To me the image is clear: many layers of clothes (it is 60’s Ireland after-all), short, chubby, anxious to please, with a disheveled look no matter how hard she tries to tidy herself up. Of course, other readers will concoct a different picture; there will be as many different images of May Lacey as there are readers of the book.

image         Colm Toibin

So it won’t surprise you to hear that I was shocked to read Gerald Windsor in his review of Nora Webster in the SMH of September 26 when he referred to Toibin’s previous work, The Testament of Mary, as “a disastrous biblical fantasy, so thinly imagined it’s hard to believe Toibin wrote it.” I sat up straight in my chair when I read that, not just from indignation at such pointed criticism of one of my literary idols but Windsor seemed not to understand what Toibin was doing.

There is possibly no more iconic female character in the Western literary tradition as the Virgin Mary, not just to Christians but to ex-Christians as well; and I don’t mean just in her physical appearance. The place, the biblical lands, atmosphere, attire, emotions and almost everything else to do with the Bible is incredibly personal to anyone who has had anything to do with it, from reading and studying it assiduously to simply watching Ben Hur all those years ago, even if those impressions are historically wrong.

The Virgin Mary is just one of dozens of characters emblazoned on our collective imagination.

The reader is one half of the equation that leads to the creation of a work of fiction; and the reader not only brings his/er history, experience, belief system and the social and personal sense of him/er self to the work but also colours its meaning. Toibin, and all creative artists, I believe, allows us consumers to provide our own detail and our own meaning to what the writer writes.

This applies to all creative endeavour. The manuscript in the bottom of the bed-linen drawer or the painting behind the broom cupboard are not pieces of art until they are consumed and allowed to effect the consumer, even is small ways: a snigger, a smile or a wince; but also is dramatic ways: a sense of understanding, immense pleasure or outright disgust. Art has to cause something to happen in us.

All a reader needs is for a writer to allow us to use our history, internal and external, to bring meaning, our meaning, to what has been written; it need only be a phrase or an adjective. We can do the rest.