Sunday, January 23, 2011

#7 - The Empty Family

Colm Tóibín's excellent book of short stories, The Empty Family, cements his presence as one of the writers working today whose prose I covet, envy, and ultimately am awed by. The title, as his interview in the National Post points out, reflects the idea that there's a dichotomy to family, in all its inclusiveness, there's also a separateness for those who move beyond the traditional, who haven't got family to depend upon, or who choose to abandon and/or create families from non-blood ties. All of the protagonists in these stories leave home, leave their families, leave the relative safety of their immediate lives for change whether it's necessary (in one story, a young Spanish girl who is involved with the communists goes abroad after being arrested) or simply for an adventure (another character lives and loves with abandon in Spain in 1975). And the results, are terrifically life altering.

Of the stories, my favourite would have to be "Two Women," where Frances Rossiter, an aging, successful art director who returns to Ireland to dress a film and has a chance encounter with the widow of her most enduring lover. The scene, set so simply, has so many underlying emotions that evoked, for me, Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" where the real action remains in what's not being said instead of the actual conversation between the two characters. In fact, this is a particular stylistic affectation of Tóibín's writing, that there is so much left unsaid, awkward pauses melting between beautiful prose that illuminates the characters in ways that lesser writers would leave hanging. He can infer, and that's a talent that doesn't go unnoticed by me.

The stories are all vastly different; however, the ones where he uses "I", I couldn't help but imagine them linked in some way, the narrative giving voice to a protagonist that seems always to be at odds with the story itself in a way, like a literal interpretation of the book's title. As in the opposite of what "I" usually means: strong, individual, like Bob Marley's Rastafarian reinterpretation, his refusal to use anything but "I" -- these characters are not lacking but they are separate, outside in a way, alone, but not necessarily lonely, yet still feeling an ache. Funny, I can relate, in a way, it's kind of how I'm feeling these days, a distinct loss of "I" with the creation of my family. I am not, yet, in anyway empty, though.

My other favourite story from the collection would have to be "Silence." Lady Gregory fills up her life, a relatively happy life as a widow, with stories she tells, in secret, in code, to Henry James hoping that he'll turn them into prose. It's fascinating how she absorbs her guilt over an act of betrayal by slowly leaking the truth out in pieces that are overt lies to the writer. As if his written words will absolve her of her sins, should she actually think of them that way. But more so, to bring her feelings to the surface, to have them talked about in real society would be impossible, and so she makes up interesting ways for them to bubble to the surface that only she knows. The power of society, the impregnable rules for women, and the idea that marriage is simply a contract, regardless of how rich and/or happy it makes you, are all fascinating themes within.

In the National Post article that I linked to above, Tóibín mentions that there's a sentence from "The New Spain" that he's been holding on to for 23 years, that it took him that long to find the right place for those words. In a way, I find this so freeing -- as a writer who holds on to sentences for ages and consistently goes back to old notebooks for new inspiration, I can understand how it might feel to wait for just the right place for just the right words. And I am glad that Tóibín takes his time with these sentences, because the end result is nothing short of remarkable.

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