“It was always impossible to know…why one small spark caused a large fire and why another was destined to extinguish itself before it had even flared.” – “Silence,” by Colm Toibin

February 16, 2011 at 11:35 pm (Book review, books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Short stories)

Of late, I have been enjoying the short stories in Colm Toibin’s new collection, The Empty Family. I particularly like “The Silence,” in which Toibin imagines himself into social and literary world of turn of the century London. One of that world’s brightest stars is Henry James. Lady Gregory, a young widow, has been listening to him as he holds forth on the subject of Americans in Venice:

James sighed and mentioned how a warm personality, especially of the American sort, had a way of cooling one’s appreciation of ancient beauty, irrespective of how grand the palazzo of which this personality was in possession, indeed irrespective of how fine or fast-moving her gondola.

Once he has concluded this eloquent if rather idiosyncratic disquisition, Lady Gregory informs James that she has a story to tell him. The story concerns a newly married clergyman and his bride. Would James like to hear it? Or is he weary of people’s relish for telling him tales to use in his fiction? The author, in his turn, is reassuring; he is more than amenable to hearing her recitation. And so she commences  her tale:

There was an eminent London man, a clergyman known to dine at the best tables, a man of great experience who had many friends, friends who were both surprised and delighted when this man finally married. The lady in question was known to be highly respectable….

“The Silence” is prefaced by an entry purportedly from one of Henry James’s notebooks; in it, James divulges the particulars of the rest of this story. He also states that it was related to him by  “Lady G.” So what I want to know is this: Is this an actual notebook excerpt? For that matter, is there a story by Henry James that more or less conforms to the plot points in that notebook entry?

These are tantalizing questions (They tantalize me, at any rate.).  In addition to being a literary puzzle, “The Silence” is about a rapturous love affair, boldly entered into and culminating in the expected way. A beautifully wrought gem of a story.

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This volume’s title story showcases Toibin’s intense lyrical bent as the narrator, coming to terms with his life and his fate, meditates on  what Henry James called “the distinguished thing:”

One of these days I will go and stand in that graveyard and contemplate the light over the Slaney, the simple beauty of grey Irish light over water, and know that I, like anyone else who was born, will be condemned eventually to lie in darkness as long as time lasts. And all I have in the meantime is this house, this light, this freedom, and I will, if I have the courage, spend my time watching the sea, noting its changes and the sounds it makes, studying the horizon, listening to the wind or relishing the clam when there is no wind. I will not fly even in my deepest dreams too close to the sun or too close to the sea. The chance for all that has passed.

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I have one complaint about The Empty Family, and it has nothing to do with the contents thereof. I very much appreciate short story collections in which the title of the story I’m reading appears not only at its beginning, but also at the top of succeeding pages. I’m referring to what I believe are called “running heads,” or “headers,” in contemporary computer-influenced parlance. In this collection, the words “The Empty Family” served as the headers throughout, on the right, while the author’s name appears top left in likewise fashion.  This is a small cavil, but worth mentioning, IMHO.

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Colm Toibin will be reading from his works at the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society’s 33rd annual Evening of Irish Music and Poetry. What a wonderful tradition “HoCoPoLitSo” has established with this series! I had the good fortune to attend this event both last year and the year before that. I’m glad I went, especially in 2009.

Colm Toibin

Claire Keegan

Frank McCourt

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