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A Long Time in the Making

By (December 1, 2014) No Comment

Nora WebsterNoraWebster
By Colm Tóibín

Twenty years ago, the Irish writer Colm Tóibín published a collection of travel essays called Sign of the Cross about faith and the political role of the Catholic Church in Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In one essay, “The Old World Order,” he describes a visit to an art gallery in Linz, Austria, where he spends a day perusing portraits by well-known Austrian and German painters of the interwar period. He admires these portraits because he feels that they capture “some absolute and sensual individuality” that is formed by the particulars of a time and place but not fully explained by them. As he leaves the gallery, Tóibín realizes that this type of portraiture is over, that it is no longer avant-garde or even much respected, and he wonders why. He thinks that what matters most to contemporary art is style rather than capturing spirit in paint. “For a reason I do not know,” he concludes, “the face or the head of a man or a woman has ceased very much to be a true subject for a painter.”

The face of a man or a woman has always been Tóibín’s true subject as a writer. This is the case with his international bestseller, The Master (2004), about the life and work of Henry James, and all the novels Tóibín has published since, including Brooklyn (2009), The Testament of Mary (2012) and now, Nora Webster. Like the painters he admires, Tóibín is devoted to revealing the interior life of the individual, the emotions and thoughts that people hide even from themselves and that you can only see by looking closely and for a very long time. He writes the calmest prose I know. There is nothing showy or grabby about his sentences, and his narrative structures are fairly straightforward. Yet no living writer seems wiser. Few are as moving. “You want plot, read the newspaper!” he said in a recent interview. Tóibín is more interested in the moment when the action stops, and in people who look forward to getting home, shutting the front door, and quietly thinking it all over.

This doesn’t mean that his novels are plotless, although Nora Webster is his slightest yet. Tóibín began writing the novel in 2000, when his mother died, and worked on it intermittently for fourteen years. As I began to read it, I heard what I thought were echoes of his previous work, although now I wonder if the reverse may be true. Perhaps Tóibín’s later novels are born from and echo Nora Webster, this intimate and semi-autobiographical project, long in the making, in which he imagines his mother’s life in the small city of Enniscorthy in the years after her husband’s death.

It is a quiet life. Nora is in her mid-forties when her husband Maurice dies of tuberculosis, and she is left with four children to care for and not enough money to live on. The novel begins in 1969, and although it is set in a provincial Irish town, change is everywhere. There is a television set in the living room where one of the two younger sons, Donal, watches and photographs the moon landing with his new camera. Three years later, he photographs the Bloody Sunday riots as they appear on the screen. One daughter, Fiona, graduates from teacher’s college and is immediately offered a well-paid job. The other, Aine, is admitted to University College, Dublin, where she joins a group of feminist activists who criticize the church and the government, particularly after the anti-Catholic riots in Northern Ireland in 1972. This is the Ireland that shaped Tóibín’s own adolescence in Enniscorthy in the years after his father’s death in 1967. In an essay called “The Magic Mountain” he writes about this period in his country’s history, and about the “climate of hope” created by economic expansion, television, free education, and decreased censorship.

BrooklynReaders of Brooklyn will be struck by the contrast between Aine and Fiona’s lives and that of Eilis Lacey, whose elderly mother, May Lacey, comes to pay her respects to Nora in the opening pages of Nora Webster. Brooklyn is about the economically stagnant Ireland that compelled Eilis and millions of others to emigrate throughout the 1940s and 50s, at a time when a clever, enterprising, and ambitious young woman with a certificate in accounting can’t get a job in Enniscorthy other than stocking shelves in a small grocery store. This is the Ireland of minimal opportunity that Eilis left and that trapped Nora, who had to go to work full-time at the age of fourteen after her mother was widowed. There is never any question of Nora’s own children emigrating or leaving school after Maurice dies, and this too is part of the new climate of hope.

But it all comes too late for Nora. At the urging of a friend, she begins to take singing lessons with a former nun named Laurie O’Keefe, who marvels at the quality of Nora’s voice and wonders why she never trained it. “If we had got you young enough—,” Laurie says, trailing off. “You’ve left it too late,” she continues, and “I can do nothing more for you.” That’s not entirely true. Laurie is one of several people in the novel who encourage Nora to sing, to buy a record player, and to begin listening to classical music, all activities that Maurice would have ridiculed or thought extravagant. Nevertheless, when she auditions for a semi-professional choir, she is rejected outright. The “whole thing sounded like the tune the old cow died on,” says the choirmaster bluntly before he hustles her out the door. Too late, indeed. “We can all have plenty of lives,” says Laurie, “but there are limits.” Tóibín is interested in those limits, which is why so little happens to Nora. Her life takes place on a very small stage, and Tóibín will not let her leave it. He has written books about people who leave, but this is the story of someone who stays.

When Nora married Maurice, she was able to quit her office job, and throughout twenty years of marriage she relished her daily freedom to read and think once her children were taken care of. Now she must earn money again, and she is offered the very same job at Gibney’s shipping firm that she left decades ago. “Returning to work in that office belonged to a memory of being caged,” but Nora feels that she has no choice. Not only will she have to return to the job she started at fourteen, but she will now be supervised by a former co-worker and rival named Francie Kavanagh, whose pinched life has made her thoroughly nasty, almost demented. Occasionally, Nora thinks of leaving Enniscorthy for Dublin, where her horizon would be wider, but she doesn’t. An elderly nun named Sister Thomas comforts her, saying, “It is a small town and it will guard you.”

Enniscorthy does guard Nora—her old job materializes, music lessons are arranged, new friends present themselves, neighbors drop by, and so on—but it is clear that guardians are also jailors. Even minor changes are closely observed. Everyone has something to say when Nora decides to dye her hair. When she buys a fashionable new dress and puts on some eyeliner, Fiona stops bringing her new boyfriend home because she thinks her mother is angling for him (she might be). Toward the end of the novel, Nora decides to renovate her sitting room, but to save money she does the painting herself. The result seems to summarize the difficulty of renovation in general: she strains her neck and back muscles so badly that she thinks she’s having a heart attack and has to spend several weeks taking pain killers strong enough to knock out a horse. Next time, leave painting to the experts, her doctor advises.

It nearly kills Nora to redecorate one room in her house, and it is the room where she listens to music when she has a moment to herself. It’s a room of secrets:

What she had told no one, because it was too strange, was how much this music had come to stand for. It was her dream-life, a life she might have had if she had been born elsewhere. She allowed herself to live for a time each day in a pure fantasy in which she could have learned the cello as a child and then been photographed as this young woman was, eager and talented and in full possession of her world, with men beside her who depended on her to come in with her deeper, darker sound.

Is this dream that life could be different than it is, freer and full of possibility, “too strange” to tell anyone? Not really, but Tóibín often writes about people who think so. The phrase is repeated like a refrain throughout Brooklyn, whose Eilis Lacey believes that everything that happens to her is too strange to discuss, from getting seasick on a transatlantic voyage to making love for the first time. It’s all “too strange” to speak of, Eilis thinks; “She would never be able to tell anyone.” Her sister, Rose, who is mentioned several times in Nora Webster, dies in her sleep in her early thirties of a heart condition that she never told anyone about, even her mother. Better not to worry anyone, she thinks; better keep it quiet. Rose embodies everything that is unspoken and unlived in Brooklyn, and it’s impossible not to read her as an emblem of Ireland itself in the 1950s, the Irish Rose who keeps her thoughts to herself and then dies of them.

Nora doesn’t die of them, although she comes close. The terrible pain in her chest is like heart failure, and the medication causes chronic insomnia. She becomes prone to fainting, sleepwalking, and hallucination. One evening she falls into a deep but brief sleep and dreams of her mother’s face in death. She did not love her mother, but as she looks at her closely she feels that she is seeing her without judgment or certainty for the first time:

What was strange as she began to look at her mother again was how little she was sure of. The details of her mother’s face had vanished, but there was an expression still, a sense of someone. And then that sense became more exact, more clear, the more she watched. She could see other people in her mother’s face—the faces of cousins, the Holdens and the Murphys and the Baileys and the Kavanaghs; the faces of Catherine and Una; Nora’s own face; the faces of Nora’s children, especially Fiona. It was as though her mother in this long night alone became all of them.

The mother becomes all of them because her “natural life” is gone, the life of the body, and what remains is more durable and primordial than individuality. It is “something else,” and Nora has no name for it, although she believes that it was “a long time in the making.”

When Nora awakens from this memory of her mother’s vigil, she knows that she has been dreaming. But in the last pages of the novel she has a dream that she believes to be real. One afternoon, while listening to Beethoven in her music room, the room of secrets, she hears TheMastera sound in her bedroom and goes upstairs, where she finds Maurice sitting in a chair. She is so astonished that she drives her fingernails into the palm of her hand, drawing blood. “Stay,” she begs him, again and again, although he puts out his hands to ward her off when she tries to get close. She asks him to confirm that everyone in the family will be all right in the future, assuming that he has a message from the other side, but he is more concerned about “the other one.” “There is one other,” he insists, although Nora has no idea what he is talking about. When she wakes up, she is lying on her bed in an empty room.

This is the first time that Nora’s Catholicism becomes more than rote. She attends Sunday mass, of course, but that is just social convention. She is surrounded by managing nuns, but that too is just the nature of a small Irish town. Prayer did not comfort her when Maurice was suffering his slow and agonizing death. “I hope never to hear another Rosary,” she tells her Aunt Josie. But in this dream vision at the end of the novel, her mind calls up and rearranges familiar scenes from the Gospels, beginning with the bloody palm of the crucified Christ. Her dream is the story of Easter. It is the moment at the end of the Gospel of John when Mary Magdalene encounters Jesus at the opened tomb, but mistakes him for a gardener. Once she realizes who he is, she reaches out her hands to touch him, but he will not let her get close. It is the moment at the end of the Gospel of Luke, when the disciples meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus, but think he is a stranger. “Stay with us,” they say, just as Nora begs Maurice to stay. When they sit down to eat, Jesus finally reveals who he is, and that he has arisen from the grave. Perhaps Jesus is “the other one” whom Maurice keeps inquiring after, the one who is always mistaken for someone else, or unrecognizable.

Unlike her fantasy of the cello she might have played if she had been born elsewhere or at a more prosperous time, Nora does not think that her vision of Maurice is too strange to discuss. As soon as she awakens, she drives to Josie’s house and tells all. Josie does not believe that Maurice has come back from the dead. She believes that Nora is sleep-deprived and stoned on narcotic painkillers. “We barely manage, all of us,” she says, “to see what’s there. That’s the hardest thing, although no one would tell you that. If we could just look at what’s there!” Forget about spirits and divinities—try to see the people in front of you. This is no simple task, as is clear in the Gospel stories of misrecognition. It’s not simple for Nora either, who is often startlingly uninsightful when it comes to the people who are closest to her, particularly her sons.

During the two months when Maurice was dying, she sent Conor and Donal, who were about nine and twelve years old, to live in the country with Josie. Nora never once visited them, or spoke to them on the phone. When he comes home, Donal has developed a lasting stammer so severe that he sometimes cannot speak at all, and he suffers from nightmares. He becomes obsessed with photography, but he never takes pictures of the people around him, only of images on the television or blank spaces. He photographs the view from the space shuttle, or the mist over the ocean, and he deliberately blurs the images so that nothing is clear. He is the one who is most concerned with the nature of looking, and he is the only one other than Josie to talk about faith. “D-do you know about the p-paradox of f-faith?” he asks his mother. She says that she does not. “In order to b-believe, you have to b-believe,” he explains. “That f-first b-belief is a mystery. It is like a g-gift. And then the r-rest is r-rational, or it c-can be.”

Nora Webster is not about faith rediscovered. This is just one of the possible plotlines that Tóibín teases us with but does not pursue. Nora listens patiently to Donal’s account of the gift of first belief, but no such gift comes to her. Her vision of Maurice releases her from the worst of her grief, but it is not an epiphany. She enjoys the company of her daughter’s boyfriend, but there will be no romance with him or anyone else. She has a fine singing voice, but she will not be discovered and celebrated. Her daughter Aine briefly goes missing after the burning of the British embassy in Dublin in 1972, but she turns out to be just fine. Some readers will find this frustrating. They will want more to happen, but Tóibín is not interested in keeping Nora busy. The changes that come over her are subtle and slow. She never lets anyone into the secret room where she imagines her other life, but in many small ways she begins to look carefully at what’s there and to understand that everyone is dreaming of something else. Someone else. The other one. Tóibín is one of very few writers who can show how this desire shapes both the story of Easter and a widow’s attempt to repaint her sitting room. We are so very lucky to have him.

Alice Brittan teaches post-colonial and world literature at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is finishing a book called Empty-Handed: On Gifts and Grace and beginning one called Notes on Miracles.