Something occurs to me and then I don’t write it. I might write a paragraph of it and then I leave it. And then the work begins, so that almost every day, without meaning to, I put some thought into it and some more happens so by the time I do write I have all that worked out, so even if I write a sentence like “She came in at the door”, I will have the room in full and the ‘she’ and what’s in the emotional moment. I will have all of that not only worked out, but I will have sort of lived it.
Toibin started writing Nora Webster in the year 2000, fourteen years before it’s eventual publication. He didn’t continue with it immediately, he suggests, because he couldn’t yet find the way to tell the story, which is of a woman in middle age coming to terms with the death of her husband. It felt too personal, too much like autobiography, Toibin having grown up observing his own mother in similar circumstances; he needed find a shape, to know from whose point of view the story might best be told. Would it be told, perhaps, through the eyes of the bookish younger son – Toibin himself – or those of the mother?
While he was thinking over those issues – writing a little here, a little there – working in his head as he says, Toibin wrote, plentiful non-fiction aside, three other novels. The Master, about Henry James’ later life within the confines of his sexuality, and The Testament of Mary, Jesus’s mother’s thoughts after the crucifixion of her son – the former purposely Jamesian in complexity and style, as striking for what it doesn’t say as what it does; the latter brief, bitterly angry, outspoken yet controlled – each, it seems to me, quite brilliant in its own way. And in between those came Brooklyn, Toibin’s most popular novel to date and to me, the closest to disappointing. Meticulous, restrained, shying way (is this James again?) from any great emotional release or confrontation, the result is almost – dare I say it? – tedious. Not boring, the story of Eilis Lacey’s emigration to America in the 50s and her return to Ireland, her two loves, but never bracing. Not challenging. No wonder so many readers liked it.
For a long time, a good many chapters, I feared Nora Webster would suffer from what were, to me, though clearly not to many others, the same faultsI had found in Brooklyn. In writing this novel, Toibin has said, he wanted to explore the experience of grief, the processes through which it passes. [At one point he says he wanted to write it because there was no other novel he'd found that looked at grief in that way, while at another he refers to a large number of other works dealing with the subject – all right, not all novels, though some are – including Mary Lavin's short stories and Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.] And, also, I assume – it’s part and parcel – he wanted to write about his own boyhood experience of growing up in a home that was to a large extent, if not wholly, dominated by grief and absence. But here reimagined through his (fictional) mother’s eyes.
The problem – a problem – is that having chosen to tell the story exclusively through the eyes of Nora, the mother, Toibin seems to have boxed himself into a corner; for she is not the most articulate of people, not used to expressing her thoughts nor willing to confront her feelings; she wants – this is clear from the first page – to have done with the traipse and trappings of mourning, to live a life in which her dead husband is honoured, but which centres round her more-or-less grown up daughters and her two younger sons. Looking inwards rather than out. There are decisions to be made, financial issues to be confronted, but all within as closed a world as possible. Nora, unless provoked, is shy with people outside her immediate circle and family; if walls are closed about her, more so now that her husband has gone, so be it.
But then – what is it? half way through the book? no, further – Nora is cajoled first into joining the town’s Gramophone Society, at which classical recordings are listened to with due reverence and the music begins to open something in her she had been previously unaware of, and, secondly, talked into taking singing lessons with a mildly eccentric teacher, and here both Nora and the novel are transformed. And, of course, I see it now, if the novel had not begun as it had, if Nora had not been as she was, this transformation would have been less striking, less, well, almost miraculous.
It was only after a month, when she had had four or five lessons, that she realised that the music was leading her away from Maurice, away from her life with him, and her life with the children. But it was not merely that Maurice had no ear for music, and that music was something they had never shared. It was the intensity of her time here; she was alone with herself in a place where he would never have followed her, even in death.
As Nora moves away from her given role as mourning widow, she takes an increasing interest in the world around her, from her son’s education to the local union politics at her place of work and the larger political upheavals that come to her through the prism of her politically active student daughter. There is a new life to live, one in which she is no longer part of a couple, married to Maurice, a wife, however fine and right that might have been, for that was then and this is now.
It was the way things were; it was the way things had worked out.
Colm Toibin writes about the Literature of Grief here …
And talks about writing Nora Webster in this video …