Irish writer Colm Tóibín appeared recently at 192 Books, a shop in Chelsea, and not only read from his new collection of short stories but discussed them. It was the least trivial reading that I've ever attended.
Mr Tóibín began by talking about a novel that he had wanted to write, about the great wave of scandal the swept through Ireland when men began stepping forward and charging priests with having "interfered with" them as boys. So many of the alleged paedophiles came out of the seminary attached to a school that Mr Tóibín attended for two years that he actually knew many of them. He remembered them when they'd been young seminarians. Thinking about their plight, he wondered if homosexuality, far from appearing to be an obstacle to joining the priesthood, had not seemed to them instead to be a problem that priesthood solved. His novel came to nothing until, one night in Bucharest - I think that's where he said he was - an image came to him. A priest is charged with telling an elderly woman that her son, also a priest is going to be in the newspapers, but he can't bring himself to do it. Instead, he leans over and pulls up his socks. And that is the image at the beginning of Mr Tóibín's story, "A Priest in the Family," from the collection Mothers and Sons, which he thereupon proceeded to read entire.
When the floor was opened to questions, my hand shot up and I got the nod. Might we infer from his introduction to the story, I asked, as well as from the fact that he chose "A Priest in the Family" to read to us, that the story was the nucleus of the collection, the first story to be written down? Yes, it was, he replied. He immediately contradicted this by saying that Mothers and Sons includes a story that he wrote when he was twenty-four, "The Journey." This is the one short story of the many that he wrote when he was young but never destroyed, But "A Priest in the Family" gave him the idea that he might work on a collection.
He was later asked about the title, and I will try to do justice to his somewhat intricate answer. While he was working on the stories, he wondered what he'd call the collection. "A Priest in the Family and Other Stories"? He dreaded that "and other stories" coda, because, in his experience, few people buy such books and nobody reads them. Working your way through a gigantic Collected Stories is almost impossible, even if the author is John Cheever or William Trevor. Meanwhile, the story that became "The Name of the Game," one of two novellas in the book, was giving him trouble. He liked his story of the widow who struggles to salvage the disaster that she inherits from her suicide husband by opening a chips shop. But how would it end? (He did not say, "Where was the conflict," but he was suggesting the thought.) Eventually he hit on the idea of "bringing up the son, like a light in the theatre." The son would be difficult, an antagonist to his mother. "Mothers and sons" was a theme that linked to the two stories that he had already finished. So the idea both solved his story and gave him a distinct title for the collection.
The other novella, the eighty-odd-page "A Long Winter," was inspired by something that happened in the family of a man from whom he purchased some property high in the Spanish Pyrenees. The man's mother had been a drinker, very unusual for a countrywoman in Franco's Spain, and one night she just up and walked out of her house, meaning to cross the mountains to her native village. A snowstorm came up, and it wasn't until spring that they found her corpse. That and the rattling of a barn door were Mr Tóibín's données. The story, which if it's "about" anything is about homosexual longings so subconscious that they perfume every paragraph with muted longing. (March 2007)
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