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Posted on 9 Feb 2023 in Non-Fiction |

COLM TOIBIN A Guest at the Feast. Reviewed by Michael Jongen

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The author of The Magician is also a skilled essayist, ranging across the personal, religion, and literature.

In the first essay in this collection, ‘Cancer: My Part in Its Downfall’, Colm Toibin describes being diagnosed with testicular cancer. At first he ignores his balls, then researches his symptoms on the internet and feels comforted by its diagnosis as he goes about an American tour conducting readings ‘selling my melancholy stories’. However, when he returns to London he takes himself to Emergency, where a doctor thinks it isn’t cancer because there aren’t any lumps. It is not until he goes to Dublin and sees a urologist that he is given an ultrasound. When he returns a week later, he is ushered into an operating theatre.

‘When I came in for the next appointment, the urologist asked me if I was fasting. I hadn’t bothered to have breakfast so I told him truthfully and innocently that I was.

‘In that case,’ he said, ‘I can fit you in today.’

I knew what he meant; he meant to remove my ball.

This is a fascinating, insightful, deeply personal story that has a visceral impact. With delightful and careful prose Toibin goes through the humiliation of the process and its aftermath, carefully noting the reactions of those around him and giving special attention to his own thoughts. It’s an extraordinary piece.

The collection is divided into three parts and this first section includes the title essay, ‘A Guest at the Feast’, which also encompasses the personal. This is the longest piece in the book, and it is a beautiful memoir of growing up in Ireland, as well as a reflection on the country’s modern history. Readers of Toibin’s fiction will recognise the influence of his upbringing in novels such as Brooklyn and Nora Webster. They will also enjoy his pithy comments on his fellow writers and Irish writing.

‘A Brush with the Law’, the third essay in this section, looks at the campaign by Irish politician and activist  David Norris to overturn the criminalisation of homosexual acts, successfully arguing in the European Court of Human Rights in 1988 that criminalisation was in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights. (The law was finally repealed in 1993.)

In an interview, Tóibín said: ‘Whatever aura I have, it’s not as a gay guru – I’m not Edmund White. “My mother’s reading your book” – I get that a lot.’ However, it is clear that Toibin’s sexuality has had an impact on his writing and his observations of Ireland and Catholicism, which is the subject of the second part.

‘The Paradoxical Pope’, written for the New Yorker in 1995, begins:

Somewhere now, surely, among the College of Cardinals, the stately old men of the Roman Catholic Church, there is a Gorbachev in the shadows slouching towards Rome to be born. You watch their stony faces, note their dignified bearing and the richness of their robes, and you think that there must be one among them, cunning and secretive, who is planning a quiet revolution in the Catholic church.

Toibin goes on to ask if the church’s obsession with sex will ever go away, and notes that those wanting change are waiting for John Paul II to die. Subsequent essays on Benedict XVI and Francis make clear these hopes were destined to be disappointed. The three essays on the papacy and sexuality that comprise this section are quite fascinating, although I do feel I have learned more about the politics of the last three popes than I ever needed to know. After reading ‘The Bergoglio Smile’ about Pope Francis and his Peronista past, I wonder how we could ever have thought he might be the agent of change.

‘Among the Flutterers’ looks at Ratzinger and his position on homosexuality. Toibin quotes from Angelo Quattrocchi’s The Pope is Not Gay, which contrasts Ratzinger’s hard line on homosexuals with his relationship with his private secretary, Georg Ganswein. Toibin suggests that Quattrocchi may be drawing a long bow, as it would have been natural for Ratzinger to have a private secretary who shared his ideology and came from the same part of Germany. It may be just a coincidence that Ganswein is also a very handsome man! This essay is probably the funniest look at ecclesiastical fashion since Fellini’s Roma.

Current Pope watchers might find these three essays interesting as they ponder the possible change in direction under Francis now that Ratzinger has been laid to rest at the Basilica. Toibin describes Francis as a determined and political priest, noting that he was the first pope to be elected after losing a previous election. (He had stood in 2005 when Ratzinger became pope.) Georg Ganswein, now the German Prelate, is still important. Suddenly these three essays have an interesting currency.

Part three of the collection looks at three writers: Marilynne Robinson, Francis Stuart and John McGahren. Like the first and last essays, these were all previously published in the London Review of Books.

In ‘Putting Religion in Its Place’, Toibin examines the work of the American religious thinker and novelist Marilynne Robinson:

God represents a real problem for the novelist. The novel is happier in a secular space where people suffer from mortal ailments and failures, where their ambitions are material, their hopes palpable. Changing bread and wine into body and blood could be done in a novel, but it would be hard and shouldn’t be tried twice.

But as Toibin states, he was born in Ireland and brought up Catholic. This essay looks at how Robinson and others such as Graham Greene, Chinua Achebe and Flannery O’Connor can create a religious or a non-secular protagonist without upsetting the balance of the novel. This, he says, is a technical issue not a religious one.

Francis Stuart was a writer and Nazi collaborator who broadcast to neutral Ireland from Germany during the war. His experience in Germany and his reception by the Irish literary community are well documented by Toibin. In ‘Snail Slow: John McGahern’, Toibin returns to one of Ireland’s most celebrated writers whose second novel, The Dark, was banned by Irish censors.

Toibin has indeed been a guest at the feast that is the Irish writing scene, and for many decades. I was very entertained and informed by these essays about the Irish literary world, the background to Toibin’s own writing and the huge influence of the Catholic religion in Ireland’s history and culture. Initially as I read the collection I felt its concerns might be a bit niche for the general reader. However, the events of the new year and the deaths of Pope Benedict and Cardinal Pell show how pertinent Toibin’s observations are about the Vatican and the Irish Catholic Church.

The last piece, ‘Alone in Venice’, rounds out the collection and reminds us what a beautiful writer Toibin is. It is also a nod to his obsessions with Thomas Mann and Henry James as he wanders about a Venice abandoned by tourists in the wake of COVID 19. He muses that it is a good place to think about old age. Ageing may be a banal topic but, he asks, what else is there to think about? Here in Venice he finds quietness to ruminate, and suggests maybe that is sufficient.

Colm Toibin A Guest at the Feast Picador 2022 PB 320pp $34.99

Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen

You can buy A Guest at the Feast from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

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