T(he) S(hort) S(tory) on T(he) S(unday) S(alon)

At the recent Edinburgh Book Festival event, Colm Tóibín admitted that he had waited until his mother’s death to publish this short story collection.  “He wouldn’t have got away with it” he said.  A number of further anecdotes gave evidence to a difficult relationship and when he was asked “So how did you get on with your mother?”, he gave a long answer in which he named the authors whose work she preferred to his own.  (Saul Bellow was one.)  But he did not answer the question.

While the answer is most likely contained in his “Mothers and Sons” , it would be foolish to hazard a guess at the exact details of Tóibín’s own story.  The diversity of cause leading to the same fractured effects is quite remarkable.  In fact, by the final page, you could be forgiven for thinking that a mother/son relationship surviving into the child’s adulthood is nothing short of miraculous.  Sometimes the trigger is the son (a priest accused of child abuse), sometimes it is the mother (one who walks out on the family home when the child is young), and other times the breaking point is much more nebulous (a son withdraws into depression during adolescence).  But in all cases, the stories here are vivid, the psychological insights profound, although not explicit.  This is a masterclass in showing, not telling.  The body language is three-dimensional.  The silences speak volumes, with Tóibín showing only what he knows, nothing more. 

Tóibín’s measure of a successful short story is one that makes the reader shudder not by what (s)he has read but by what (s)he imagines happens next.  This can only happen if the tension is not fully resolved.  Full marks, therefore, for “Mothers and Sons” in general and for the story of “A Journey” in particular.  A story of just 8.5 pages in which life deals some terrible blows to a family of three.  At the end the wife and mother is driving her depressed adolescent home from hospital to visit his father who has been paralysed by a stroke. As she walks into her husband’s bedroom:

“Is he here?” Seamus asked.

She did not answer but walked over and sat on a stool in front of the dressing-table mirror from where she could see him.  She noticed how strange her well-kept blonde hair looked beside the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth.  Her crocks, David (her son) used to call them.  It was time, she thought, to let the grey appear.  Seamus was staring at her from the bed and when their eyes caught she was struck for a moment by a glimpse of a future in which she would need to muster every ounce of selfishness she had.  She shut her eyes before she turned around to face him.

“Is he back?  Did you bring him?” he asked her again.

The longest story is the final one,  “A Long Winter”, in which a mother goes missing during a snowstorm in the mountains. 85 pages long, the pace is slower.  There is time to show the events, the tensions in the family,  that lead up to the disappearance and time also to describe the search.    Tóibín considers his previous multi-award-winning work, The Master,   to be “quite damaged” by flashback.  So he was determined that this story would not use the device at all.  Whilst writing it, his conscious mind was focused on solving this technicality.  It was only as he wrote and the story took shape that he realised he was subconsciously working through his grief at his own mother’s death.  A grief that lies frozen beneath the snow for much of the story but, which eventually,  defrosts and weeps from the page in passages like the following. 

Miquel began to sob as he walked along, allowing Manolo to hold him and comfort him.  For the first time in a while he felt the sharp certainty of his mother’s disappearance; the idea that when she was found she would not be alive appeared to him as brutal fact.  She would not be returning to them.  Finding her, he thought, would mean nothing; looking for her was pointless. …..

“You are lucky that this has already happened to you, your mother’s going, that it cannot come again.”

“I wish she was at home, alive,” Miquel said.

“Yes, but you would always dread that this blow was going to come, her death, now you are free of it.  It has happened.  It cannot happen again.”

That passage, surely a more eloquent statement, concerning the complexity of the author’s feelings for his mother, than any answer at a literary festival event could ever be.