Sunday, 25 December 2011

A Priest in the Family by Colm Toibin

Part of my Xmas haul was The Granta Book of The Irish Short Story edited and with an introduction by Anne Enright. She acknowledges the help of various people including Colm Toibin whom she clearly has a high regard for as she brackets him with Banville, O'Brien and McGahern.

Banville, O'Brien, McGahern and Toibin – those writers become more distinctive as people, even as their sentences become more distinctively their own......As much as possible I have tried to choose those stories in which a writer is most himself.

I have disparaged Toibin here before but I am always willing to be proved wrong and as Enright is a well known writer herself, a winner of the Booker prize a few years ago, her selection might be supposed to represent him at his best. So let's have a look at it.

A Priest in the Family begins inauspiciously with a weather report.

She watched the sky darken, threatening rain.

This flouts Elmore Leonards first rule of writing:
1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

This is all the more so as in Ireland it is always either raining or threatening to rain. When James Joyce told us in The Dead that “snow was general all over Ireland”, that was a form of precipitation which is unusual enough to mark. The old woman who is reacting to the weather is curiously seasonally affected. She doesn't mind cold and wet weather as long as the light level is low. Maybe there is some symbolic blazing being cut here in the story because further on we are told:
'As long as it's the winter I can manage,' Molly said. 'I sleep late in the mornings and I'm kept busy. It's the summer I dread. I'm not like those people who suffer from that disorder when there's no light. I dread the long summer days when I wake with the dawn and think the blackest thoughts. Oh, the blackest thoughts! But I'll be all right until then.'

Her (Molly's) son is a priest and the man to whom she is speaking is a priest also and a friend of his. Despite a little bit of gumption building business i.e. Pulling up his socks, he cannot come to the point of the visit he is paying her.

Instead, he reached down and pulled up one of his grey socks, then waited for a moment before he inspected the other and pulled that up too.

His news which she apparently is the last to know about is that the priest son is going to trial on a charge of sexual abuse which occurred some years before when he was a teacher. This would have been in a secondary school probably though this is not made clear in the story.

After the priest has left Toibin tells us

When he had gone she got the RTE Guide and opened it for the evening's television listings; she began to set the video to record Glenroe.

Given that the last Glenroe episode was in 2001 and this woman is nearly 80, the usage of 'listings' is odd. It is narration I know and not her voice but 'listings' for 'programmes' has a leaden ring. If you're in her world be there. Ask yourself: what would Joyce have done?

Much is made of the fact that Molly is keeping up with things, playing bridge, learning the intricacies of email, visiting people and generally being the active elder, sharp as a tack as they say. What is she missing? It comes out eventually when the priest returns on the following night. It is delivered in the dullest possible way and the reaction to it is not credible. Her son the priest was abusing teenage boys under his care. This would likely be in a boarding school. All she can think of is : “Does the whole town know?” No fainting, no breaking-down, no recourse to tea or prayer or anger only a determination to hold her head up through it all. Pardon my unbelief, but this is not a credible reaction. The daughters, 2 of them, show more or less similar blankness. They are a low-light, crepuscular family but this is ridiculous.

Is this curious lack of affect a reflection of the author's attitude one wonders. He received a great deal of criticism due to his offering a character witness to the court in the case of aggravated sexual assault on a 15 year old boy by the writer Desmond Hogan
Being a good writer, which actually Hogan is not,is not a defence in a case of this kind. We had another similar scandal in the case of Cathal Sharkey who was seducing young Nepali boys and who was likewise defended by other fellow members of Aosdana. When priests abuse it is universally condemned by the intelligentsia but they shuffle and temporise when someone they know does the same thing. Perhaps a parity of reasoning is operational in the story. If Mammy threw a wobbly then that would mean it was serious.

It's too poorly written to possibly subvert anyone's moral sense.

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