Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Colm Tóibín: The Heather Blazing (1992)

Colm Tóibín in 1992

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Colm Tóibín: The Heather Blazing (1992)



This really isn’t a good choice of novel to give someone as a gift. But read it yourself. It’s about a successful, clever man who doesn’t connect with his family; and it’s desolating. The ending, mildly optimistic with its curious recollection of Dombey and Son (grandfather, daughter, grandson by the sea), does very little to modify the overall sense that one has been wounded, a trap has been sprung on the unwary.


Eamon Redmond doesn’t talk, doesn’t allow himself to think about his past – one thing that keeps us reading on is the feeling that we’re going to uncover a secret but there isn’t really a secret of a simplistic concrete sort, like some unusually traumatic experience. What there is, is the gradual formation of a pattern of life; a powerful success-making driven pattern, but also a pattern that is terribly trapped in its own terms, quite unable to see itself from outside. The book is not a voyage into memory but it is a voyage into Redmond’s mind and all the important things that it doesn’t remember, that it never allowed itself to register properly. I hope the anguish of this paragraph will come across – this is Eamon, back in the bedroom of their holiday home, after his wife’s death:


The night when he had washed her in the bath and lay on the bed beside hercame back to him now. He had avoided thinking about it. He remembered that it was a warm, close night like this with moths blundering against the windowpane. He remembered her voice, her voice telling him that he had never listened to her when she tried to tell him about her parents. He had gone over everything, every talk they had in all the years and he could recall nothing. He thought that she loved her parents, he remembered her talking about them in the months after they died. He could not remember her telling him that they fought in the house, nor that her father drank too much. As he sat there now in the night he asked her to forgive him if he had done anything wrong, he told her that he had tried to remember everything, but nothing came back to him, no time when he could have listened to her and comforted her about what had happened during her life at home. He simply could not remember.


Tóibín’s complex novel is made out extremely simple words, the ones you speak to yourself. Yet how complex the effect of e.g. that “could have listened”. Eamon’s poor memory, and it’s not any different now when he wants to be forgiven if he’s done anything wrong, is intimately connected to his skills as a judge, the clean slate he maintains for impeccable lines of reasoning. Which is a place of relief. People don’t become brilliant at something just for fun.


Eamon is a fine public speaker, but his communication in private, haltered by a judge’s reticence, is tortuous. He reserves information as a matter of habit.


He had learnt not to speak to the Guards; some of them had given evidence in his court over the years and, no doubt, would do so again, and he felt it was better if he did not know them.


He kept listening, more and more sure that he should not mention the story about his father and Cathal Brugha, that he should consign it to the past, to silence, as his father had done with the names of the men who did the killings in Enniscorthy.


And to his son:


‘You don’t recognize Cathy?’ Donal said to him.


‘Recognize her? I’ve just met her.’


‘He wouldn’t remember me,’ Cathy said.


Eamon noticed that both of them had become hostile. ‘I’ve a very good memory for faces,’ he said. ‘It’s not as good as Carmel’s, but I think I would remember you if I had met you before.’


‘Maybe it’s a guilty conscience,’ Donal said.....


‘Did you see what the Irish Times said about your judgment?’ Donal asked sharply.


‘It’s a funny day now when a newspaper starts making legal judgments.’ He was suddenly angry. ‘But I don’t think that we can discuss the case, if you don’t mind. I’d rather go back to discussing coastal erosion or the temperature of the Irish Sea.’


‘I’m sure you would,’ Donal said.


Eamon is constantly deciding not to tell people things, afraid he will be misunderstood. As we read we learn to interpret these moments as a series of untaken escapes from the pattern behaviour that makes him what he is. Where any of them might have led, who knows? But freedom does not seem a good description of what Eamon has. On the other hand it seems wrong to think of Eamon as exceptionally cold or inarticulate. The book seems quite clear that in his own way, he’s all right, more than all right in many ways. It’s one of the book’s terrible insights.  


Tóibín’s communication, however, is remarkable. The press write-ups on the back of the book reveal for once that this book has been read and has been effortlessly understood (“It is impossible,” says one of them, “to read Tóibín without being moved, touched and finally changed”). No poet would recognize the ease of that transaction with readers of the day. Though the book is too painful to be a bestseller, it plugs straight into the communal or national “we” as endlessly deployed by media commentators.


This transparent eloquence can make the book easy to under-rate. A second reading does not add much to what came across so completely on the first. And if there is no obscurity of effect, what is there for a critic to do?


What appeals to me throughout is the pacing of the narrative – I notice it without in any way feeling the story less. One great scene is the account of a death-haunted Christmas in which Eamon’s grandmother, so soon to be engulfed by tragedy, is dominant. Another is the punishingly long walk in which Eamon, after his wife’s death, tries to tire himself out and is slowly adjusting. Chapter 11 might be the best and most painful of all, the visits to Wexford for hopeful physiotherapy, and Carmel soiling herself. Nothing melodramatic happens to Eamon in the whole book – this is what we can all expect to go through, and we’ll be lucky if it’s no worse. That’s the other terrible insight.    




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