Colm Tóibín is a novelist more storyteller than wordsmith. This is not to say of course, that his use of language is not skilful, his sentences not beautiful; only that his craft, by now well celebrated among the best in the English language, is aimed at something else. Listening to him introduce his new novel Nora Webster at Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival, one senses it is the image, not the word, that holds sway over his imagination. A case in point: Tóibín prefaces his reading not only with tales of nuns from a coastal convent spotted by children as if they were rare seals, but also with Tony O’Malley, the Irish painter — although, as Tóibín reminds us, long of St Ives — who left a suitcase of paintings at a boarding house and found them still there twenty five years later. Tóibín’s writing starts from the point where the visual and the anecdote, so often ships in the night, happen to collide.
The tale of how Tóibín came to write Nora Webster is more long-winded. It began, he tells us, around the spring of 2000, when its first chapter emerged simultaneously with the opening lines of The Master. These fraternal twin tales grew by varying degrees, with Nora requiring distance literal (a trip to Texas and then on to New York) and chronological before it could be developed. Such a timescale makes sense, perhaps, given that Nora Webster is as intimate as any of Tóibín’s works: telling the story of a woman after her husband’s death, it draws on both personal experience of the author’s own loss of his father and a landscape he knew well. In creating Nora, he went back, at least in part, to what his own mother did and said, but made from her a character. Thus Nora is a work of both memory and invention. ‘If I needed something’, Tóibín tells us, ‘I raided whatever larder seemed most full’.
If its subject is melancholy, however, Nora Webster is far from dolorous. Its eponymous widow is the eldest of her sisters, Tóibín says, and accordingly sure of her own mind; ‘I didn’t want,’ he explains, ‘to write one of those Irish short stories you live in dread of, with a boy walking, miserable’. Instead, the characters of Nora Webster are known by the edges of their lives. Trade unionism is an insistent force in the novel — Tóibín tells a story of his aunt, whose whole office once unionised overnight, much to their boss’ surprise — and the changing nature of Irish politics also infringes on the characters’ experience. Nora is formed, for all her gutsiness, partially in negative space. It’s a technique Tóibín employs self-consciously, forcing his reader not to look on her lying awake at night in a second gesture against the prevailing tropes of the Irish novel: ‘because she’s an Irish mother, you have to get rid of the things that say “Irish” “mother”’.
Indeed, this is generally a novel told by things not being, or by things we do not know. In addition to his visual eye, Tóibín also has a keen sense of the possibilities afforded by the form of the novel, and he tells the Southbank audience that it is a particularly excellent medium — perhaps the only medium — for getting across unsaid things: ‘the reader can know everything … and watch people not discussing what’s most on their minds. They can go, “My god — they’re not going to mention it?”’ I For Tóibín, this is one of the most elegant things a work of art can do, citing the example of Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. ’No-one knows what’s in the letter,’ he says with evident delight, ‘but somehow that has stayed with us more than battles’.