Reading Note:
Knowing the Enemy
23 October 2014

Having emptied two large bookcases, and piled up a great many books to discard, I’m disheartened by how much remains to be done. There is stuff everywhere. Take the sideboard in the image above.  How many boxes will its drawers fill? And where will we put those boxes, while we wait for the move?

There is no real free space in this apartment. There are only passing lanes.

Meanwhile, I pack ten or so boxes of books, and I’m done for the day. Exhausted! Yesterday, I also did the laundry, a regular job that doesn’t count toward the move. And I brought in a lot of heavy plastic tableware from the balcony, to run it through the dishwasher so that our new friend would have lots of choices for furnishing her bare kitchen. (She will be offered honest porcelain as well.) I scrutinized pots and pans. I’ll do more of that this afternoon,  along with generally tidying up incidental messes. The other night, Ray Soleil and I moved an armchair out of the apartment and across the hall. We had to move all sorts of other things to clear the way from the blue room to the front door. In the process, we made at least four incidental messes. I’ve got to straighten all of them out, or I shall go mad.

The bedroom remains untouched. You would never know we were moving. It is tidy and familiar. It will be the last to go.


When I had done with The Heather Blazing, I was struck by one thing that distinguishes it from The Blackwater Lightship and Nora Webster: not only is the central figure a man, but his carnality is noted in several graphic episodes. So is his hunger and, as an old man, his fatigue and wear-and-tear. Helen Doherty and Nora Webster keep their clothes on, as it were. It is hard to resist the conclusion that the author feels a shyness about women.

But it’s not that, I don’t think. It’s rather the development of a gay writer’s frankness and technique during a time of unimagined shifts in public attitudes toward gay life. Eamon Redmond, the High Court judge whose youth is recalled in parallel with his later life, in The Heather Blazing, is a complicated man in many ways, but not sexually;  sexually, he is simply straight. His sexuality is normal in the same way that his digestion is normal: he is unconscious of it except when it obtrudes, triggered by a young woman’s breasts or slim figure or smooth skin. It is not particularly intimate, as his wife, Carmel, complains. This is not to say that Eamon is absent when he has sex, but rather than sex does not open him up.

It does not occur to Eamon that opening up would be desirable. Toward the end of the book, at a point in the narrative when the observation drives home something that the reader already knows, but situated in a time frame that is neither youth nor old age, but an evening in the middle of Carmel’s first pregnancy, Eamon confesses to her that he believed that nobody ever wanted him. We have seen that he was cared for as a boy, by his widowed father and his extended family of aunts and uncles, and even that these older people meant to love him. But Eamon had grown up without a mother. He was very smart, but diligent rather than clever — the soul of responsibility at an early age. What he didn’t know, and the adults didn’t know, either, was that this responsibility was a carapace. Eamon was not only not a problem child, but he took very good care of himself. He was one less thing to worry about.

So, when he loses himself in the law, it is made all the easier by his skill at not listening too closely to what others say. He can shut himself off. Later, after  Carmel dies, Eamon cannot remember a single instance of her complaining about her father’s excessive drinking, even though he knows that there must have been many. Now, at least, even if it is too late, he is vexed by this failure.

Eamon’s highly selective attentiveness, engaged with legal concepts but not with personal intimacies, is stereotypical of bright heterosexual men. The scope of the professional intelligence which brings them worldly success seems to underline an equally worldly stupidity. The world excuses this clumsiness, made up as the world is of other equally maladroit men and the women who tend to them. In the course of the novel, Eamon issues two important legal decisions that come down heavily and even harshly on the side of conservative tradition. His wife and children are appalled, but he knows that his colleagues find his opinions to be eminently “sensible.” Eamon is a pillar not just of the law, but of heterosexual norms.

He is not a character that a gay writer might be expected to admire, but already we see Colm Tóibín treating an uncongenial subject with deep respect. Tóibin grasps that the attempt to understand a man such as Eamon Redmond requires him to honor Redmond’s experience, and Tóibín honors it so thoroughly that the dominating implication of the Fianna Fáil (Republican) Party in Irish political life throughout mid-century Ireland, a history of high-sounding but essentially tawdry compromises, especially with the Church, that must have disgusted the young writer, is itself presented as the result of honorable passions.

What we have in The Heather Blazing is an exalted case of Knowing the Enemy. I believe that if Tóibín were to tackle such a figure again, the result would be leaner and more revealing; having written so well about Henry James, might not Tóibín amaze the world with the fictional portrait of an even less widely known (but much grander) figure, Charlie Haughey? Nevertheless, to have accomplished so much in a second novel is a triumph. and the author has understandably moved on. In the short stories collected in Mothers and Sons and The  Empty Family, he has given us a gallery of men, none of them (as I recall) like Eamon Redmond, and most of them gay. But in his longer fiction, Tóibín has retained his interest in the obliquities of behavior and consciousness familiar of gay men of his age (and older), but not so much to younger men, by focusing on independently-minded women, whose dealings with straight men (and the world at large) have also been marked, and may still be marked, by such obliquities.

But women are not the enemy; they are less “other” than straight men such as Eamon Redmond. The alienation of the “merely personal” from the vitality of life doesn’t come into it.

In my current infatuation with Colm Tóibín’s writing, will I re-read Brooklyn (again)? And, if I do, will I be surprised to find that its themes have much more in common with those of The Heather Blazing, The Blackwater Lightship, and Nora Webster than I think they do?