Gotham Diary:
Birthday
1 January 2013

On the drive down to Alphabet City this afternoon — we were going to enjoy a slice of Will’s birthday cake — I noticed that my notebook wasn’t where it belonged, and I still haven’t found it. I’d been writing a lot of notes lately, and meaning to type them up in some form or other, but I hadn’t developed the habit of that, and now the notebook has disappeared. I went to the tavern where I had lunch yesterday, but it wasn’t there. That’s where I made the last entry, which I can still recall: “I have not the sort of mind that believes that the details of lesser arrangements cannot be worked out until the world has been grasped in full.” I remember thinking that this was a very awkward of expressing myself, but I couldn’t think of a better way on the spot. I find that I can’t do much better now. I also made a note remarking on the difference between male and female piety (or piousness) in Colm Tóibín’s work. I was reading a collection of essays about the writer, and I was just finishing a piece about The Heather Blazing, a sort of translation, into the terms of constitutional philosophy, of that novel’s story.

Earlier, I finished The Testament of Mary, a fierce little book (81 pages) that might well have bulked out a collection of short stories, in the way that “The Street” concludes The Empty Family, but that deserves to be published by itself, because its subject is very bold, and the writing strong and spare. We have the last word, as it were, of the figure known to Roman Catholics as the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ — but Tóibín’s Mary would have none of that. If she adored her son, it was only because she was his mother. She certainly didn’t approve of his behavior. “He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye.” Mary has been taken away to Ephesus, for her own protection, but also for the protection of the story that some of those misfits want to tell about her son, who is never named. Her version of the story, which does not please them, is extremely concentrated. When a cousin with a Latin name comes to her warn her that her son is attracting the attention of the authorities and that she had better persuade him to retire to a more private way of life, Mary makes her way to a wedding in Cana, where it seems that Lazarus has just been raised from the dead. “What have I to do with thee?” her son rebukes her, before returning to Jerusalem to make more of a spectacle of himself. Soon she is standing at the foot of the cross on which the Romans and the rabbis have crucified him. And she realizes that she is in danger herself even before she is told as much.

It is not just the shock of the completely contrarian telling of the Gospel story that makes The Testament of Mary arresting. Even more than that, I’d say, is the force of the encounter with the unswerving piety and formidable discretion of one of Tóibín’s older women, one of his mothers. Or one of the mothers of the Republican rebels from which his characters often descend. I can’t say more without spoiling the book’s darkest secret, which Mary has lived with in pain for many years and which she feels she must now share. But I thought often of Eilis Lacey’s mother (in Brooklyn), and the mother in “A Priest in the Family,” from Mothers and Sons. These women carry terrible weights, but they honor their sorrow by refusing to discuss it. They shun heroics, but with an heroic fervor. They are not like men. Whether they are weaker or stronger than men it is impossible to say, and no one captures that particular ambiguity better than Colm Tóibín.

Late last night, after the caviar and champagne and lobster but no room for dessert — and Radio Days, of course — after Kathleen had gone to sleep and I’d fooled around a bit with the old Daily Blague, I pulled down The Empty Family, Tóibín’s most recent collection of stories, and began reading “The Pearl Fishers.” I still don’t know what bearing this has on The Testament of Mary; the woman in the story, a fiery debater of conservative issues, is anything but reticent — she is very much not one of the “Tóibín women” I’ve been thinking about. It may be the hunch that Tóibín’s grasp of a certain kind of Irishwoman proceeds from his experience of the things that make gay men and straight mutually difficult to understand, a subject that, off the top of my head, anyway, I think he has yet to take on as a writer. (It may well not interest him at all.)

Now that I’ve typed up that final note, I had better figure out a better way of putting it. What was I trying to say?

***

Before lighting the candles for Will’s cake, Megan explained that she had bought the big one, the fat numeral “3,” last summer. (There were also three little candles, and Will blew them all out, if not in one go.) She had the foresight to do so after having no luck, last New Year’s Day, finding a a “2.” It was doubly impossible then, because there are two 2s in “2012,” but Will’s age will always coincide, not just with the New Year, but with the actual year being welcomed in. 

When asked how old he was, Will replied that he was “only three.” My sentiment exactly — it seems that he has been around forever! We see him far too often to register any but the smallest changes, and he seems always to be in the process of becoming more himself: he has always been Will. I always wonder if people who say that “they grow up so fast” are really paying attention.