Review: Love In A Dark Time By Colm Tóibín Essay, Research Paper
The art of loss Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar Colm Tóibín 288pp, Picador In the introduction to this perceptive collection of essays, Colm Tóibín admits to an “abiding fascination with sadness…and, indeed, tragedy”. It should be stressed that this is a sympathetic fascination, not a morbid or mawkish one, as his brief accounts of the painful lives of Elizabeth Bishop and James Baldwin – two of the best pieces here – testify. The calm surface of Bishop’s poetry gives little indication that her life was every bit as troubled as Robert Lowell’s or John Berryman’s. That calmness, Tóibín suggests, was her slow and steady artistic triumph over such familiar demons as emotional insecurity and alcoholism. In his expanded review of One Art , the selection from her vast correspondence edited by her friend and publisher Robert Giroux, he remarks on her “fierce simplicity” and continues: “The search for pure accuracy in her poems forced her to watch the world helplessly, as though there were nothing she could do. The statements she made in her poems seem always distilled, put down on the page – despite the simplicity and the tone of casual directness – only with great difficulty.” It is clear from her wonderful letters that she was intrigued by other people and had no truck with openly confessional poetry. Tóibín quotes from the cautionary missive she sent her friend Robert Lowell on discovering that he had transformed the letters written by his estranged wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, into sonnets in his book, The Dolphin . “That is ‘infinite mischief’, I think…one can use one’s life as material – one does, anyway – but these letters – aren’t you violating a trust? If you were given permission – if you hadn’t changed them…But art just isn’t worth that much.” Bishop was writing from bitter experience, since three years earlier, her great love, Lota Costellat de Macedo Soares, which whom she had lived for a blissful decade in Brazil, had committed suicide in New York, while another lover had endured a massive breakdown. You don’t have to be aware of these facts to appreciate her beautiful villanelle “One Art”, with its repeated mordant line “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Tóibín obviously loves Bishop’s poetry, just as he loves the early fiction of James Baldwin. Of Go Tell It on the Mountain he writes: “The subject is the flesh itself and sexual longing, and how close to treachery lies desire, how the truth of the body differs from the lies of the mind. Like other gay writers, Baldwin could take nothing for granted.” The book came out in 1953 and was well received. Two years later, he offered his American publisher, Knopf, Giovanni’s Room , which is concerned with a gay – and white – love affair in Paris. The novel was firmly declined. Even his agent advised him to burn it. It was first published in London, by Michael Joseph. Being black and gay and an imaginative writer was the triple burden he had to bear in that especially dark time. Writing wasn’t enough for Baldwin; he craved justice, too. His passionate involvement in the civil rights movement, Tóibín believes, damaged his talent and blunted his wit. Not all his brothers and sisters in the fight for freedom welcomed his presence at meetings and demonstrations. Eldridge Cleaver, in particular, held the pretty murky view that black homosexuals suffered from a sickness induced by frustration at not being able to bear babies by white men. It says much for Baldwin’s graciousness that he did his best to ignore or forget this ludicrous insult. What Tóibín admires about the painter Francis Bacon is his life-long refusal to play the role of “tragic queer”. He is properly scathing about the three biographies that appeared, with indecent haste, after Bacon’s death – by Andrew Sinclair (scissors and paste), Michael Peppiatt (dull when it isn’t prurient) and Daniel Farson (a hotchpotch of sexual tittle-tattle). “It is one of the problems of biography that it seeks out the colourful and the dramatic at the expense of the ordinary and true,” Tóibín observes. Bacon’s relationship with George Dyer wasn’t all gloom and drunken doom – at least, not in the beginning. Tóibín prefers to look at the paintings, with apt quotations from Bacon’s conversations with David Sylvester, Michel Archimbaud and the shrewdly observant John Russell. He reminds us how hard Bacon worked, and that the real danger he had to cope with was that of repeating himself and burning himself out. This is more interesting, though less amusing, than his remark – which was intended to be heard by the posh women seated nearby – that he wanted to be buggered by Colonel Gadafy. Tóibín sees Thomas Mann as another victim of his biographers, two of whom disliked him heartily. Well, he isn’t lovable, this great novelist who sublimated his homosexual desires at his desk. A kiss was as far as he ever got with any of the increasingly younger men he became besotted with. Life in the Mann household makes the goings-on in the House of Atreus seem almost recreational. Mann must have enjoyed the torments of romantic obsession, for he fell in love in his 70s with a youth of 17. Tóibín’s other subjects are Oscar Wilde, Roger Casement, the poets Thom Gunn and Mark Doty, and the film director Pedro Almodóvar. This last, a reprinted article from Vanity Fair , is the one really weak chapter in this otherwise fine and thoughtful book. One wants to know more about this man who thrives in an atmosphere of chaos. Tóibín, for once, provides only a sketch, instead of the customary rounded portrait. Paul Bailey’s most recent book isThree Queer Lives (Hamish Hamilton).