Monday, July 13, 2015

Love in a Dark Time

Love In a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar is a collection of essays by Irish writer Colm Tóibín published in 2002.

The first essay was a long review, published originally in the London Review of Books, on A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition by Gregory Woods. The other pieces are devoted to individual artists.

'Writing these pieces' said Tóibín, 'helped me to come to terms with things - with my own interest in secret, erotic energy (Roger Casement and Thomas Mann), my pure admiration for figures who, unlike myself, weren’t afraid (Oscar Wilde, Bacon, Almodóvar), my abiding fascination with sadness (Elizabeth Bishop, James Baldwin) and, indeed, tragedy (Thom Gunn and Mark Doty).' The book also contains an essay on Henry James, a figure to whom the author would later devote a novel, The Master.

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In 1993, Cólm Toibín was asked by an editor of the London Review of Books to write personally and polemically about his sexuality. In his Introduction to this book, Toibín describes the meeting as if it were a scene from an espionage thriller ('...he walked quickly past me and across the room to the window'). Would this spy come in from the cold? He wouldn't. He couldn't, since part of him remained 'uneasy, timid and melancholy' about this issue.

Love in a Dark Time is not the outpouring or manifesto that the LRB might have had in mind. Instead, it's a collection of reviews and essays about gay writers, artists and public figures, many of which did appear in the pages of the LRB (the magazine conducted a sort of campaign of attrition, sending out a steady stream of gay-themed books).

Writing these pieces helped Toibín 'come to terms with things'. When he does strike a personal note in these pages, it's clear that he is still armoured against disclosure. Writing about his boyhood discovery that two young men who lived together in his home town of Enniscorthy had been 'packed off to jail' and ruined, he declares: 'It was clear to me as I grew into my teens that being gay in this country would require care and attention.'

This is manifestly a fabricated tone, and even a fabricated vocabulary - 'gay' would hardly have been the standard term at the time, even in a more metropolitan place. If Cólm Toibín had been capable of such dry bravado in the late Sixties, how could there be enough unease, timidity and melancholy left over to inhibit his self-expression a quarter of a century later?

Very few books of essays are planned as wholes. More often they're what the experts on the Antiques Roadshow (speaking of, say, Cromwell chairs that only loosely match a dining-table) refer to as a 'harlequin set'. Their coherence is of a secondary order. The coherence of Love in a Dark Time is perhaps lower than this, with some slapdash readings and arguments scattered among sophisticated ones.

There's a tendency to claim particular aspects of gay lives as beyond the understanding of the outside world. Describing the catastrophic relationship between Oscar Wilde and Bosie Douglas, Toibín writes: 'In most societies, most gay people go through adolescence believing that the fulfilment of physical desire would not be matched by emotional attachment. For straight people, the eventual matching of the two is part of the deal, a happy aspect of normality. But if this occurs for gay people, it is capable of taking on an extraordinarily powerful emotional force.'

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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 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."

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