Nathalie Sarraute was a Russian-born French writer of novels usually called experimental: the anti-novel which evolved into the nouveau roman. She thought traditional treatment of plot and character either no longer interesting, for her anyway.
BY COLM TOIBIN
Viking, 311pp, £18.99
Nevertheless in a long essay published as “The Age of Suspicion”, she admitted that the traditional novel was still capable of “an eternal freshness”. The admission was necessary; it is still, after all, the traditional novel with a story and characters who bear some, often rather obvious, resemblance to the sort of people we know, that pleases readers, even if it doesn’t interest academics or literary theorists, except as a text to be examined.
Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster is just such a novel, and a very good one. There is nothing experimental or difficult about it – nothing difficult for the reader that is; the author himself will have experienced lots of difficulties. We always do. You might call it a slice-of-life novel, although death is at its centre. That’s almost its subject: the reality of death and how you cope with it.
Nora is a woman in her forties, living in a small town in Ireland in the late 1960s. She is recently widowed. Her late husband, Maurice, was a school-teacher, a good one, respected by his pupils. Unlike Nora, he took a keen interest in public affairs as an active member of the governing party, Fianna Fail. They’re a Catholic Republican family. Nora’s Uncle Jim was on the anti-Treaty side in the Irish civil war, and was temporarily interned by the Free State government. There are four children. The girls, Aine and Fiona, are away from home, one at a convent boarding-school and preparing for university, the other at a teacher training college. The boys, Donal and Conor, are still at primary school when their father dies. Donal has developed a stammer.
First of all, then, it’s a family novel about coming to terms with bereavement. The narrative extends over three years as Nora, slowly and at first almost reluctantly, learns how to live in the present for herself and her children. Her progress from a state of mind in which she would rather shut the door against even well-wishers (and well-wishers can, of course be trying) to one in which she is able to start to live again is traced with understanding and wonderful delicacy. The journey is sometimes painful; there are moments when you fear she may lapse into self-pity and solipsism. But she is a strong woman with a sense of duty, to herself and others, especially of course her children. She is capable of giving them tough love. There is comedy too when she goes back to work at a family-owned firm where she was employed before her marriage.
The title itself indicates that this is a traditional novel. Tom Jones, Waverley, Emma, David Copperfield: it used to be common for novelists to name their book after the principal character. Yet, like these novels, this one is also a social novel. In telling Nora’s story, Toibin offers also a portrait of a society. The town itself, the seaside holidays, the office where Nora works, the musical entertainments which help to restore her to life, the family conversations, the desultory chatter at the golf-club, all this and much more are vividly rendered.
This is Ireland before it became the Celtic Tiger, Ireland still dominated by the Church and Catholic morality, Ireland where Protestants are viewed with some distrust or, occasionally amusement – though Nora reflects that she may start reading the Irish Times, still a Protestant “West Brit” newspaper, because it is better written and the articles are fuller.
It is an Ireland where Charlie Haughey is in the early stages of his remarkable career, admired by Nora because as Minister of Finance he has raised the pensions paid to widows, but already distrusted by the old Republican Uncle Jim because he has risen too fast and seems to be a bit of a wide boy – even before he is arrested on a charge of running guns to the North. For this is also Ireland in the early days of the Troubles in Ulster, the Ireland of a predominantly Catholic people shocked, horrified and angered by the excesses of the “B Specials” and the British Army. Here too Toibin is intelligently balanced. As a member of a studio TV audience, Nora’s daughter Aine says it’s all very well for the government to be concerned with the plight of the Catholics in the North, but why doesn’t it do something about living conditions in the slums of Dublin?
In short, this is a rich, humane and enjoyable social novel full of credible and interesting characters. The treatment of Nora is warm and sympathetic: though the novel is written in the third person Toibin has managed to write convincingly from a woman’s point of view. It is so interesting and engrossing that one finishes it wanting to know what happens to the characters – and this society – next. One would like to see him continue their story, perhaps in a sequel from the point of view of the enigmatic and troubled Donal who finds fulfilment – for a time? – in his passion for photography, but is unhappy at school? Neverthelesss, this novel is elegantly complete in itself.