Feast for the senses

Tóibín’s essays on cancer, religion, writing and more offer plenty to chew on


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If you subscribe to London Review of Books, you might not need to buy Colm Tóibín’s A Guest at the Feast. Eight of the 11 essays collected here were first published there.

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If you subscribe to London Review of Books, you might not need to buy Colm Tóibín’s A Guest at the Feast. Eight of the 11 essays collected here were first published there.

But if you’ve read any of Tóibín’s 10 novels (three nominated for the Booker Prize) or his 10 previous books of essays or his three plays, you’ll surely want to have a long look at this book.

Or, if you’re like Tóibín’s mother, “what most of us [writers] still write for, the ordinary reader, curious and intelligent and demanding,” you might want to buy this book.

If you’re Irish, or Roman Catholic, or well-read in world literature, the book will be additionally attractive.

A Guest at the Feast begins with one of the more startling first sentences in many a year: “It all started with my balls.”

He’s not talking about tennis, hurling or basketballs; Cancer: My Part in Its Downfall is a frank and harrowing account of his battle with testicular cancer, its treatment and near-deadly complications. At times, he was so sick he couldn’t even read. Chemotherapy “darkened the mind and filled it with something hard and severe and relentless. It was like pain or a sort of anguish, but those words don’t really cover it,” Tóibín writes. If you or anyone you know has ever endured the scourge of cancer, this essay is essential reading.

The rest of the first section, and in fact the entire collection, is not as blunt and disturbing. The second (and titular) essay contains his reminiscences about growing up in the southern Irish town of Wexford. If you’ve read any of Tóibín’s novels, this essay provides enlightening context. It also features some of his most poetic prose.

The third essay recounts his role in the changing of the Irish law involving press freedoms. It contains one of Tóibín’s great strengths — the succinct portraiture of important people, in this case Ireland’s judges.

Part two, essays on the Roman Catholic Church, continues in this same vein, with deft portraits of Pope John Paul II, whom Tóibín calls the Paradoxical Pope, and Pope Francis, whom Tóibín sees as a chameleon. As Tóibín notes, John Paul II was famous for his “energy, … humour, charisma, strength, organizational skills, his popularity with young people,” and so on, but he stood against modernizing the church and equality. Thus a paradox. Francis is described as having both anarchist and authoritarian qualities.

Also in this section is an insightful piece on the demise of the Catholic Church in Ireland. A gay man raised a Catholic, Tóibín is especially thoughtful and convincing on the subject of sexual abuse and gay priests in the Church, and the role of the popes in knowing (and not knowing) about what was happening.

A clever transition to the third and final section of A Guest at the Feast begins with Putting Religion in its Place, an essay on the novels of Marilynne Robinson. With references to how religion works in the poems of Philip Larkin and T.S. Eliot as well as the novels of Ernest Hemingway, Henry James and Willa Cather, Tóibín proves how well-read and analytical he can be. Two Irish writers whom Tóibín knew personally, but are probably little-known outside Ireland, provide material for more erudite readers.

In his final entry, Alone in Venice, Tóibín returns to the personal essay with a description of his stay in Venice during the COVID restrictions, invoking Henry James and, of course, Thomas Mann.

In analyzing Marilynne Robinson, Tóibín notes “her wide reading and her well-stocked mind” — qualities he himself possesses in spades.

Tóibín is not a show-offy or argumentative writer, just clear and calm and wise — a perfect guest at any gathering.

Gene Walz is a Winnipeg reader and writer.

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